Are proponents of eco-responsibility “spoiled children” of capitalism?

Do you know the story of the small group of students from a large school who, by encouraging their peers to “split” and “leave” certain professional careers in order not to become complicit in the ecological crisis, while having the opportunity, cast doubt on it virtues of responsible capitalism?

The appeal, which 8 students from the large engineering school AgroParisTech launched during their graduation ceremony, is far from an epiphenomenon.

The awareness of this young intellectual elite is part of a more global search for coherence, between lifestyle, professional practice and socio-ecological urge (see ENS students’ forum in the journal The world ; or the student manifesto “For an Ecological Awakening”.

Who are they ? Are they helping to reform a destructive system – or are they participating, often in spite of themselves, in the reproduction of the system and its socio-cultural inequalities?

A cultural elite of the world after… or almost!

Responsible capitalism is a model that must allow economic prosperity while providing answers to ecological and social challenges: that is, managing to decouple economic growth and the destruction of the planet.

At the moment we are talking about relative decoupling, because even though we observe a decrease in the consumption of resources and environmental impacts, our production continues to increase.

In my test, The spoiled children. Anthropology of the myth of responsible capitalism(2022, Éditions Payot), I am interested in the social function of eco-responsibility, not only to support socio-ecological transformation, but above all to ensure the maintenance of social order.

I coordinated a large qualitative study of 2,500 people, from the middle and upper class, in Europe and Canada, who can be described as culturally creative. We have mobilized a reading grid that puts tension in the system of constraints for these people (time, money, lifestyle, etc.) and their imagination associated with eco-responsibility. All these people had in common to have implemented new daily routines (food, leisure, professional) to be “responsible” consumers: that is, to continue consuming, but to make purchasing choices according to their values, societal or organic .

This study identified two social groups. The first consists of a media creative cultural elite consisting of people educated from Grandes Ecoles, to which the 8 students appear to belong. They are opinion leaders who for the most part sincerely embrace progressive struggles, both societal and ecological, such as social justice or the ecological emergency.

They offer solutions, ideological and practical, to the ills of our time, and they encourage the people to make the same life choices as them. For them, sobriety becomes a new sign of social prestige.

Consuming environmentally responsible is becoming a new norm. This new agreement, in parallel with new regulatory changes, leads to new ways of producing and distributing.

The democratization of eco-responsibility is facilitated by domestic influencers, whom I have chosen to call “spoiled children”, and who adhere to the ideology of responsible capitalism. They constitute the second identified social group.

Illustration by Chloe Cavillon

They represent a part of the western middle and upper class and have in common that they do not want to give up the comfort of their way of life. Any decrease in consumption is seen as a regression that is not culturally acceptable, but they are willing to accept its reinvention.

For the students concerned, the incentive system offered by the Grandes Ecoles and by the fantasy of green growth no longer seems to be sufficient to make responsible capitalism desirable. And this despite attempts by large companies to adapt, especially with the arrival of new professions such as. the director of decarbonisation.

Closing or redirecting certain notions linked to the myth of progress is difficult for society to accept, despite an ever-increasing proportion of the population questioning itself. For example, the pursuit of happiness and individual fulfillment allows for the revival of the cult of achievement, especially through professional retraining or enthusiasm for thrift.

Read more: The temptation to frugality

Public opinion helps to create a common conviction: the commitment of these young people is built in opposition to the social project of responsible capitalism; thus contributing to making the various notions of the socio-ecological transition increasingly impenetrable.

A position that represents a threat to social order and that is perceived by some critics as inappropriate or utopian.

From an anthropological point of view, from the moment we stop believing in certain unreal entities that make it possible to organize reality (such as companies or institutions), they cease to exist in our eyes.

If we no longer believe in them, we will organize our daily lives differently: we will turn to other entities that are just as unreal but that carry different beliefs, or even imagine new ones with people who think like us. .

The call to “share” and “desert” as a revelation of the paradoxes of eco-responsibility

When we produce or consume eco-responsibly, it gives a sense of good conscience that forces us to legitimize the pursuit of hyper-consumption because we have the impression of consuming.

Read more: “Consumption”, a new form of social distinction?

It is an alibi, both individually and collectively, to encourage people to change, not the system, while giving the illusion of the opposite.

Becoming an “environmentally responsible” citizen-consumer is complicated because an environmentally responsible consumption is based on a contradiction: to continue to consume just as much despite the injunction to consume less and better. This contradiction that people have to deal with is similar to the phenomenon of “double bind” described by the American anthropologist Gregory Bateson: consuming less while consuming so much is impossible, what causes cognitive dissonance is a gap between a desire and the impossibility of doing so.

In response, more and more “ready-to-think” eco-friendly offerings exist to enable individuals to change their buying practices and / or usage without giving up their consumption habits: Coca-Cola mobilizes consumers to achieve their recycling goals (“Do not buy Coca -Cola, if you do not help us recycle! ”); or the Veja brand which not only offers ethical sneakers, but also repair, cleaning and recycling of sneakers.

The 8 students condemn the two main paradoxes of responsible capitalism, which are a result of the injunction to pursue production consumption: responsible capitalism does not invent a new world, but lets the old continue; and eco-responsibility promises socio-ecological transformation at the expense of the least effort and through consumption.

Illustration by Chloe Cavillon

For example, Easyjet is committed to CO2 neutrality by 2050, which implicitly encourages its customers to continue flying as if nothing had happened, as everything is “under control”.

In other words, what may at first glance seem like social progress may not necessarily be one.

Consenting to consume less is equivalent to consuming differently and often more and leads to the establishment of new cultural evils as moral credit (a good deed can justify deviations from other consumables).

For example, we fly several times a year because we sell and buy used clothes at Vinted.

The pursuit of responsibility is not available to everyone

Consumer behavior reflects an individual’s level of commitment (from “not worried” to “evangelist”) in relation to responsible capitalism. The visualization below makes it possible to identify the main ideal types of “eco-responsible behavior”: committed emotional, eco-individualists, volunteer pragmatists, and undecided conservatives.

Fanny Paris.

For example, people who have a beginner level will be convinced that they need to change certain practices in their lifestyle, and they believe that consumption differently is a solution: They will be very sensitive to “thinkable” offers.

For the people I call evangelists, consuming eco-responsibly becomes a political act. The environmentally responsible evangelistic citizen-consumer strives to “convert” others to his way of consumption and does not hesitate to make major changes in his life (becoming vegan, engaging in activism, selling his car, resigning his leadership position in advice to convert to a manual trade, etc.).

Committed emotionalists and eco-individualists have greater economic capital than conscious pragmatists and undecided conservatives. Committed emotional people have the most important cultural capital, especially when they are evangelists and very sensitive to socio-eco-environmental issues.

According to the nomenclature above, the 8 students at AgroParisTech would be part of the committed emotions and by their call to “share” and “desert” position themselves as preachers of eco-responsibility. Since they have significant cultural and economic capital, the risk they take in exploring other options for personal and professional success is more limited than for profiles with less capital: in other words, they are best equipped to adapt to future changes.

However, the young AgroParisTech graduates are not spoiled children, insofar as they have stopped believing in the ideology of responsible capitalism. But they are not participating, at least for the moment, in creating a new society or a new world, even though they are undermining the dominant collective imagination: they are setting themselves up as pioneers in the world aftera world like ours, but which would be more ethical and above all ecologically sustainable.

Let’s take advantage of the enthusiasm that the video of their speech generates to take a step to the side. Let us go to the other side of the mirror to observe our reality differently, to predict the consequences of our behavior today and tomorrow.

Ultimately, what world do we want to live in, and what are the new fantasies to build together to achieve this?

Fanny Parise is the author of “Les Enfants gâtés. Anthropology on the Myth of Responsible Capitalism” published by Payot editions (2022).

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