Sustainable Materialism: Power in the Practices of Everyday Life

This September we are thrilled to launch David Schlosberg and Luke Craven’s new book, Sustainable Materialism, exploring the new wave of sustainability movements that are reclaiming material systems and overturning environmental injustices across the world.

The following excerpt comes from the introduction of Sustainable Materialism: Environmental Movements and the Politics of Everyday Life, which was published this month by Oxford University Press.

This is a book about possibilities — possibilities in everyday practice. It is about the construction of different practices, institutions, systems for meeting some of our basic material needs — food, energy, and clothing — in more just and sustainable ways. And it is about the motivations, in particular the political motivations, for activists and practitioners working in these areas, building alternatives.

Humanity faces a broad range of ills, from ecological devastation to racist authoritarian nationalism; we live in a world of constant ignorance, hate, manipulation, greed, and damage. We hear of these realities and their obvious injuries every day, as well as the reactions against them—the tweets and replies, demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, bullshit claims and corrective narratives. Yet much of this argumentation remains in the realm of discourse, and the academic realm tends to follow.

Here, we examine real and growing innovations in alternative forms of practice and material flows. The focus is on the stuff of everyday life, on the basic material needs of our lives, and on the development of alternative systems and counterflows of both power and goods through the lives of individuals, communities, and environments. This is what we are calling sustainable materialism.

If Foucault taught us anything, it is that power is embedded and embodied in the practices of everyday life. For example, as much as we can lay the responsibility for climate change at the foot of the fossil fuel industry and the denial machine and politicians they funded, for most of us climate change is also linked to the simple act of turning on a light or getting in a car, given the way that energy is still generated with carbon-emitting fossil fuels.

Similarly, we can talk about, and clearly lay out, the incredible power of industrialized and globalized agriculture, but in our everyday lives, the destruction of rivers, deltas, and reefs caused by contemporary agricultural practice is linked to the simple act of eating food grown and raised in industrialized food systems, where runoff from fields does damage downstream. We can be aware of, understand, and broadcast the very real human and environmental toll of fast fashion and waste, while the very clothes we put on our bodies everyday leave behind a trail of harms, from pesticides sprayed on cotton fields to the deaths of sweatshop workers. A focus on the material flows of these necessities of everyday life starkly illuminates the impacts of corrupt politics, abuses of power, a range of injustices, and the ecological unsustainability of the satisfaction of material needs in highly industrialized societies. And it illustrates one way to step out from the power behind it, and create new systems.

Our goal here is to simply illuminate and start to explore the existence and reasoning behind the development of alternative systems and flows for the provision of such material needs—the expansion of what we are calling sustainable materialism. Given the growing development of social movements around these very practices of everyday life, it is becoming increasingly possible to eat, to power, and to clothe ourselves and our communities outside of traditional industrialized practices.

In all of these movements, our argument is that there is a growing and palpable concern amongst activists of the recognition of, and immersion in, the material relationships we have with the resources we use, and the transformation of means of production that have been both alienating and unsustainable.

In each of these material areas, while we recognize the importance of individualized and consumer action, our focus is on the development of community movements and collective institutions. There are many ways in which we are encouraged to put values into practice individually—doing fifty things to save the planet, cutting our use of air travel or fast fashion, or buying LED light bulbs and organic produce at Walmart. But even more engaged individual actions, such as buying food at farmers markets, putting up solar panels, or upcycling clothing, are not seen to address, or impact, larger problematic social and material practices and flows. Unfortunately, much of the literature on material and consumption movements is focused on these kinds of individual actions, and we address some of the limitations of common approaches, including political consumerism. Individual action may take some of our everyday life out of such flows, and so assuage our values, but such isolated statements are simply not seen by movement participants as enough to interrupt the flows of debilitating and anti-environmental industrialized practices.

In response to that realization of the limits of individual action, many individuals and movements have moved to address their concerns with more innovative, collective, and reconstructive responses to the unsustainable institutions and practices in which their lives are immersed. So rather than simply show an interest in better-quality food, or post-carbon energy generation, or fair fashion, we see more individuals, groups, and organizations developing, participating in, and enjoying the products of new food systems, community energy systems, and sustainable fashion systems. The institutionalization of these larger collective responses and systems—to what are seen as errant, destructive, unsustainable flows of materials—is key to our focus.

That focus here is specifically on the why of such movements—in particular the political, social, and ecological motivations of the activists creating these new and material systems and flows. It is about the politics of the shift in everyday material practice.

Ultimately, our argument is that there is a way to theorize, understand, and link a wide variety of these new movements and practices around the idea of sustainable materialism. Activists and groups are themselves responding to, and tying together, concerns about, and resistance to, the disconnect and capture of the political process, the everyday reality of social and environmental injustice, the dominant and encompassing circulations of power, and the alienation and resultant destruction of the non-human realm. These movements represent a new politics of sustainable materialism, an environmentalism of everyday life and practice.

The Sydney Environment Institute will celebrate the launch of Sustainable Materialism on September 5. More information and registration here.

David Schlosberg is Professor of Environmental Politics in the Department of Government and International Relations, Payne-Scott Professor, and Director of the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney. His main theoretical interests are in environmental and climate justice, climate adaptation and resilience, and environmental movements and the practices of everyday life – what he terms sustainable materialism.

Luke Craven is a Research Fellow in the Public Service Research Group at the University of New South Wales, Canberra. Dr Craven’s research focuses on developing new tools to understand and address complex policy challenges.He works with a range of public sector organisations to adapt and apply systems frameworks to support policy design, implementation, and evaluation.