Sustainable materialism as political action

Are these kinds of movements the solution to all of our troubles? Absolutely not. Do the mainly white western environmental activists doing this work think it’s everything? Of course not. But are sustainable materialist movements politically valuable? Absolutely. I’ve been working on issues of environmental and climate injustice for 30 years, for this project on Sustainable Materialism I wanted to examine positive practices, possibilities already being lived, grounded imaginaries, visions for a future that are actually and materially practiced in the here and now. This isn’t only about classic political participation, but about material participation, social inclusion in everyday practice.

I want to start by acknowledging the words and wisdom of Wakka Wakka scholar Mary Graham, at the opening of the Green Institute conference. The relational and ecological ethos that she spoke so clearly and passionately about is something that does have resonance in elite and mainly white environmental movements. I heard it over and over in the interviews we did for the work I will discuss here. Actors in many different types of movements are trying to put such ethos into practice in their everyday lives and forms of material resistance.

Some of my recent work examines and analyses community food movements, community energy groups, sustainable fashion, and more. While I’ve been working on issues of environmental and climate injustice for 30 years, for this project on Sustainable Materialism (Oxford 2019) I wanted to examine some positive practices. I say in the introduction that it’s a book about possibilities – but possibilities already being lived. Similarly, Tim Hollo’s Living Democracy is, as he calls it, a manifesto, but it’s based on what communities are already doing on the ground. My work is also focused on something my colleague Dany Celermajer and I have been calling ‘grounded imaginaries’ – visions for a future that are actually and materially practiced in the here and now.

There are two key questions I’ve had about this work that I want to discuss here. First, how do small, community-based actions such as new food or energy movements really take on the issue of power. It’s a great question, and resistance to power is really a central motivator for people we interviewed – 100 across Australia, the US, and the UK.

The second question is whether such practices really amount to social or political movements, or whether they are just consumerist feel-goody work. There’s a real criticism, from folks both in academia and in some movements, of these practice-based tactics, even those that are focused on building alternative material systems and flows

I’ll start by defining what I mean by sustainable materialist movements and give some examples. None of these kinds of groups or practices will be new to green or environmental activists, so I’ll keep my description of them short. But before I get to those, I want to offer two caveats – in a way, just trying to pre-empt obvious questions. 

First, I am not trying to claim that material movements and material participation should be a singular or exclusive political strategy. Are these kinds of movements the solution to all of our troubles? Absolutely not. Do the activists doing this work think it’s everything? Of course not. But are sustainable materialist movements politically valuable? Absolutely. Such activism and material participation complements other forms of political participation – and actually often generates a need for local political engagement of a more traditional form. There is a strategic pluralism at play here. And it’s important that discussions of political protest and electoral action are supplemented with these material movements as well.

The second caveat is that I want to be clear that the material participation I discuss, broadly defined, is not anything new. There are long and substantive histories of western utopian movements, ecovillages, spontaneous communities, and much more that have been about grounded, embodied, material forms of action. This includes feminist and civil rights movements focused on everyday practices, from women’s health clinics to the Black Panther’s breakfast program for youth in California – an act so radical the FBI thought it was the biggest challenge to their attempts to discredit the party and movement.

And, of course, sustainable practices are key to many Indigenous and non-western cultures – those who never went along with the west’s ontological division between human and nature as Mary Graham has discussed. So no, I’m not claiming sustainable materialism is new – just a growing political strategy of, to be frank, mainly white western environmentalism.

Some examples of sustainable materialism

So, what kinds of movements and practices to I want to highlight here? The book project focused on three different kinds of material-focused movements: community food systems movements, community energy movements, and sustainable fashion. Again, this is not just about individual action, ethical or political consumerism, but about collective action and work focused on changing material systems that supply basic needs.

These are groups that are founded and designed by people often out of a frustration of a lack of accomplishment working on broader environmental policies. We heard a lot of people say that, after the last climate COP meeting, or given the politics of the current government, or given the absolutely unsustainable situation with food or fashion or climate, we just wanted to do something. Some people even called this work ‘do-activism’. It is all engaged, collective, and attentive to both social and ecological ethics – as well as power and political strategy.

What are some examples?

First, we looked at sustainable food and food justice movements. The key here is that I really wanted to get at the difference between the consumers of organic food – people who pick up the organic beans or whatever in a Coles – and those community activists that were focused on changing food systems, the relationships between producers and consumers, and the ecological impacts of agriculture. There’s been an immense growth of these integrated food systems practices, organisations, and movements across the US, UK, and Australia.

We interviewed folks from FoodLab Detroit, a central hub of food innovation, engagement, and employment in Detroit. They trained entrepreneurs in building food businesses, they helped those businesses lower costs by working with community groups and churches to find low-rent kitchens, they built relationships between urban farms and value-added producers and restauranteurs, and they build a sense of an alternative to a food system that is exclusive, unsustainable, and that doesn’t serve the needs of the community. 

We were so taken by this model that we’ve implemented something similar – FoodLab Sydney, with a focus on empowering recent refugees, low income, and Indigenous entrepreneurs to build food businesses and community simultaneously – building a more diverse, just, and sustainable food system. 

Another area we examined is community energy – again, not just individual homeowners buying solar panels or choosing ‘green’ energy with traditional providers, but organisations focused on community, on collective ownership, neighbourhood and cooperative solar, small-scale grids. 

Finally, we looked at sustainable fashion – primarily producers of more sustainable clothing that are attentive to both social justice and environmental impacts along the full supply chain, from growing cotton, to fabric production, to product design, to sewing and shipping, and of course to the textile waste stream. Here in Australia, there are a number of small-scale designers and companies – Citizen Wolf in Sydney, for example. More broadly, and crucially, there’s a new centre of excellence on sustainable fashion that is a partnership between UTS and TAFE NSW, which aims to create a community of practice and change the nature of the fashion industry in Australia.

In all of these examples, there’s attention to a very specific material need, and to the flow of those materials – food, energy, clothing – through the everyday life of communities and the impacts those flows have on people, the social realm, and environments. The focus is on more sustainable, more just, more reflexive practices.

Sustainable materialism and power

How does this kind of material action address the key issue of power, both within and from each of these industries? Our focus in the interviews for the book was on the motivations of activists, and countering power was absolutely central to those we spoke with. But before I talk about that, let me just note the other motivations we heard – the context is important.

First, there is a real frustration with traditional politics – a frustration with the disconnect between people’s own values and the failures of political response – that has motivated people to move to much more applied, materialist political and environmental action. 

The second motivation was a dedication to social and environmental justice, especially participatory justice. Activists repeatedly emphasize the importance of increasing community involvement in the production of food and energy. The point here is that this isn’t only about classic political participation, but an insistence on a sense of material participation, social inclusion in everyday practice. Such comments really get to the materialist core of this politics. For the activists we interviewed, participation is not just about voting or being ‘consulted’ about a policy. It’s about doing – literally, in the case of food movements, getting one’s hands dirty. 

Third, sustainability was also a key motivation. Here, the concern is with the relationship between the everyday flows of basic needs like food, energy, and clothing through communities, and the functioning of the nonhuman beings and ecosystems that provide for them. There was a real focus on rebuilding connections between people and environment, and attention to flows, systems, stages, or circulations of materials through entangled human and nonhuman communities.

I was really struck by Mary Graham’s question in the opening plenary about how we combine ecological stewardship and democracy – and I genuinely think that this insistence on material participation attentive to material flows and impacts, to relationality both human and with ecosystems, is a key way activists are answering that question. It really is a form of ecological citizenship.

But questions of power were the main, strongest, and most articulated motivation activists talk in depth about – resistance to the power of industry, and the embodied power of creating new material systems. 

Michel Foucault discussed contemporary power being as much about circulation as about domination. His point is that power insinuates itself through practices, institutions, norms, and the day-to-day behaviours of everyday life. Power does not simply dominate, but also produces particular circulations and flows that generate and reproduce relations and practices of power. 

My favourite and most personal example of this is something Michael Pollen wrote about in Omnivore’s Dilemma. He focuses on corn production, distribution, and consumption in the US as an illustration of power – but a power that flows through bodies. Americans have particular isotopes in our flesh and hair that mark the flow and power of the corn-based industrialized agriculture industry. We literally embody the power of the industry in American politics and everyday life. As Pollen says, Americans are processed corn, walking. 

What we found is that contemporary movements around food, energy, and sustainable fashion are consciously responding to this type of circulatory and reproductive power. Movement activists are, in part, motivated by seeing themselves – their bodies and practices – as replicating or participating in systems of power they disagree with. So these movements are consciously organising collective action to interrupt and replace the power and flows of industrialized food, destructive fossil fuels, and sweatshopped disposable fashion. 

The point is to create, embody, replicate, and spread new and more, local, just, and sustainable flows of goods and power in wholly new systems or institutions – and then replicate that. In other words, these movements are consciously both an active, reflexive, resistance to power, as well as a form of counter-powerbased in a new systems of material circulations for basic needs. 

This idea of counterflow of power was put well by one of the leaders of BALLE, the US-based Business Alliance for Local Living Economies: “Our work, BALLE’s work, humanity’s work, is to resist corporate rule, to liberate ourselves from servitude to Wall Street corporations and financial markets, and to live into being a planetary system of community-based, local, living economies that work for all.” This approach is about resisting power by interrupting its flow and replication, and it’s about re-empowering communities through creating and embodying new systems.

Is that the only way to resist power? Of course not. But it is clearly a sophisticated strategy of attacking power and creating counter-power. It is part of a broad strategy of countering destructive power.

How is this political?

The other question, though obviously related, follows from that description: Is this kind of action really political

One of the responses I’ve had to this work from some academics is that this isn’t really politics, and certainly not a new kind of eco-politics. Critics like this insist that these movements are simply examples of coping with rather than countering unsustainable practices in their small and local niches. So they are both ecologically unhelpful and politically performative – Ingulfor Blühdorn calls it a ‘politics of unsustainability’.

These kinds of critiques are from folks who fully understand how difficult real, impactful, authentic political participation is in a consumer capitalist society. They also understand that many political actions like voting and protest are performative and not impactful as well. But some of these critics have a very limited understanding of what should count as political action – they believe that “real” politics is always and only an all-encompassing protest against capital. 

I think it’s clear that while protest politics is absolutely necessary (and clearly striking a nerve, given its increasing criminalisation), by itself it remains only partial. But activists in sustainable materialist movements clearly understand that their political action is only partial. Folks we interviewed are explicitly vocal about the problems of neoliberalism and corporations undermining democracy. But they’ve done other politics, and are fatigued with the lack of accomplishment.

Activists in these movements are direct about the political nature of their work. An energy activist told us that their work is “a political strategy. I don’t really care about going off the grid. I want us to take over the grid. […] This is a community system.” We hear the same kind of strategic language in food and sustainable fashion as well.

The critiques of the political implications of material participation and action mistakenly dismiss the potentially radical implications of sustainable materialist movements and participatory materialist practices. Again, activists see their political action focused on, and transformative of, everyday life and material systems. They do this with power in mind, with justice in mind, and with sustainability of both human and ecological systems in mind. I really do think it gets at that core political question of the relationship between citizenship and stewardship. It’s about taking relationality and material flows seriously in everyday life.

The author China Mieville wrote, a few years back in an essay on the limits of utopian thinking, that if we are to take the idea of utopia seriously, as a total reshaping of the everyday, we can’t imagine it from where we are. “It’s the process of making it that will allow us to do so”, Mieville says. He argues that we need to “learn to hope with teeth”, and to “utopia as hard as we can”. That’s what I see these kinds of practices and movements doing. This is why we call these kinds of community-based movements grounded imaginaries – not just hopeful or utopian, but made, implemented, and practiced.

Recently, I was re-reading Val Plumwood’s book on environment and culture, in a reading group with a lot of young scholars and PhD students. Val starts that book talking about how we might avoid the fate of the Titanic, given that it’s a fairly accurate metaphor for what we’re doing to both human and ecological systems. And she uses this amazing phrase – academic, yes, but useful nonetheless – that what is needed is more ‘counter-hegemonic piloting’ of the ship. For Plumwood, counterhegemonic piloting meant changing systems – both material systems and systems of thinking – that completely ignore or make invisible their ecological base, their ecological immersion on the one hand, and their ecological impacts, or harms, on the other.

If there is one major point I want to get across, it is that these movements concerned with remaking and transforming the flows and stuff of everyday life, with constructing new systems, new flows attentive to human and more than human communities – that’s incredibly political. They are exactly this kind of counter-hegemonic piloting.


That all said, and in closing, I do want to reiterate that neither I, nor the 100 activists we interviewed, think that these kinds of movements or practices will solve all of our problems. They won’t undermine the fossil fuel industry by themselves, they won’t change industrialised agriculture alone, and they certainly won’t interrupt the capture of governments by those industries. This is what a broader movement is for. This is why we have multiple tactics. This is why we need a broader strategy that includes protest, that includes electoral politics, that includes policy development, education, communication, and more.

But that pluralist strategy also includes prefigurative, community-based, sustainable and just redesign of the systems that supply our key everyday needs. That’s resistance to power. That’s political action. That’s what hope with teeth looks like.

David Schlosberg is Director of the Sydney Environment Institute and Professor of Environmental Politics at the University of Sydney. He is known internationally for his work in environmental politics, environmental movements, and political theory – in particular the intersection of the three with his work on environmental justice. His other theoretical interests are in climate justice, climate adaptation and resilience, and environmental movements and the practices of everyday life. Professor Schlosberg’s more applied work includes justice in adaptation and resilience planning, the social impacts of climate change, and community-based food movements and policy. He is the author or co-author of Defining Environmental Justice (Oxford, 2007), Sustainable Materialism: Environmental Movements and the Politics of Everyday Life (Oxford 2019), and Climate-Challenged Society (Oxford, 2013); and co-editor of both The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society (Oxford 2011), and The Oxford Handbook of Environmental Political Theory(Oxford 2016). His articles are on the top-ten cited list of the journals Contemporary Political TheoryEnvironmental PoliticsEthics and International AffairsGlobal Environmental Politics, and WIREs Climate Change. Professor Schlosberg has been a visiting scholar at the London School of Economics, Australian National University, Princeton University, University of Washington, and UC Santa Cruz, among others.

Image credit. Feature image by Joost Van Beek (2011) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED.