Few people today are so naive as to believe that recycling, using a “keep cup”, switching off lights or having shorter showers will be enough to avert the unfolding environmental and climate catastrophe. The accumulation of evidence of the global and systemic nature of the problem has been sufficient to convince most that any genuine solution must involve radical changes to society as a whole, rather than just a shift in the consumption choices of individuals.

On a deeper level, however, the belief that it must be possible to make a difference by striving for an ethical and sustainable existence individually has proven hard to budge. In the absence of any genuine, mass challenge to the existing, destructive order of capitalism, it can seem like acting ethically in our daily lives is the best we can do.

Making relatively small changes to live sustainably in our daily lives is much easier than, for example, building a movement powerful enough to stop a major fossil fuel project like the Adani mine, and it provides the immediate satisfaction of feeling that you, at least, are “playing your part”. This attitude, however, should be resisted. It’s not that recycling, going vegan, or avoiding car and air travel are bad things in themselves. The problem arises when they come to be seen as a substitute for or, in the worst cases, something superior to attempts to win more radical change via protest and collective action.

To slightly adapt the famous quip about elections attributed to the anarchist writer Emma Goldman: if “ethical consumption” changed anything, they’d make it illegal. And it’s clear that, far from wanting to outlaw veganism, switching to “green” energy providers or investing your super with an “ethical” fund, the powers that be are more than happy to see people pursuing change in this way.

This isn’t just a recent phenomenon. The idea of recycling was first popularised in the early 1950s by major drink manufacturers like Coca-Cola as a way of normalising the use of disposable packaging—something that was resisted initially by a population accustomed to returning empty bottles to stores for re-use. In 1953 Coca-Cola also teamed up with a number of other major manufacturers of disposable packaging to establish Keep America Beautiful (KAB), which set about convincing the public that litter was a problem caused by the nefarious “litterbug”, rather than the companies producing the packaging in the first place.

By the early 1960s, KAB claimed to have 70 million members (more than a third of the entire US population at the time), the threat of government bans on single-use packaging had receded, and the throw away culture (rendered “ethical” by the illusory promise of recycling) had been well and truly established.

Just as with these early examples, the fossil fuel giants and other companies involved in the destruction of the planet today know that, the more sustainability is seen as an individual, rather than a social, problem, the more licence they will have to continue to pollute and destroy with impunity.

It’s a similar trick to that used by politicians seeking to deflect anger about the lack of jobs, low wages, rising living costs and so on by stoking racism, or as we saw very recently, divert people’s attention from their failures to manage the COVID-19 crisis by talking about “personal responsibility”. In the case of propaganda about the individual responsibility for environmental destruction, the aim is, very consciously, to draw attention away from the destructive practices of big corporations and the rich—the people who are most responsible for the climate and environmental crisis—and put the focus on the actions of ordinary people who, no matter how “ethical” they strive to be, will never in that way be able to bring about any genuine change.

This has been a very successful strategy. Believers in “ethical consumption” have not only failed to shift society in the right direction by even the smallest of fractions. By contributing to what we might call the “ethical consumption industry”, they’ve also participated, indirectly, in the green washing of the status quo. The impression of change created by the existence of a small niche market for ethical and sustainable products (increasingly serviced by “sustainable” branches of the big polluters themselves), is deployed as a kind of protective barrier around companies determined to avoid any real change to their existing, environmentally destructive but highly profitable practices.

One might object that all this assumes “ethical consumption” will never take off. Sure, you might say, if only a small portion of the population adopt a sustainable lifestyle, that’s like trying to drain the ocean with a bucket, but what if 60 or 70 percent of people did it? And it’s true, if that many people stopped eating meat or ditched their car, it would make quite a difference. It’s clear however, that in the absence of any broader structural challenge to the capitalist system, it’s not going to happen.

The game is rigged. The entire system of capitalism is (again, quite consciously) structured so as to preclude any radical lifestyle changes among all but a (usually relatively privileged) few. The layout of our cities and the demands of working life mean it’s impossible for most people simply to ditch their car. Similarly, the scarcity of free time enjoyed by workers, combined with the big business control of the agriculture and food industries, makes switching to a radically more “sustainable” diet a difficult task. And many people, in Australia and around the world, struggle to keep a roof over their head and pay the bills—never mind paying attention to whether they’re doing all this in an ethical and sustainable way.

The sooner, then, that we shed any residual belief that our individual consumption practices can help halt society’s slide towards a global environmental catastrophe, the better. Sure, ride your bike to uni or work if you can and enjoy a delicious vegan feast when you get home. But do it with a view to re-energising yourself to help build the kind of powerful, organised and radical movement—in our schools, universities and workplaces, and on the streets—that our rulers really fear.