Do you know the story of a small group of students from a large school who, by inviting their comrades to “bifurcate” and “abandon” some professional careers so as not to become complicit in the environmental crisis, have the opportunity at the same time to question the virtues of responsible capitalism?
The appeal made by 8 students of the great engineering school AgroParisTech, during their graduation ceremony, is far from being a secondary phenomenon.
The awareness of this young intellectual elite is part of a global quest for coherence between lifestyle, professional practices, and social and ecological urgency (see ENS Student Forum in the journal the scientist ; or student statement “For an Environmental Awakening.”
who are they ? Do they help reform a destructive system—or do they participate, often in spite of themselves, in reproducing the system and its social and cultural inequalities?
The cultural elite of world after…or almost!
Responsible capitalism is a model that should allow economic prosperity, while providing answers to environmental and social challenges: that is, it manages to decouple economic growth from the destruction of the planet.
Currently, we are talking about relative separation, because even if we notice a decrease in the consumption of resources and environmental influences, our production continues to increase.
in my test, spoiled children. Anthropology of the myth of responsible capitalism(2022, Éditions Payot), I am interested in the social function of environmental responsibility not only to support social and ecological transformation, but above all to ensure the preservation of social order.
She has coordinated a large qualitative survey of 2,500 people, from part of the middle and upper classes, in Europe and Canada, who can be described as cultural innovators. We have mobilized a reading net that squeezes these people’s system of constraints (time, money, lifestyles, etc.) and their perceptions of environmental responsibility. All of these people jointly establish new daily routines (food, entertainment, occupation) to be “responsible” consumers: to continue consuming but to make purchasing choices in line with their values, societal or environmental.
This study identified two social groups. The first is made up of a media-creative cultural elite made up of people who graduated from the Grandes Ecoles, to which the eight students seem to belong. They are opinion leaders, embracing, for the most part, wholeheartedly, progressive struggles, both societal and environmental, such as social justice or environmental emergency.
They offer ideological and practical solutions to the ills of our time, encouraging residents to make the same life choices they choose. For them, sobriety becomes a new sign of social standing.
Environmentally responsible consumption is becoming a new norm. This new collective agreement, together with new organizational changes, leads to new ways of production and distribution.
The democratization of environmental responsibility is facilitated by local influencers whom I choose to call “spoiled children” who adhere to the ideology of responsible capitalism. They constitute the second defining social group.
They are part of the middle and upper western classes and have in common that they do not want to give up their comfortable lifestyle. Any decline in consumption is seen as a culturally unacceptable decline, but they are willing to accept its reinvention.
For the students concerned, the incentive system offered by major schools and the green growth imagination no longer seem sufficient to make responsible capitalism desirable. This is despite attempts by major companies to adapt especially with the arrival of new professions such as those of decarbonization manager.
Closing or redirecting some of the fantasies associated with the myth of progress is difficult for society to accept, despite the fact that an increasingly large part of the population doubts itself. For example, the search for happiness and individual fulfillment allows a revival of the cult of performance, particularly through professional retraining or enthusiasm for economics.
Read more: The lure of the economy
Public opinion participates in the formation of a common conviction: the commitment of these young people is built in contrast to the social project of responsible capitalism. Thus participating in making the various fantasies of social and ecological transition more impermeable than ever before.
A position that is a threat to social order, which some critics consider improper or fanciful.
From an anthropological point of view, from the moment we stop believing in some unreal entity that makes it possible to regulate reality (such as corporations or institutions), it ceases 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 equally unreal, but hold other beliefs, or even imagine new entities with people who think like us.
The call for “bifurcation” and “desert” exposes the paradoxes of environmental responsibility.
When we produce or consume environmentally responsibly, it provides a sense of good conscience that prompts us to legitimize the pursuit of excessive consumption, because we have the impression of doing away with consumption.
Read more: ‘Reducing consumption’, a new form of social discrimination?
It is an excuse, both individual and collective, to encourage people to change, not order, giving the illusion of the opposite.
Becoming a consumer-citizen “responsible for the environment” is complex, because environmentally responsible consumption is based on the paradox: the paradox of continuing to consume despite the injunction to consume less and better. This paradox that people have to deal with is similar to the phenomenon of the “double bond” described by American anthropologist Gregory Bateson: consuming less while consuming as much as possible, and what causes cognitive dissonance is the gap between desire and the impossibility of doing so.
In response, there are more and more responsible offers for the “ready-to-think” environment to enable individuals to change their buying and/or use practices, without giving up consumption habits: Coca-Cola mobilizes consumers to achieve recycling goals (“Don’t buy Coca-Cola if Not only did you help us recycle!”); or the Veja brand that not only makes ethical sneakers, but also repairs, cleans and recycles sneakers.
The eight students denounce the two main paradoxes of responsible capitalism, caused by the injunction to continue to consume production: responsible capitalism does not invent a new world, but allows the old to continue; Environmental responsibility promises a socio-ecological transition at the cost of minimal effort and through consumption.
For example, Easyjet is committed to carbon neutrality by 2050, implicitly encouraging its customers to continue flying as if nothing had happened because everything was “under control”.
In other words, what may appear at first glance as social progress may not necessarily be one.
Advocating less consumption equates to consumption differently and often more, and leads to the creation of new cultural evils such as moral credit (good deeds can justify deviations from other elements of consumption).
For example, flying a few times a year because we buy and sell used clothes at Vinted.
The pursuit of responsibility is not within everyone’s reach
Consumer behavior reflects an individual’s level of commitment (from ‘unconcerned’ to ‘missionary’) with respect to responsible capitalism. The visualization below makes it possible to identify the main ideal types of “environmentally responsible behaviours”: committed agitators, environmental individualists, voluntary pragmatists and hesitant conservatives.
For example, people with a novice level will be convinced that they must change certain practices in their way of life and believe that consuming differently is a solution: they will be very sensitive to offers of “readiness to think.”
For the people I call missionaries, consuming environmental responsibility becomes a political act. A citizen-consumer who preaches environmental responsibility aspires to “convert” others to his consumer style and does not hesitate to make major changes in his life (become a vegetarian, take part in the activity, sell his car, resign his management position on the council to convert to a handicraft, etc.) .
Committed emotionalists and ecological individualists have more economic capital than willful pragmatists and hesitant conservatives. Emotional, committed people have the most important cultural capital, especially when they are missionaries and highly sensitive to social and environmental issues.
According to the above designation, the eight students at AgroParisTech will be part of a committed sentiment, and by inviting them to “bifurcate” and “let go” position themselves as evangelists of environmental responsibility. Because they have significant cultural and economic capital, the risk they take by exploring other paths to personal and professional success is more limited than profiles with less capital: in other words, they are more willing to adapt to future changes.
However, the young AgroParisTech graduates are not spoiled children, so much as they have ceased to believe in the ideology of responsible capitalism. But they do not participate, at least for the time being, in the creation of a new society, or a new world, even if they undermine the prevailing collective imagination: they have positioned themselves as pioneers in world aftera world like ours but would be more ethical, and above all environmentally sustainable.
Let’s take advantage of the enthusiasm generated by their video talk to take a step aside. Let’s go to the other side of the mirror to observe our reality differently, in order to anticipate the consequences of our behavior today in the future.
In the end, what world do we want to live in and what new fantasies must we build together to make it happen?
Fanny Paris is the author of Les Enfants gâtés. Anthropology of the Myth of Responsible Capitalism” published by Piot Editions (2022).