Ron Wagler’s article “Foucault, the Consumer Culture, and Environmental Degradation” is short and to the point. He first analyzes the issues and causes of environmental degradation through two of Foucault’s theories (power/knowledge, biopower) before reimagining Foucault’s theory of resistance as a means for environmental sustainability.
Using Foucault’s theory that knowledge and power are inseparable because those in power get to define what constitutes as “truth,” Wagler claims that global power has recently been decentralized from the nation-state model, and is instead held by multiple different entities (the “nebuleuse” includes entities like corporations). The activities of these new power-holders center around economic trade and investment. According to Wagler, the nebuleuse utilizes biopower techniques of controlling the bodies of populations mainly through advertising. These techniques work not through coercion “but through ‘knowledgable’ discourse and practices” (332) which teach the subject the accepted ‘truth.’ For Wagler, advertising is a technology of biopower within the present global consumer culture because it is a form of socialization which are “inescapable and effective in shaping our view of reality” and can “stimulate desire and demand, within the individual, for a given ‘product'” (333). Wagler also notes how advertising fits with Foucault’s panopticon because “advertising also conveys to the individual a sense that they are being observed” and therefore “reinforces the socialization process” (ibid.). Advertising helps to “generate a culture of over-consumption” through the delivery of a ‘truth’ which proclaims that consumption leads to “positive benefits” (ibid.).
Over-consumption and over-population are “the two over-arching factors with global environmental degradation” (334). According to Foucault, power needs resistance in order to exist. Wagler uses this to claim that “resistance is possible” by the individual subject (335). He believes that
An area where resistance is possible for the individual who resides in the industrial and post-industrialized societies is in the rate at which the individual consumes resources… I would propose a level of resistance that leads to a Foucauldian environmental ethic…By embracing this Foucauldian environmental ethic, the self-reflective subject now has the potential to assess the existing limits of the natural environment and adopt a consumption rate that is within the bounds of global ecosystem output. (335)
I like that Wagler offers a solution (albeit a very small-scale one), and that he offers a clear connection between concepts like consumerism, biopower, surveillance, and environmental degradation. I bet that this article will fit really well with John Carpenter’s They Live.
Wagler, Ron. “Foucault, the Consumer Culture and Environmental Degradation.” Ethics, Place and Environment, 12:3, 2009, 331-336.