Years ago, I noticed that my mother had started ordering a flavor of ice cream (black raspberry) that she hated.

Turns out, that she’d heard that her retirement community was thinking of phasing it out because no one ever ordered it.

She wanted to make sure that the choice would exist for others who might like it, especially visiting grandchildren, who don’t get a vote on the food committee.

Sadly, she could not eat enough ice cream to change the fundamentals, and the heartless bottom-liners on the food committee eighty-sixed the black raspberry for good. The problem was too big for one retired teacher of Russian to fix on her own.

I feel surrounded by problems like that, and they have nothing to do with ice cream. Take climate change: Individual choices like buying an SUV or a cheap factory-farmed steak add to the greenhouse gases that warm the planet. But buying an electric car or locally grazed beef doesn’t help unless most people decide on their own make the same choice.

There’s another way to look at these kinds of problems, though. It’s to remember that we have power not only when we act as consumers but also when we act as citizens.

Consumers buy or don’t buy based on a variety of factors, the most influential being price.

But citizenship means you are a member of a political community. In the United States, that means you have rights – like the right to vote. And you have duties – like accepting the outcome of elections.

We feel like we have the most freedom when we are acting as consumers, making individual choices based on our resources and personal preferences. But if we don’t do our jobs as citizens, those choices are made for us by someone else.

I was reminded of this last week by Stacy Mitchell, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a national organization promoting local economies with an office in Portland.

When someone on Twitter tried to shame Amazon customers out of pushing the “buy now” button, Mitchell fired off a flurry of tweets that pointed to the weakness of that approach.

“This worldview that infects us all – this idea that the way to redress the huge problems in our system is to buy or not buy something – is so advantageous to big corporations,” she wrote. “Our real power is as citizens, but we can no longer locate that muscle.”

As someone who has organized “buy local” campaigns, Mitchell seems to be a surprising critic of consumer strategies to reach political goals, and she’s not, really. She just recognizes their limits.

“I belong to a credit union, and I support my local bookstore,” she said in a phone interview. “But (public) policy has created companies like Amazon and Walmart, and given them competitive advantages.”

In other words, we’re not going to consume our way to a level playing field.

Mitchell points to the local food movement, which has grown over the last couple of decades in ways that few would have predicted. There’s been an explosion of farmers markets and demand for local produce in grocery stores, as well as restaurants that feature local ingredients.

But at the same time, the food industry has grown more industrial and centralized. Walmart collects 25 percent of all grocery spending, and its supply chain is built on the factory farms that profit by harming public health and the environment.

Is it just consumer choice? No. It’s public policy, from a farm bill that subsidizes the ingredients for long-shelf-life processed food, to tax policy that consolidates wealth and power.

The push for low prices drives down wages, which in turn creates consumers who can’t afford to shop anywhere other than the cheapest place.

None of us can eat enough ice cream to change the world. We’ll need to remember how to be citizens again.

 


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