Forging Hegemony: How Recycling Became a Popular but Inadequate Response to Accumulating Waste

Andrew Boardman Jaeger (2018). “Forging Hegemony: How Recycling Became a Popular but Inadequate Response to Accumulating Waste.” Social Problems, 65(3), 395-415. https://doi.org/10.1093/socpro/spx001

Abstract: Over the past 40 years, the scale of environmental problems has increased to monumental proportions, while environmental politics has shrunk to the micro level. Injunctions for each individual to “do their part” by modifying their lifestyle and consumption habits multiplied, while collective action and policies targeting environmental degradation at the point of production diminished. This “individualization” of environmental politics has been described and critiqued, but no convincing explanation for it presented. In this article, I explore its origins through an historical case study of the paradigmatic example of individualized environmentalism: recycling. I wield original empirical material to both challenge and sharpen prevailing accounts of recycling’s institutionalization and to theorize the broader trend of individualization. Drawing on Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, I advance the thesis that the individualization of environmental politics is due to their skillful management by key corporate interests. In order to deter costly legislation, producers have created and implemented solutions that appeal to environmentalists’ concerns, yet in a way that defines individual consumers, not producers, as the source of environmental degradation. The lack of a mass environmental movement enabled producers to organize these solutions on the fertile grounds of civil society.

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