Seaspiracy, the documentary that seems to be taking Netflix and social media by storm, with posts being shared far and wide. Like several other documentaries on Netflix, it forces us to consider what we as individuals choose to consume and the consequences of this for the planet.

But there is one issue with Seaspiracy and documentaries like it; they present us with a false choice. This is supposedly the choice between ethical and non-ethical consumption in a capitalist system.

Avoiding the real problem

It is undeniable that the fishing industry is destroying our oceans and impacting the whole planet’s ecosystem; thereby, contributing greatly to the warming of the planet and pollution of the seas. But the issue is in how documentaries like Seaspiracy frame the problem. 

These documentaries usually centre on certain industries or certain industry practices, instead of the system that controls them. After all, companies don’t pollute the oceans or destroy the planet for no reason. They do so because that’s what the capitalist system not only demands but rewards.

This means that whenever we get a documentary, we’re presented with oversimplified and individualised solutions. These claim that to solve the problem we simply need to stop, or drastically cut down, our consumption of a certain product (such as fish). Sometimes, they’ll even go as far as to suggest that certain practices be outlawed.

A false dichotomy

The issue is that the division presented between ethical and ‘unethical’ consumption is a false one. We need only look at the avocado or quinoa industries that have exploded in recent years, largely due to the growth of vegetarianism and veganism in mainly Western countries, to see that it’s not that simple.

As far back as 2013, experts warned that quinoa farming was quickly becoming unsustainable and damaging to the environment. It excludes local people from the market as they are priced out by the countries they are exporting to.

Actual drug cartels have begun to take over the avocado industry, with growers in Mexico (a country that accounts for 45 per cent of the world’s avocado production) having to pay them for ‘protection’ or risk not only having their produce destroyed, but their lives threatened.

All this doesn’t even begin to mention the hefty carbon footprint left from exporting produce across oceans, and the land which is deforested and starved of biodiversity in order to raise production.  It is now virtually impossible to follow the production and distribution process of any product and not find exploitation of either the workers or the planet (or both).

The adage is an old one, but seems to hold true; there is no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism.

Burdening the individual

If as individuals we were expected to carry out in-depth research into the production process of every product or service we consumed — finding out its impact on the planet or people involved — we would quickly find ourselves paralysed with anxiety and unable to participate in society.

What’s worse is that although there are arguably better and worse forms of ‘ethical’ consumption, those who are exploited in their own societies are often unable to afford the more expensive and thereby ‘ethically better’ alternatives. These people often end up as social pariahs, being blamed for problems in which they play the least part but which usually affect them the most.

Certainly, individual effort isn’t wholly without merit. My concern, however, is that we have become far too preoccupied with what we as individuals can do, and it’s distracting us from the more important task of collective action and systemic change.

I also worry that this state of affairs has been cynically engineered to make us overly self-critical — to take our gaze away from the real culprits of these societal problems. As an example, it was British Petroleum (BP) — the second-largest non-state-owned oil company in the world — who was the first to popularise the term ‘carbon footprint’, creating the ‘carbon footprint calculator’ back in 2004.

The concept of the carbon footprint made us question how we as individuals contribute to the emission of greenhouse gases, rather than object to the fact that just 100 companies are able to get away with being responsible for 71 per cent of all emissions.

The propaganda of individual change

Documentaries like Seaspiracy are important for highlighting very real and urgent problems, but because they are largely self-contained we are left unable to see the wider picture and a whole host of interconnected problems.

We must also be vigilant about who is giving the narrative. Often, narratives elevating individual change come from those who are the most culpable and who benefit from promulgating such narratives.

We must resist propaganda that tries to burden the average person with guilt instead of looking at big, powerful companies and their partners — the economic systems at large.

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