Creating A “Green Future”: The American Revolution, Consumer Action, and “Ecological Intelligence,” Part 2 of 6

Part One Part Two — Part Three

Part Four — Part Five — Part Six

People launch revolutions because they want something different (and, presumably, something better). But desire for something different/better coalesces into revolution only if large numbers of people share the same goal.

As important, they need to believe that they can trust one another even if they are separated by great distance and don’t know each other personally.

That’s because revolutions are group efforts: Resistance only pays off when large numbers of people are involved, but those individuals need to be able to work together, and they can only do that if they share some other commonality.

That was difficult in North America because for most of the colonial period, Virginians thoughts of themselves as Virginians, and people in Vermont thought of themselves as Vermonters.  They didn’t think of themselves as “Americans.”

Their other identity was as citizens of the British empire, but that meant that most people looked toward England for commonality, rather than in or toward North America.

Well, you say, they shared an aversion to taxes and oppression. Yes, they did  — eventually. But only after they’d begun to contemplate revolution. At that point, they began to talk about taxes and oppression as a way to express what had already become a shared goal.

In other words, their political beliefs — their ideology — became a justification, not a cause. Moreover, theories about taxation and rhetoric about oppression were most useful to people like Thomas Jefferson. He was wealthy and exceptionally well-educated, and read political philosophy, and, as important, discussed it with people like John Adams, who was also wealthy and exceptionally well-educated.

But the vast majority of colonists were neither wealthy nor particularly well-educated. So political theory wasn’t going to get far with them.

Instead, that vast majority needed some other way to speak to the need for change at the outset. They needed to have some kind of shared language or shared material culture. And the way the colonial rebels “spoke” to one another was through consumer goods; or, more accurately, the decision to stop using consumer goods. (Today, we’d call that a boycott, but the term “boycott” only entered the English language more than a century later.)

Next time: Historians’ analysis of consumer action and the American revolution.


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