The Greatest Obstacle to Sustainability (And No, It’s Not Disposable Cups) by Niamh Guiry

8 May 2023

When I first joined the UCC Environmental Society as an undergraduate student in 2018, I knew next to nothing about environmental issues. I was aware of the ecological and human impacts of fast fashion, but other than that, my understanding was minimal. During my first year in the society, I focused my efforts on individual action, running events and designing how-to guides for students so they could learn to reduce their carbon footprints and how they could have a ‘green Christmas’. And if I knew next to nothing about environmental issues, I knew even less about economics.


I remember hearing students talking about their animosity towards capitalism, our current economic model, but I didn’t really understand what that meant, and how that related to environmental issues. To me, this stance seemed to be a bit out there, a romantic belief that you could find in our student bubble, but something that wouldn’t hold up in the ‘real world’ outside the gates of UCC.

Fast forward to May 2023. I’ve earned a master’s in Environmental Law, I’m completing a PhD in Law, and I’ve been involved with a number of different environmental activist groups. I’ve learned a lot through my academic and activist experiences, and now I can safely say that I understand what my fellow environmentalists were talking about when they spoke out against the status quo.

If you want to know what my biggest takeaway is from these past 5 years, here it is: The greatest obstacle to sustainability isn’t our individual habits, it’s capitalism.

The Juxtaposition Between Sustainable Living and Our Unsustainable System

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, people in Ireland produce more than 14 million tonnes of waste every year.[1] Worst still, most of what we consume doesn’t actually end up being recycled, meaning that we’re wasting precious resources that we could’ve repurposed and reused.[2] This is not a cycle that we can afford to continue. As UCC Researcher Dr Paul Deane summarises ‘if everyone in the world were to live like an Irish citizen, the planet would already be about three degrees warmer’.[3]

We often talk about our unsustainable habits. Whether it be our fondness for modern-day conveniences in the form of disposable cups and take-away meals or our continued desire for something ‘new’ and ‘trendy’. And while movements such as going single-use plastic-free or boycotting fast fashion for more sustainable alternatives are useful, they remain a one-dimensional solution to a complex and multi-faceted problem. Instead of questioning the habits of an individual person, I want you to think bigger: Why is our system facilitating mass over-consumption and over-production, when we know it’s bad for us and our planet?

Capitalism can be described as an ‘economic and social system in which the owners of capital (or capitalists) appropriate the surplus product generated by the direct producers (or workers), leading to the accumulation of capital—investment and amassing of wealth—by the owners’.[4] Capitalism focuses on infinite growth, not for the good of our people, but for the purpose of generating profit and market expansion.[5] We could all do our best to live as sustainably as possible, but there’s a limit to how much progress we can make whilst living under such unsustainable and exploitative systems. As climate activist Mikaela Loach asserts, we can’t ‘consume our way out of a crisis that has been caused by excess consumption’,[6] and we definitely can’t buy our way out of a climate catastrophe.

This focus on individual action is a red herring. And a very deliberate one at that. The activity of fossil fuel giant BP is a good example that illustrates the effectiveness of these distraction techniques. Formerly British Petroleum (now Beyond Petroleum), BP was responsible for popularising the idea of a carbon footprint in the early 2000’s. However, their focus wasn’t on reducing their carbon footprint, but the footprint of the everyday person. BP used this as a marketing ploy to shift attention from BP (and other fossil fuel companies) to the individual, and make us think about how we can reduce our impacts, and it worked very well. Today fossil fuel companies continue to make record-breaking profits in the midst of global climate breakdown and cost-of-living and energy crises, and we, as a society, are letting them get away with it.[7]

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to dismiss the importance of making sustainable changes. I’ve been a vegetarian for almost 10 years, I've sworn off fast fashion, and do my best to avoid creating needless waste. I believe that individual action and systemic change are inherently linked, you can’t have one without the other. However, I do want to challenge the central focus that is often put on the individual, when in reality, it is the top 1%, and our exploitative system overall, that are responsible for the majority of our environment's destruction.

Like It Or Not: It’s Just The Facts

These beliefs may seem ‘radical’, but to me, they’re just common sense. We can’t keep growing, producing, and consuming exponentially on a planet with finite space and resources and expect our ecological systems to be able to properly function while providing us with essential life-sustaining services. Our economic system has shown complete disregard for existing environmental limitations, and that doesn’t seem like it’s going to change any time soon. True sustainability, and by extension climate justice, can’t be achieved whilst economic growth (in its current form) continues to dominate.[8] This is not a new or uncommon criticism. Just recently, the President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins made the following remarks:

‘We have arrived at a highly critical juncture when the dominant models of economic growth have been proven to damage social cohesion, democratic life, as well as the future of life itself on our fragile, vulnerable planet.


Our obsession with inexorable economic expansion expresses, perhaps, a desire to transcend our material limits and rise above the state of nature. Yet this growth fixation paradoxically increases the potency of those very limits’.[9]

The status quo of capitalism is powerful and backlash to these ideas was unsurprisingly swift.[10] It may be difficult for us to imagine an alternative to our current and pervasive economic system. But we’re the ones who made this system and that also means that we have the power to re-make it. Making these kinds of transformational societal changes also means that we need to understand ‘our prejudices, deformations, and blind spots’, ‘confronting’ the oppressive power structures that many of us benefit from.[11] We live in a highly unequal world, one that exploits and oppresses many people for the sake of profit and power. Loach writes about the relationship between capitalism and the oppression of marginalised communities and how the Global North has and continues to benefit from societal hierarchies and inequality.[12] Collective action and equal distribution of resources and wealth is needed to break these inequitable cycles.

If you want to think that these beliefs are ‘radical’ then go right ahead. I don’t think that ‘radical’, in this context however, is such a bad thing. In fact, I think the opposite, and it’s about time that we had an approach to climate change that didn’t uphold and pander to the top 1%. As Angela Davis said; ‘Radical simply means grasping things at the root’. We need radical and bold action if we want to get off this human-made course of climate breakdown and biodiversity loss, and if anyone tries to tell you anything different, they’re lying (to you and themselves).

If Not Capitalism, Then What?

I won’t pretend that I have all the answers to how we can live in a post-capitalist world. As Pirgmaier remarks: ‘Capital is not just a mode of production, and production is not just a precondition for consumption; capital is a way of life’.[13] As a result, we need to re-evaluate our value system and how we live, produce, and consume, and that is no easy feat. For many of us in the Global North who have much more than we need, we must go further than just buying sustainable alternatives. We need to break free from the brainwashing of unrelenting marketing and advertising campaigns and realise that we can thrive without seeking fulfilment through consumption.[14] Solidarity with those being exploited by the system and suffering the impacts of the climate crisis needs to be a significant part of our climate action, something that must not be an afterthought.[15]

One thing remains abundantly clear: Continuing to promote eco-friendly alternatives without going to the root cause of our unsustainable society will only ensure that true sustainability remains a distant pipe dream. As Loach summaries, ‘Until we truly interrogate and dismantle the economic system that is currently forcing so many of us into unethical choices, and requires exploitation and oppression in order to enable extractions, especially in the Global South, our climate action will be inherently limited and flawed. We will continue to waste time fighting with each other over who is more perfect, when it is this system which is to blame, not the individual’.[16]


[1] EPA, ‘The EPA's role in waste statistics’

[2] EPA, ‘More packaging waste, falling recycling rates for plastic and a heavy reliance on export mean that Ireland is missing opportunities to foster a circular economy’

[3] Liz Dunphy, ‘Ireland had highest increase in greenhouse gases in EU’ (Irish Examiner, 15 February 2023)

[4] Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know about Capitalism. A Citizen’s Guide to Capitalism and the Environment (MR 2011).

[5] Mikaela Loach, It’s Not That Radical (DK 2023), 89.

[6] Mikaela Loach, It’s Not That Radical (DK 2023), 88.

[7] See Alex Lawson ‘Calls for bigger windfall tax after Shell makes ‘obscene’ $40bn profit’ The Guardian (2 February 2023),bn%20notched%20up%20in%202021;  Adela Suliman et al., ‘BP profits highest in 14 years, raking in $8.5 billion amid gas pump pinch’ The Washington Post (2 August 2022)

[8] Sam Adelman, ‘The Sustainable Development Goals: Anthropocentrism and Neoliberalism’ in Duncan French and Louis Kotzé (eds), Global Goals: Law, Theory and Implementation (Edward Elgar 2017).

[9] Speech at a Reception for TASC (Think-Tank for Action on Social Change) Áras an Uachtaráin, 28th April, 2023

[10] Daniel Murray, ‘Economists round on President over ‘lazy’ and ‘uninformed spiel’ (Business Post, 30 April 2023)

[11] Elke Pirgmaier (2020) Consumption corridors, capitalism and social change, Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy, 16:1, 274-285.

[12] Mikaela Loach, It’s Not That Radical (DK 2023), 92-23.

[13] Elke Pirgmaier (2020) Consumption corridors, capitalism and social change, Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy, 16:1, 274-285.

[14] Elke Pirgmaier (2020) Consumption corridors, capitalism and social change, Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy, 16:1, 274-285.

[15] Simon Mair, ‘Why strike action is climate action’ The Conversation (25 April 2023)

[16] Mikaela Loach, It’s Not That Radical (DK 2023), 88.