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The Lie of Personal Responsibility
Changing your lightbulbs just won't do
Above the counters at Pret a Manger stores in London, wedged between the menu boards, signs urge customers to bring a reusable cup to “save 50p” and “save the world”. In that order, notably.
It has stuck with me. Not so much because ‘save the world with your reusable cup’ is outlandish hyperbole, but rather because it’s almost — well — landish. It’s commonplace.
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We’re being inundated with these eco-imperatives on a daily basis. Turn off the lights. Don’t keep the tap running. Swap to LEDs. All ostensibly to ‘save the world’, and all, ostensibly, from credible sources: we hear them in classrooms, from governments, from businesses, and (incessantly) from your favourite vegan’s Instagram story.
Sadly, we’ve been lied to. And it’s a lie told in two parts:
These small actions can save the world (they won’t. In fact they can’t)
Saving the world is your responsibility (not in the way you’ve been told)
According to Pret, saving the world has never been easier
Personal carbon footprints: a red herring
To make sense of all this we only need to look at the origin of a single concept: carbon footprints.
A carbon footprint is the total greenhouse gas emissions caused by an individual, event, organisation, service, place or product, expressed as a carbon dioxide equivalent.
Since practically everything requires energy, and since we primarily burn fossil fuels for energy1, all things have a carbon footprint. Greener options, e.g. energy-efficient lightbulbs, cause less CO₂ emissions than their power-hungry alternatives and thus have smaller footprints. That’s the gist.
People care, and as environmental awareness has grown over the past few decades, they’ve steadily come to care more. This has led to an increased focus on carbon footprints as a sort of bellwether for personal responsibility. It influences what food we eat, what type of car we buy, and indeed how we live our lives. The goal: minimise your footprint.
This is where it gets dark. In a twist worthy of M. Night Shyamalan, it turns out the concept of carbon footprints was popularised in a marketing campaign by BP back in 2004. That’s British Petroleum, one of the largest oil companies in the world.
The real villain
Their reason for doing so is as obvious in hindsight as it was pernicious in execution. The fossil fuel industry and their marketing shills spawned the idea of personal — individual — responsibility, in order to shine the light away from themselves.
They had to. Leaked reports show that their own scientists realised that CO₂ could heat up the globe and destabilise the biosphere as far back as the 1970s. And it worked a treat: the carbon footprint campaign took off and served as yet another tool that helped buy the fossil fuel industry decades of reduced scrutiny. Crucial decades.
All the while, like rotten fruit sprouting from poisoned soil, well-meaning people devised eco-imperatives that, unbeknownst to them, were the offshoots of a deliberate gaslighting campaign. Turn off the lights, turn off the tap… turn off your mind. These tenets designed to ‘save the world’, have paradoxically worked to instead perpetuate a status quo that’s destabilising it for profit.
While we’ve been busy running around naming and shaming our neighbours, fossil fuel companies have gone about business as usual.
But why can’t a lot of small actions save the world? The hard truth: 70% of all global emissions come from just 100 companies, practically all of them energy companies. As you may have guessed, BP is on the list.
Your personal carbon footprint is essentially a function of your exposure to these companies — and as long as you live within the confines of modern society, that exposure is constant. Sustainable choices are little more than trimming around the edges, the same way removing a cherry from atop a cupcake is a caloric restriction.
As it turns out, this was all in fact proven to us during the coronavirus pandemic: an experiment of global proportions wherein literally billions of people stayed at home while consuming less, travelling less, doing less. What happened to global emissions in 2020? They fell a measly 6%.
NYC during lockdown; inadvertently debunking personal responsibility (Photo by Paulo Silva)
Do more good, not less bad
This may all read as if your actions are irrelevant, and that you’re absolved of responsibility. The opposite is in fact true. If you and I are seriously going to keep the world habitable, we both have to do more, not less. More than what is easy, and definitely more than what is comfortable.
To be effective, we have to rid ourselves not only of our obsession with personal carbon footprints, but also the larger mindset that it helped percolate. The answer doesn’t lie in minimising the bad we do. It lies in finding ways to count for more than yourself. In catalysing systemic change. In being a force of disproportional good.
Here are a few ways to do just that:
1. Educate yourself and others
A well-functioning society depends on a “well-informed citizenry”. Educating ourselves (and others) on the challenges we face is both our responsibility as citizens, and a fundamental prerequisite for taking action. If you have friends that prefer their education via animated videos starring cute ducks, you could consider sending them this for starters.
There is an incredible statistic that encapsulates the disproportionate power you can have as an individual: only 3.5% of a population must actively protest an issue to incite serious political change. So make as much noise as you can. Join peaceful protests. Write to your representatives. Confront elected officials in public forums. Hold companies to account for their actions and policies.
It definitely sounds trite, but there is no doubt that voting is one of the most effective things an individual can do proactively create change. Vote only for politicians and parties that take a hard stance against the fossil fuel lobby. Odds are they’ll have less industry backing as a result, so if you have the means to donate, do that too.
4. Divest from fossil fuels
If you’re privileged enough to have investments and a pension, make sure none of your money is invested in, or financing new, fossil fuel projects. A global divestment campaign is already barring $40 trillion in funds from being allocated to fossil fuels — it’s one of our most effective tools in recomposing the global energy system.
5. Have an outsized positive impact through consumption
You should expect more of the companies you buy from. That’s because it’s no longer complicated or expensive to sell products that are net positive — services like Verdn make it effortless.
In line with the argument of this piece, we believe that this initiative is ineffective at best, and that it induces harmful complacency at worst. There is simply a better, more holistic (and also more radical) way:
Take Gumbies, one of our customers. Gumbies plant as many as 10 mangrove trees whenever they sell a pair of flip-flops. Given mangroves’ ferocious appetite for carbon, this means that each pair of flip-flops will remove 120 kgCO₂ per year on average. That’s ∼50x more than if they just offset delivery.3 But it goes further. Mangroves have a 25-year growth cycle. In that time, the same single pair of flip flops can remove a staggering 3 tonnes of CO₂. That’s equivalent to 1,200 product deliveries, or 25,000 km driven in a new car.
Finally, if it needed saying, we should all keep doing the small stuff. Consume less, fly less, waste less. Support local businesses, and buy local produce. Eat less meat. Recycle.
Just because something is irrelevant on the macroscopic level, doesn’t make it any less morally right. The important part is that it’s just a first step.
Until next time.
Roughly 80% of our energy comes from fossil fuels, and another sizeable chunk comes from biomass. As a society we’re positively obsessed with burning things.
The average is probably even less, here’s a calculator you can use to experiment: https://consumerecology.com/carbon-footprint-of-package-shipping-transport/
It would also require only a 2% market penetration before offsetting all deliveries — note that this percentage is (perhaps coincidentally) in the ballpark of the 3.5% in point 2, above.