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The Harmful Myth of Fighting the Climate Crisis as Individuals

As leaders and experts continue to come together to discuss ways to keep the planet below the crippling 1.5ºC temperature increase, we — as individuals — continue to be the target of climate action.

Recycle. Go vegan. Bike to work. Take showers, not baths. Shop second-hand. Tone down on that aircon use. Change your lightbulbs, or better yet, install solar panels on your roof. In fact, why not go all the way and stop having children altogether.

We’re completely surrounded by the damaging discourse of individual culpability with regards to the climate catastrophe: your lifestyle is causing climate change and we need you to do something about it. New York’s latest attraction, the daunting “Climate Clock”, broadcasts exactly how long we have left, down to the second, until the climate crisis reaches irreversible proportions. This begs the question – just who exactly is the target audience of this anxiety-inducing campaign? Who will pass by this overwhelming piece of information on a daily basis as they commute to work, most likely already burdened by uncertainties like how they’ll feed their family or pay rent next month?

The answer isn’t those who spearhead the climate crisis. Rather, the Climate Clock, like most climate action campaigns, targets and engages in psychological warfare with regular people — largely working-class individuals — who have nowhere near the power needed to reverse the climate crisis with individual actions only. Sure, it serves as a reality check on how numbered our days on Earth are should nothing change. However, it’s crucial that we use this revelation to divest from individual culpability and start tackling the corporate power and governmental institutions that render our individual efforts null.

Earth’s greatest polluters

There’s no denying that our attempts to live more sustainably have their merits. The problem is, these attempts are nowhere near enough. Our footprint is merely a grain of sand compared to that of the world’s biggest polluters. CDP Carbon Majors research has revealed that one hundred corporations — mostly fossil fuel companies like Saudi Aramco, ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP — have been responsible for a shocking 71% of greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. That’s right: such an insignificant number of entities account for three-quarters of all emissions from the past 32 years. While you tinker around with family planning to save the planet, they’re given free rein to torch the planet.

ExxonMobil oil giant

The discourse on family planning as a way to tackle the climate crisis has gained notable traction in recent times. It has its roots in the overpopulation myth, which argues that environmental doom is driven by too many humans living on Earth. The problem with this eco-fascist logic is that it mistakenly assumes all of humanity has equal access to resources, all of humanity consumes at the same level and therefore all of humanity is equally responsible for environmental devastation. This could not be further away from reality. 

A report by Oxfam found that the world’s richest 1% more than doubles the poorest 50% in terms of CO2 emissions. In other words, the top 1% have caused 15% of cumulative emissions from 1990 to 2015, whereas the bottom 50% caused 7%. Aside from relying on flawed logic, eco-fascism succeeds in perpetuating racist discourse fuelled by eugenics by arbitrarily targeting Global South populations on the basis that they’re having too many kids. Reducing the planet’s population would simply not solve the climate crisis, but blaming the poor sure does a great job of shifting responsibility away from the wealthy, the multinational corporations and the economic system that underpins these.

Going back to the planet’s greatest polluters, one could simply not leave out the single biggest institutional contributor: the US war machine. This study investigated the impact of the US military on the climate and concluded that it currently sits as one of the greatest polluters in history, consuming and emitting more than most medium-sized countries. If the US military were a country, it would rank 47th in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, between Portugal and Peru. This doesn’t even touch on military waste, chemical warfare, depleted uranium or landmines, all regular activities of the military-industrial complex.

US military in Syria

How can our individual efforts be significant in the face of such unfettered polluting power?

Shifting the discourse

Be on the right side of history environment protest

Taking into consideration the extent of the transformation needed to tackle the climate crisis, resorting to lifestyle changes as a way to fight back could scarcely be more disconnected from reality and the nature of the crisis. Most of all, it diverts attention from the potential for decisive change. This is why it’s so damaging to the climate movement. Stopping global warming and preventing environmental disaster requires nothing short of a revolutionary revamping of how we consume and produce resources. Embedded in environmentalism should be the need for mass movements and collective action to take on corporate, institutional power, yet the discourse continues to favour individual action.

Consider the following analogy: suggesting lifestyle changes to combat the climate crisis is comparable to suggesting someone be kind to everyone as a means to end racism. We should, of course, be kind to everyone. However, these individual actions don’t suffice to dismantle the institutionalised nature of racism. Climate action is no different. We should, certainly, do what we can to live more sustainably. However, climate change is a systemic issue — meaning its roots and vitality lie within the system that’s currently in place —, and we can only do so much within the limits of the choices available to us. This is definitely not enough to transform the system, which is what’s necessary if we’re serious about preventing irreversible climate change. The fight for top-to-bottom political change should be at the forefront of the environmental movement and anything short of this is, sadly, without substance.

By Elisa Emch

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