Your eco-friendly to-do list for the day: wake up and brush your teeth (don’t let the sink run), take a shower (short and cold is best), get dressed (all in organic cotton and never fast fashion, of course), eat fruit from the local farmer’s market for breakfast before biking to class (Ubers and cars are for the apathetic), and recycle your old clothes you wanted to get rid of. get rid of (why are you getting rid of it anyway?). Now repeat tomorrow.
This huge, non-exhaustive list of expectations that people face today can be traced to scientific research into the impact of the individual carbon footprint. More directly, they are the effects of massive lobbying campaigns by the industrial energy complex to portray itself as investing in sustainable practices while simultaneously shifting environmental responsibility to the individual, also known as “greenwashing.” The sector as a whole paid billions of dollars in such ad campaigns that green its vested interests in the production and consumption of fossil fuels, with the five largest oil companies spending more than $3.6 billion over the past 30 years on such ads.
Carbon dioxide, produced by burning fossil fuels, has been identified as the most widespread and damaging greenhouse gas causing climate change, as it makes up 74% of total greenhouse gases issued. But that fact in itself is not illuminating until you realize that 62% of all greenhouse gases produced are CO2 from fossil fuel consumption and 11% from land use. . Although these two statistics do not necessarily absolve the individual of all responsibility, a breakdown of fossil fuel consumption in the United States shows that the energy, transport and industrial sectors ahead of the residential sector nearly eleven times. In fact, according to The Carbon Majors report of 2017 published by the Carbon Disclosure Project, only 100 fossil fuel producers have been associated with more than 71% of global industrial emissions over the past thirty years.
Yet people are told reduce their carbon footprint is one of the most important steps in the fight against climate change. This is not the case and the facts are clear. If we as a community are serious about demonstrating our commitment to reducing our carbon footprint and averting a looming climate crisis, it’s high time we turned to the real culprits: corporations.
The exponential increase in emissions over the past three decades can only be seen as a side effect of the leech that is late-stage capitalism: in capitalism’s quest for infinite growth and wealth, consumerism has been permeated into daily life and the industrialization needed to supply because, therefore, growing demand necessitates an equally growing deposit of fossil fuels. Some, however, argue that while climate change is undeniably and disproportionately the fault of big business, consumers must accept some of the blame for consuming the products of these companies. But what does that mean? Especially in a world where consumer choice is shrinking?
Individuals are undeniably forced into inherently unsustainable consumption, regardless of how much they recycle or how long they shower. As many industries have become increasingly concentrated, consumers are left with fewer choices. And when the companies that dominate these industries strictly prioritize profit, environmental corners are necessarily cut and sustainability takes a back seat. Entire articles could be written on the fashion, agriculture or food retail only industries, but I will not insist on this point.
Locally and globally, individuals and organizations need to take stock of their advocacy portfolio. At Penn in particular, while Fossil Free Penn pushes for divestment from the university from fossil fuel companies, others are looking to band-aid a gunshot wound. The Penn Environmental Group and Penn’s Student Sustainability Association (among others) seek to increase sustainability through campaigns such as the “Nix the Six” which sought to remove “number 6” plastics from campus. However, such advocacy once again shifts the blame to the individual instead of addressing the fundamental problem of environmental degradation and climate change.
While it’s important to practice sustainable habits to minimize our own impact on the environment, it’s high time to stop letting the big corporations that dominate consumer markets off the hook. Environmental organizations, including those at Penn, cannot become complicit in the delusional racketeering of the energy-industrial complex by perpetuating the fallacy of individual environmental responsibility.
While we fret about buying local and composting, entire industries and hundreds of businesses are releasing greenhouse gases at unimaginable rates, irrevocably ravaging our environment while spending billions of dollars to ensure their right to continue to do so in perpetuity. So how is it still our responsibility?
VINAY KHOSLA is a freshman in college studying philosophy and political science from Baltimore, Md. His email is [email protected].