Do you carry a keep cup, worry about your carbon footprint or diligently sort your recyclables, as your way of helping to save the planet?
What if you discovered you’ve been duped?
Melbourne author Jeff Sparrow argues that, when it comes to environmental impacts, big corporations have engineered a sense of individual responsibility – to distract from their own.
“One of the reasons why we feel so despairing about the [climate] situation that we’re in is that we are made to feel that we are the problem,” Sparrow tells ABC RN’s Big Ideas.
“We’re told we consume too much, we’re too greedy, we’re too lazy, we surround ourselves with disposable plastics and we’re spoiling the planet.”
Humans can even be seen as at fault “merely by existing”, he says.
“Sometimes the argument extends to suggesting that humans are kind of a plague … infesting nature and bring[ing] ruination on the planet.”
There are experts, such as environmental scientist Professor Ian Lowe, who argue for limiting the number of children we have, for environmental reasons.
“If we are the problem, then there’s nothing we can do other than just make things worse,” he says.
Rather than putting the onus on individuals to solve environmental issues, he believes we should change the economic system we live in, in order to decarbonise and avert an environmental crisis.
And for change to happen, he suggests looking back at how we got here.
Who invented ‘carbon footprint’?
The CSIRO has put adapting to climate change at the top of what it identifies as the seven mega trends that will determine our fate. We need to be “leaner, cleaner and greener”, it says.
Sparrow argues that it can’t be left up to individuals to make that happen. History offers clues as to why.
“To start to think about what solutions might be available, it’s really crucial that we understand where the problem came from and who was responsible,” says Sparrow, who explores this topic in his latest book, Crimes Against Nature.
Take the term ‘carbon footprint’. You’ve almost certainly used it, but do you know where it comes from?
The familiar notion, that we should consider how much carbon we are individually responsible for, was dreamt up as a marketing strategy, Sparrow says.
“This [carbon footprint concept] was actually cooked up by a PR company that was employed by BP as part of a campaign to rebadge itself once people became concerned about climate change.
“By getting people to look at their own individual responsibility for climate change, it meant that people stopped focusing on corporate responsibility. And so, rather than looking at BP’s part in this horrific damage to the environment, people started thinking … ‘What am I doing?'”
While corporations have such widespread impact – BP, for example, manages around 19,000 gas and oil stations worldwide – Sparrow believes than an individual approach at carbon reduction is ineffective.
He points to an MIT study that demonstrated Americans couldn’t reduce their own carbon footprint as carbon pollution was embedded in American society as a whole.
The idea that we can reduce carbon emissions as individuals creates a “crippling demoralisation”, Sparrow says. People seeking to reduce their personal carbon footprint “set themselves a task that they cannot possibly fulfil”.
“It’s good that people want to be part of the solution, but we have to think of what real solutions might look like and not just cripple ourselves with individualised guilt that doesn’t make any difference.”
Another example of individual responsibility gone awry is in recycling, according to Sparrow.
It was recently revealed that significant amounts of home recycling is ending up in landfill.
Yet individuals are instructed to conscientiously recycle – for example, by checking the numbers of the bottoms of containers, and taking soft plastics back to the supermarket.
Sparrow argues it’s misspent energy.
“Not only are we being distracted from the real issues, but we are learning to interiorise this sense that it’s our fault. It’s not the government’s fault. It’s not the corporations’ fault,” he says. “I think that is incredibly destructive.”
In 1989, Larry Thomas, the head of the Society of the Plastics Industry told a conference that due to visible pollution, public sentiment towards plastics was “deteriorating at an alarming rate”.
Sparrow says conference attendees came up with a solution: an advertising campaign to spruik recycling.
He argues that large-scale producers of disposable products began to campaign for recycling when they determined that it could be a way “not of preventing waste being produced, but enabling more being produced”.
Recycling was used to suggest to the public that waste is a resolvable issue, if individuals just do the right thing and put it in the bin.
“[Individuals] embrace these things with the best will in the world, even though [the messages] are very often being created through a process of corporate manipulation.”
But recycling plastic is more expensive than producing it, and only a tiny minority is actually recycled. In America, he says “recycling” often leaves the country on shiploads, headed to developing nations.
“It’s another example of the way something that should be good and beneficial and wholesome gets weaponised against the planet.”
According to the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation just 16 per cent of plastic packaging was successfully recovered in 2019–20.
‘We don’t have to live like this’
He believes that if climate change is to be addressed, it’s not individuals’ behaviour that needs modifying, it’s the exponential growth of corporations that should be.
Structural changes are needed if Australia is to address its environmental concerns, he argues.
“You cannot live in an economic system that must grow blindly, year after year after year, in a finite world.”
But he’s not without hope.
“It’s not impossible that we can change the way that we live,” he says. “We don’t have to live like this.”
He points to the long, rich history of Indigenous Australians who for many thousands of years “interacted with nature in a way that that didn’t destroy ecosystems, but actually improved ecosystems”.
“When the British came to Australia, they saw it as a wilderness untouched by human hands. But it wasn’t.
“[Indigenous people] consciously changed it and they consciously shaped it. And they did it in a way that improved the natural environment. And … this is a tremendous source of hope,” he says.
If today we can “consciously and democratically decide how we’re going to interact with nature” then, he says, “the problem before us becomes much, much simpler”.
He says to create change we need to have better, more productive conversations, without agreeing “for the sake of an easy life” or disagreeing “just because [people] don’t instantly agree with everything you say”.
“Things can change very, very quickly.
“But you don’t enlist people in these campaigns simply by sneering at them, simply by mocking them. You have to be prepared to argue with them, to convince them, to persuade them.”
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