Illustration by Grace Kirman
This afternoon, I was walking home from class while eating ice cream, when a sudden gust of wind blew the plastic spoon out of my hand and onto the street, where it was soon rendered irrecoverable by an influx of traffic. A classic scenario of environmental guilt: should I have stopped to wait until the cars had passed and retrieved the spoon—and so avoided being responsible for plastic pollution which could conceivably end up in the nearby river?
Should I have been feeling bad about eating ice cream out of a single-use tub with a single-use spoon in the first place (even though it arguably wasn’t my fault that they’d run out of cones)? Or is it an unhelpful sacrifice of our peace of mind to be magnifying every little everyday incident into a moral crisis?
Just 100 fossil fuel companies are responsible for approximately 71% of greenhouse gas emitted since 1988, after all. The powerlessness we experience in the face of these untouchable corporations may lead to guilt or else to apathy, the feeling that the onus to prevent environmental catastrophe just isn’t on us, so there’s no point blaming oneself for taking a flight, leaving the lights on, or not going vegan—or whatever other decision the environmental cause deems us culpable for.
In many cases guilt and apathy either coexist alongside one another or interact in a perpetual game of tug of war, each vying for victory over our conscience and mental equilibrium.
The fossil fuel industry intentionally shifted the media narrative to emphasise fairly trivial individual consumer choices—using plastic straws, for instance—as a way of getting out of the spotlight and avoiding accountability. Doesn’t this make recognising the limitations of individual action a refusal to buy into this narrative the industry has propagated, and therefore an empowered step towards shaking off the fetters of manipulation?
Yes and no. The fossil fuel industry provides energy for billions of people to power homes, workplaces, and transport. They only survive because of consumer demand. Energy use in buildings, transport, and industry produces 73% of all fossil fuel emissions. So is BP guilty for extracting oil, or are you guilty for driving your car? Or both?
Putting it another way, do we have a moral responsibility to be making personal sacrifices to combat climate change as ordinary consumers and citizens, even when we’re just struggling to get by in our day-to-day lives?
It’s true that most of that consumer demand for energy comes from large institutions and companies, which gives them a moral duty to decarbonise—or gives governments one to tighten legislation to make sure that they do so, depending on how you approach the matter. The fossil fuel industry is like a Jenga tower, built on blocks of companies, individuals, and policies.
As for plastic, even though each time we throw it away may seem as negligible as a drop in the ocean, the tens of billions of plastic particles in the ocean literally add up. I shouldn’t have taken the plastic spoon at the ice cream shop, but ultimately it’s more about collective momentum than individual consumption. We need to practice what we preach, but first of all, we need to be preaching loud enough.
If we are to continue to empower ourselves, we have to believe in our own power. We also have to realise that not everyone’s power is the same: not everyone can currently choose where they live, or how they heat their home, or what food they buy, or how they get to work, or what job they work in. We can only start where we are, and we can’t completely know anyone’s situation but our own. When we point our finger at our neighbour, there are three more pointing back at ourselves.
The moral dilemma is real and it implicates all of us, but in varying ways and to varying degrees. What the fossil fuel industry is really guilty of is frittering the climate crisis into a string of petty causes that individuals can quibble and squabble over. Companies can then exploit these causes for marketing tactics and greenwashing, further adding to the cacophonous confusion about what it really means to be “sustainable”. Divide and rule.
Boycott as a form of civil protest has a long history of being successfully deployed as a nonviolent weapon of emancipation and progress. The problem with using it to fight environmental destruction is that almost everything we consume has a carbon footprint or contributes to pollution or biodiversity loss. There isn’t one product that we can all unite to condemn. When widespread awareness was raised about the devastating effects of palm oil, individuals took action and companies had to follow suit, albeit begrudgingly and slowly—showing that this mode of action can theoretically work.
We need to find a way of lobbying industries and governments while also allowing ourselves, especially the more vulnerable members of society, to survive on a day-to-day basis living in a wasteful economy without personal guilt. Even though many of us don’t currently have the option to shop in organic plastic-free supermarkets or to power our homes only with renewable energy, we can still unite our voices.
We need to foster enthusiasm, momentum, energy, passion, and compassion—not shame and pessimism. When individuals change, nations change.