Seventeen years after colossal fossil BP coined the term “carbon footprint”—a brilliant PR move that put individuals on the hook for industry emissions that are far beyond their control—activists are urging consumers to realize that collective action to make fossils history is the only solution to the climate crisis.
In a recent opinion piece for The Guardian, political author Rebecca Solnit writes that while “personal virtue is an eternally seductive goal in progressive movements,” it’s also a dangerous chimera. As an alternative, she presents a “very short counterargument”: that “individual acts of thrift and abstinence won’t get us the huge distance we need to go in this decade” to mitigate the climate crisis.
“We need to exit the age of fossil fuels, reinvent our energy landscape, rethink how we do almost everything,” Solnit says. “We need collective action at every scale from local to global.” And the people already doing the work need the help of everyone else.
“The revolution won’t happen by people staying home and being good,” she writes.
Solnit says the early 2000s spin doctors at BP—with an assist from PR giant Ogilvy & Mather—had a psycho-social goal firmly in view when they lit upon the catchphrase “carbon footprint” and its integral idea that consumers are responsible for climate change.
“The main reason to defeat the fossil fuel corporations is that their product is destroying the planet,” she writes. “But their insidious propaganda, from spreading climate change denial to pushing this climate footprint business, makes this goal even more worthwhile.”
Quoting author Mark Kaufman, Solnit describes how BP’s most effective move was the 2004 unveiling of its “carbon footprint calculator”, which allowed individual consumers to “assess how their normal daily life—going to work, buying food, and (gasp) travelling—is largely responsible for heating the globe.”
That narrative has proved enormously compelling, she writes: “I routinely see people on social media zooming in on individual consumption habits when climate chaos is under discussion.”
But calling out bad habits (or crowing about our good ones) is a waste of precious time and energy, resources that must instead be invested in changing the larger system within which our habits, good or bad, form and operate.
“If you have solar panels on your roof, it’s because there’s a market and manufacturers for solar and installers and maybe an arrangement with your power company to compensate you for energy you’re putting into the grid,” Solnit explains. While citizens can influence others through individual habits and ideas, those gains are no replacement for collective action. For example, Solnit says, while the popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets is growing by leaps and bounds, those choices have not brought down the meat industry, nor reduced its climate impact.
“Climate chaos demands we recognize how everything is connected,” Solnit writes. “As citizens we must go after the climate footprint of the fossil-fuel corporations, the beef industry, the power companies, the transportation system, plastics, and so much more.”