From a very young age, we are taught to recycle, to switch off lights when we leave a room, and to turn off the tap when we brush our teeth. As young adults, we are encouraged to take a reusable cup when we purchase take-out coffee, to consume less meat, and to cycle instead of driving short distances. These are just a few examples of what I have come to call ‘individualised climate responsibility’: the way in which the burden of mitigating environmental damage is shifted onto the individual. While we must remain conscious of the climate crisis and the ways in which our daily lives contribute to it, such a focus on individualised climate responsibility obscures the way in which governments and corporations are consistently neglecting to address the problem in its entirety. We would never look to the public to solve other social issues such as homelessness, poverty, or unemployment. So, why are we relying upon the goodwill of individuals to protect our environment and the natural resources that we need to survive? The answer is simple: we have been conditioned to believe that it is our responsibility to mitigate climate change by governments and corporations who wish to continue their harmful and negligent practices without public backlash. Such circumstances will only lead to the continued degradation of the atmosphere and natural environment.
This article will look at two key examples where individualised climate responsibility has been detrimental to the environment, but this list is by no means complete. If you spend five minutes thinking about the problem for yourself, no doubt you will be able to identify further examples that have affected you personally.
The Ugly Reality of ‘Keep America Beautiful’
The damaging reality of individualised climate responsibility is clearly illustrated by the case of ‘Keep America Beautiful’, a non-profit organisation that was established in 1953. ‘Keep America Beautiful’ was the organisation behind a famous US advertisement in the 1970s that showed a native American weeping at the sight of plastic pollution. The message was clear: Americans must pick up their litter and take responsibility for keeping their nation clean. This advertisement was however shifting the narrative towards individualised climate responsibility, and could be seen to be part of a wider deflection process which made it easier for large corporations to continue producing vast quantities of single-use plastic products, without public scrutiny.
Even today, ‘Keep America Beautiful’ asserts that its mission is to ‘inspire and educate people to take action every day to improve and beautify the community environment’, and reports that Americans have committed 11.9 million hours to such efforts as community litter picks. However, in focussing too narrowly on individual actions such as picking up litter, ‘Keep America Beautiful’ inadvertently continues to absolve large corporations and governments of the responsibility of producing less plastic. By encouraging individuals to deal with the waste produced by climate degradation, rather than addressing the source of it, (corporate neglect and profiteering), it is hard to see how they will make real, tangible change. As such, for nearly 70 years, whilst maintaining an environmental focus, organisations such as ‘Keep America Beautiful’ have unconsciously been enabling corporations to produce unthinkable quantities of waste and harmful emissions in their quest for financial gain.
BP: The Rebranding Failure of Epic Proportions
In the early 2000s, the oil giant BP faced growing criticism from individuals and groups who were concerned by the company’s impact upon the environment. However, rather than changing the way in which it operated, BP infamously chose to rebrand itself. “British Petroleum” became “Beyond Petroleum”, as the company pledged to take responsibility for the planet. Nevertheless, it quickly became clear that BP’s environmentalism was limited to promoting the problematic concept of individualised climate responsibility. In 2004, the company began to popularise the idea of the ‘carbon footprint’, which is a term that remains in common use today. This concept of the ‘carbon footprint’ repositions the burden of climate change onto the individual, implying that it is up to us to travel and eat in ways that produce minimal carbon emissions. In this way, it allows BP to masquerade as an environmentally conscious corporation despite the fact that it is one of the 20 firms behind a third of all carbon emissions.
We must not fail to acknowledge that, in 2006, it was a BP pipeline that caused one of the largest oil spills ever recorded in Alaska. BP was also the company behind the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, which proved to be the largest marine oil spill in history. Despite these terrible and tragic events, BP has the audacity to keep promoting its concept of the ‘carbon footprint’, encouraging individuals to be more conscious of their carbon emissions. Such a blatant example of greenwashing, and such a callous divestment of climate responsibility, cannot be condemned harshly enough.
Individualised climate responsibility is problematic, but this does not mean that individuals are powerless and unable to initiate change. Each day, we must choose to see through the damaging rhetoric promoted by governments and companies, and challenge it by lobbying these powerful groups to implement real change. And so, by calling for such groups to take climate responsibility instead of shifting the burden to the public, and by removing our support for those who fail to do so, it is still possible for us to fight for a more sustainable future in our daily lives.
– Alice Walters
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