Hollie Parry argues that there is an unjust amount of blame put onto individuals in the fight against climate change while the responsible corporations come away largely unscathed.
As the Climate Clock in Times Square counts us down to a tipping point of irreversible change, many agree that more needs to be done to combat the climate crisis. However, a subtle blame game is being played within the environmental community. Who should shoulder the most responsibility for the climate crisis?
In the age of ‘sustainability’, many individuals have taken it upon themselves to alter their own behavioural and consumer habits in a bid to reduce their environmental impact. From buying second-hand clothes to carefully separating recycling from general waste, we are taking steps in the right direction to prevent reaching the tipping point. In fact, some experts are arguing otherwise. An avid speaker on this issue, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, suggests that there is a danger in “expiating your guilt” through eco-consumerism and micro-changes; these actions remove the pressure from corporations and governments to make the necessary larger-scale change. Since 1988, twenty-five corporations and state-owned enterprises were responsible for ‘over half of global industrial emissions‘. It is indisputable that those with the largest culpability for climate change are the transnational corporations pumping out fossil fuels like there is no tomorrow (how ironic), and the governments that have the ability to keep them in check. Therefore, as we make the decision every morning to take the train to work instead of our car, we are arguably deceiving ourselves over the magnitude of the climate crisis and enabling large corporations and governments to continue the destruction of our planet, or so some argue.
When taking a step back from the argument that individual change is essentially futile, I cannot help but feel a sense of irony. In a movement that demands change, how can we push for large scale reform without being prepared to make our own sacrifices, no matter how small their impact. Augustin Fragnière, for example, argues that it is an issue of integrity, individuals should exhibit the values they are demanding from corporations and governments. How can we disparage voluntary actions such as veganism, which can reduce a personal carbon footprint by 73%, whilst simultaneously condemning the fossil fuel industry for its carbon emissions? This is counterintuitive. Perhaps, therefore, what is being lost in the call for greater individual responsibility, is the aspect of activism that must complement behavioural changes. It is not enough to switch from a petrol to an electric car, you must also vote for administrations with policies directed towards carbon neutrality. It should also be highlighted that the ability to make changes to personal consumer habits is very dependent on personal circumstances. Eco-consumerism and sustainable living, in the most part, is more expensive due to the financial systems that large corporations and governments have created. This is why there is no place for righteousness in the fight for climate justice as ‘we are all in the same storm, not in the same boat‘. Advocating for large scale change as a form of individual action is just as vital as changing consumer habits.
It is undeniable that the greatest culprits of the climate crisis, and those holding the most power to alter its trajectory, are the corporate polluters and the governments who can regulate them. It is therefore unjust and unhelpful to place the burden of climate change on individuals. However, devaluing voluntary action, in my opinion, encourages individuals to live a life with no personal culpability and this in itself undermines any demands made for corporations to change their unsustainable productions. The ability to improve your own behavioural and consumer habits whilst appreciating the extent of necessary political change, and fighting for it, will only enrich the climate justice movement.