[This narrative] incorrectly assigns blame to the individual (and most especially to individuals who are particularly powerless) instead of to those who actually wield power in this system and to the system itself.
July 5, 2019 by Cláudia
About two years ago, my objective was to turn my life as eco-friendly as possible – avoiding plastic, eating plant-based, boycotting unethical brands, buying organic… My ultimate goal was to make my temporary stay in Earth completely unnoticeable, environmentally speaking. To not leaving any trace. I was consumed with feelings of guilt and responsibility (and frustration with people’s indifference towards environmental and social degradation). I looked at my daily habits and constantly found new ways in which I was contributing to pollution, waste and climate change. I frequently used the typical phrases of “Me and you are both to blame for the plastic island”.
I was writing my master thesis on sustainable fashion, and my angle was mostly focused on individual consumption patterns – the damaging consequences of fast fashion could be tackled if we could just get everyone to start buying ethical fashion. People just didn’t want to change their consumption patterns. That was the real barrier to change. Sure, the CEOs who actually make the rules were to blame, but I was above all frustrated with consumers for not caring enough to stop supporting greedy corporations.
This focus on ethical fashion lead me to read Naomi Klein’s No Logo and that simultaneously completely ruined my life and gave me a much more realistic and sober overview of all the systemic reasons that lead us to this democratic, environmental and social crisis. This book marked probably the biggest shift in the way I see and interact with the world yet.
Before No Logo, anyone who wanted to blame the system for the current crisis was just evading responsibility and finding excuses not to act. But after understanding the omnipotent power of big corporations to make most decisions for us, compared to which any of our individual efforts are negligible, I myself was starting to fall more and more to that discourse – we are just too powerless as individuals. And we are – as individuals.
In our individualistic society, a valuable and valued citizen is, first of all, an individual who is independent and second of all, someone who manages to tackle their problems on their own. The same goes for the environmental crisis: if we are lacking drinking water, take shorter showers. To tackle food waste, reduce your household food waste. To reduce plastic pollution bring your own cloth bags when grocery shopping.
But, as Derrick Jensen claims in his article “Forget shorter showers“, this is the result of a campaign of systematic misdirection [I don’t necessarily endorse everything said on Forget shorter showers, but it is a significant narrative shift and the beginning of new social movements who rely on collective action]. Political leaders who actually have the power to regulate big polluters keep telling us to bring our reusable cup and to eat a vegan meal per week, while continuing to finance and exempt largely polluting companies, namely fossil fuels companies! from taxes. It is a way to completely redirect the narrative back to people who see how perverted our system is by saying “well, you are part of the system too!”. So we are left with an impossible task at hands with the odds stacked against us, which we will inevitably fail and feel guilty about. Although our own personal waste is actually insignificant compared to all the waste produced in the whole chain of production, we are made to feel like we are not a worthy environmentalist if we end up buying packaged cookies in a place where 100% of the cookies are packed in plastic. It is a very effective way to deflect criticism and to overwhelm individuals with a goal that not only consumes all their resources and time but that also culminates in self-blame and guilt. The powerful people who are actually responsible for 95% of the problem, and who are immensely profiting from destroying our world and destabilizing our climate (having the resources to actually profoundly change the system), are the ones telling us we are not doing enough.
Nevertheless, the blame keeps being assigned to the individual for not “making the right choices” instead of questioning why exactly we have those choices to make. In the same article, it is claimed that
Instead of asking why we aren’t buying organic food, we should be asking why isn’t all food production organic. Instead of asking why are people still using the car, we should be asking why isn’t public transportation more comprehensive and free.
These are the questions that can have a real impact in our environmental footprint. And sure, once we have the social structures favourable to systemic change, then individual behaviours and raising awareness will have an important part to play. But for now, trying to solve climate change with individual behavioural change is like trying to tackle a house flood by removing water with a tea spoon and while the taps are still running (I didn’t come up with this analogy, but I think it’s illustrative of the disconnection between the problem and the solution proposed). We need to solve the problem at its root and close the tap, in this case, stop multinational corporations and Governments from continuing to pollute and to put profit in front of people.
Forget shorter showers. Seriously. Don’t waste your time obsessing with your individual carbon footprint. Find other people who are motivated to create solutions for the climate crisis and together push for real climate action. Like Naomi Klein said, climate change is a crisis we can only solve together.
P.S.: Read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. If I can get you to do something, let it be to read Naomi Klein. She’ll convince you of everything else.