Who is to blame for the planet’s increasingly inevitable ecological collapse? I am not asking whether climate change is a product of human action or not (of course it is) — what I am asking is whether the crisis is being driven largely by corporate greed and government corruption or if we (i.e. the consumers and voters of the world) also bear equal or greater responsibility in the coming catastrophe?
The question came to mind after receiving the above reply to a Twitter comment. Who are the we generally identified as the cause of global climate change? Is it individuals? Trade groups? Nation states? The entire species? There is little doubt that certain large and immensely powerful industrial sectors contribute the most to environmental destruction and that most governments (even the ones sounding the claxon most loudly) do little to alter the trajectory — but who enriches those companies by buying their goods and who continues to elect and empower officials who are either too shortsighted or too corrupt to demand serious changes? At the end of the day, its neither helpful nor, in my mind, accurate to simply point at the energy sector or the airlines and shout “What are you doing?”
As this Slate essay points out, there are many people (perhaps even the vast majority) who look at the state and the future of the planet and are outraged. Of course, the majority of people would like to avoid crippling drought, debilitating storms, biblical flooding and transcontinental wildfires. Of course, the environmental impact of one subsistence farmer in rural India is less than one consumption driven American. But the West (especially the United States) has set a self-destructive precedent that much of the world is eager to match: standard of living. Ask that subsistence farmer in rural India if he or she wants to keep their standard of living forever? Chances are they will want more, whether land, equipment or opportunity for their children. Much of modern China’s recent history has been wrapped up in the drive to improve the standard of living and that means constructing highways, selling cars, developing mega-cities and damming every river and stream in the quest for more electricity. In various ways, these entities are as much a part of the we as ExxonMobil or the fishing industry.
While the writer is certainly correct in asserting that “[e]veryone is not equally complicit”, by shifting so much blame from individuals, the writer tries to absolve Western citizens from much of the impending disaster. It’s the corrupt governments, not the citizens who elect the corrupt. It’s the people jet-setting around the globe, not the people idling their cars for half an hour to get the ice off in the morning. It’s the factories, not the people buying the things the factory produces. The writer cites the People’s Climate March in 2014, where 400,000 people attended, as evidence that there is a will to change things. However, I would be interested in seeing what kind of sacrifices those 400,000 people made to bring about change and, more importantly, whether those changes were maintained in the 4 years between the event and this essay, to say nothing of the 3-plus years between the essay and now.
Here again we have to consider the idea of standard of living. Few people accustomed to the comforts and conveniences afforded by the modern marketplace are willing to make the kind of sacrifice needed to put a significant dent in their ‘carbon footprint’. Perhaps I will avoid using single-use straws, but it won’t stop us from driving to Starbucks for coffee grown thousands of miles away and shipped across the ocean for our consumption. Maybe I will tolerate a little extra warmth by turning our home’s air conditioner up a few degrees, but almost no one would scrap their A/C altogether in the name of energy conservation. I will applaud when Amazon converts its fleet of trucks to electric, but we don’t concern ourselves with how that electricity is produced or about the armada of cargo ships needed to transport our purchase from Asia to our doorstep. In short, there is a threshold that most people are unwilling to cross when it comes to making personal changes to curb climate change, a line that people will brush up against, but not step over.
Placing sole or even the majority of blame on politicians, corporations and them provides us a partition that offers safety and insulation from our own part in the unfolding tragedy. Yes, the bulk of emissions and environmental destruction is caused by a small number of entities. Yes, politicians across the globe make grand speeches about preserving the planet for future generations then sell vast tracts of land for development and exploitation. But we must also ask why. Corporations would not be destroying the Earth if they could not sell the proceeds. Politicians might be more inclined to make serious policy changes if their political and personal livelihoods were not bound to the myth of eternal economic growth. No company would continue in the fossil fuel economy if it became economically unviable just as no politician would be worried about demanding substantial changes in our consumption dependent economy if doing so were not professional suicide. They may be the biggest contributors to global climate change, but we are the biggest enablers.