Your “Personal Carbon Footprint” is a Fossil Fuel Industry Scam


The fossil fuel industry has for a long time manipulated politics and public opinion by funding campaigns against major environmental legislation that may threaten their short-term profits. The Koch brothers have famously donated at least $100 million since the 1970’s to aid the Republican party and the rise of the Tea Party movement within it, with the goal of pushing the boundaries of the political consensus in their favor. Another instance of this which used a quite different strategy is a 2006 BP (British Petroleum) advertising campaign which aimed to popularize the use of the phrase “Carbon Footprint”. The purpose of this was to shift the responsibility, in the public eye, of sustainability onto the average consumer rather than large corporations like BP, and it worked wonders for them. For over a decade after the campaign began, there was much less talk about far-reaching government action to address climate change than there was about personal sustainability which could be achieved through lifestyle changes like going vegan or riding your bike to work. 


It wasn’t until 2018, the year which saw the publication of the IPCC’s (International Panel on Climate Change) special report on the effects of a 1.5 degrees climate change, that the public, especially the left-wing movement revived by Bernie Sanders’ 2016 run, started to question this narrative that sustainability was solely the responsibility of consumers. The reality is, individual action, no matter how great, will not rise to meet the challenge of the climate crisis. This is not to say that it isn’t important, because consumers do have some power to influence production through their purchasing power, which is why everyone should still be mindful of the ethics and sustainability of their purchases and lifestyle choices. But ultimately when our roads are built for gas powered cars, when the fast-food and agricultural industry encourages big farms to use environmentally damaging methods to ramp up their production, and when just 100 corporations cause over 70% of global carbon emissions, it’s no secret there needs to be a different kind of change. As the IPCC states in its  2018 report: “Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems.” Only government action will be able to force the change we need to happen at the level and speed we need it to. 


Not only will personal action not meet the challenge of the climate crisis, but it also ignores the realities of class and imperialism in the US and abroad. Working class communities in America don’t always have access to things like a sustainable diet or zero waste products like the middle class does when so many poor Americans live in food deserts or don’t have the money for expensive sustainable food and clothing brands. Residents of working class suburbs and rural communities likely are unable to bike to a close proximity job or have access to reliable public transportation like wealthier urbanites do. Many developing countries in the global south rely on fossil fuels to build the infrastructure and industry needed to lift their citizens out of extreme poverty. And when that industry is built it is often exploited by wealthy countries for the profit of multinational corporations. The US government frequently invades countries so that our oil corporations can access their oil reserves as they did in 2003 with the Iraq war. Our Government then shapes the economy in favor of these corporations with subsidies and tax breaks while ignoring the needs of the American people, the people of the world, and the planet we all live on. 


What the world needs isn’t sustainable consumerism that continues to exploit the global south without even meeting the challenge of the crisis that we face. What we need is an anti-imperialist, international Green New Deal to bring sustainable, union jobs and build sustainable infrastructure in the US and the global south. This is the only way to make a rapid and just transition to clean energy in a way that benefits everyone. And proposals have been made, by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ed Markey, and Bernie Sanders in the US, by Jeremy Corbyn and the labour party in the UK, and by left-wing leaders across the globe whose policies can be the first step towards this transition. The best way to make these changes happen is to learn about them, and get involved in the movements that are fighting for them. In the US the Sunrise Movement and the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) have helped insurgent candidates build a space for policies like the American Green New Deal in our national politics, and they are already making a huge difference in the political mindset of our leaders. Joe Biden has promised a climate plan to bring the US to 100% green renewable energy by 2035, and if he is held accountable, then we can make that transition happen in a just and equitable way. The solutions are ready and they are within reach but the opposition remains strong. So of course, turn off the lights when you leave the house, and buy from local sustainable farms and brands when you can. But don’t forget who caused this crisis, and don’t forget how we are really going to fix it.