Your environmentally sustainable to-do list for the day: wake up and brush your teeth (do not leave the sink running), take a shower (short and cold is best), get dressed (all organic cotton and never fast fashion, of course), eat some fruit from the local farmer’s market for breakfast before you leave for class on your bike (Ubers and cars are for the apathetic), and get around to recycling your old clothes you’ve been meaning to get rid of (why are you getting rid of them anyways?). Now repeat tomorrow.
This enormous and non-exhaustive list of expectations that people now face can be attributed to scientific research on the impact of the individual carbon footprint. More directly, they are the effects of massive lobbying campaigns by the industrial energy complex to paint itself as investing in sustainable practices while simultaneously shifting environmental responsibility to the individual, also known as “greenwashing.” The sector as a whole has poured billions of dollars into such advertising campaigns that greenwash its vested interests in fossil fuels production and consumption, with the five biggest oil companies spending over $3.6 billion over the last 30 years on such advertising.
Carbon dioxide, produced through the combustion of fossil fuel, has been pinpointed as the most ubiquitous and damaging greenhouse gas driving climate change, as it composes 74% of total greenhouse gases emitted. But this fact by itself is not illuminating until you realize that a staggering 62% of all greenhouse gases produced is CO2 from fossil fuel consumption and 11% from land use. While both of these statistics don’t necessarily absolve the individual of responsibility, a breakdown of fossil fuel consumption in the United States does as it illustrates that the energy, transportation, and industrial sectors far outstrip the residential sector by nearly eleven-fold. In fact, according to The Carbon Majors report of 2017 published by the Carbon Disclosure Project, only 100 fossil fuel producers have been linked to over 71% of global industrial emissions over the last thirty years.
Yet individuals are being told reducing their carbon footprint is the one of the most important steps in combating climate change. It is not, and the facts are clear. If we, as a community, truly want to demonstrate a commitment to reducing our carbon footprint and averting an impending climate crisis, it is past time we looked to the real perpetrators: corporations.
The exponential increase in emissions over the past three decades can only be seen as a side effect of the leech that is late-stage capitalism: in capitalism’s quest for infinite growth and wealth, consumerism has been imbued in daily life and the industrialization necessary to provide for consequently increasing demand requires a similarly increasing repository of fossil fuels. Some, however, say that although climate change is disproportionately and undeniably the doing of large corporations, consumers have to accept partial blame for consuming these companies’ products. But what sense does this make? Especially in a world where consumer choice is shrinking?
Individuals are undeniably forced into inherently unsustainable consumption regardless of how much they recycle or how short their showers are. As many industries have become increasingly concentrated, consumers find themselves with fewer choices. And when the companies which dominate these industries strictly prioritize profit, environmental corners are necessarily cut and sustainability takes a back seat. Entire articles could be written on the fashion, agriculture, or food retail industries alone, but I won’t belabor the point.
On both a local and global scale, individuals and organizations need to take stock of their advocacy portfolio. At Penn specifically, while Fossil Free Penn pushes for the University’s divestment from fossil fuels corporations, others seek to apply a band-aid to a gunshot wound. The Penn Environmental Group and Student Sustainability Association at Penn (among others) seek to increase sustainability through campaigns such as the “Nix the Six” which sought to eliminate "number 6" plastics from campus. However, such advocacy once again shifts blame onto the individual instead of addressing the root problem of environmental degradation and climate change.
While it is important to practice sustainable habits to minimize our own environmental impact, it is far past time to stop letting the massive corporations which dominate consumer markets off the hook. Environmental advocacy organizations, including those at Penn, can not become complicit in the illusory racket of the energy-industrial complex by perpetuating the falsity of individual environmental responsibility.
As we fret over buying local produce and composting, entire industries and hundreds of corporations pump out greenhouse gases at unimaginable rates, irrevocably ravaging our environment while devoting billions of dollars to secure their right to continue to do just that in perpetuity. So just how is this our responsibility again?
VINAY KHOSLA is a College first year studying philosophy and political science from Baltimore, Md. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.