Magazine Reporter Tessa Pang reminds us that there aren’t enough trees in the world that can undo years of destroying the planet, and criticizes the focus on minor individual lifestyle changes to combat climate change as opposed to confronting systemic corporate and governmental exploitation.
Just like the world of diets, climate change activism has undergone its own series of fads in the last decade: a series of climate change “quick fixes” that claim to contain answers to years of climate destruction and systemic overuse in a single solution.
First, it was signing online petitions that claimed you could “save” the Amazon in just one click. Then, it was our war against plastics – banning everything from the straw to the coffee cup to takeaway containers and the plastic bag. Now, it’s posting pictures of our pets on our Instagram story with the pretext that it will get millions of trees planted.
Each of these actions seem harmless, maybe even fun. Here’s why they’re actually antithetical to real action on climate change.
Firstly, these actions treat climate change as something we can overcome by a few small changes in our daily routine and tells people the burden of undoing years of irreversible damage falls on them. You have to carry a dirty cup in your bag, you have to sip iced coffee through a soggy straw, you have to eat dry tasteless soy protein instead of burgers to prove that you’re committed to action on climate change (editor’s note: sometimes it is a juicy, delicious soy burger, but same argument).
They simultaneously villainize the individual for creating climate change and also center them as the solution to fixing it. The notion that climate change is the result of a series of individual mistakes completely ignores the systemic ways corporations and governments have abused our climate for profit. And therein lies the biggest problem with focusing on individual actions: it distracts from who the real climate villain is – the governments and corporations profiting off of fossil fuels.
From the oil, coal and gas corporations making literally billions while entire island nations’ homes disappear from the map, to the greedy governments who continually serve their mates in the fossil fuel industry rather than the people, to the banks and investors sitting by and getting rich off it all. They are the real climate villains – not people who forget their keepcup. Getting the people to commit to actions that will threaten the elite’s pretty profit will not happen with paper straws.
To reinvent our economy as a green one, we need both governments and investors on board. To get them there, we can’t be divided about what our climate goal is. In a world of extremely limited political capital, anything that distracts from the goal of ending fossil fuels compromises achieving it. We need every speech, every protest chant, every second of news coverage focused on moving away from dirty energy.
Yes, plastic is bad and planting trees would be nice, but when we make climate change about straws and trees, not only do we take away focus from those actually at fault, but we give them an easy out. We allow climate-denying policymakers to look like they’re doing something against climate change by bringing in a plastics ban, when what they’re really doing is pivoting the discussion away from fossil fuels. It allows climate-destroying corporations like Shell with hefty CSR teams to plant five million trees in the hope it will make everyone forget that they destroyed people’s lives in an oil spill in Nigeria. In order to shine the spotlight on the pernicious work of governments and fossil fuel companies, there can only be one climate solution and that has to be no dirty energy.
Achieving it is possible.
A 2020 study found that over a quarter of fossil-fuel and low-carbon energy projects encountering high levels of social resistance have been cancelled, suspended or delayed. Indigenous people’s fight to protect their lands and countries is evidence of that. In North America, Indigenous-led resistance against 21 fossil fuel projects has prevented emissions equivalent to 400 coal-fired power plants from entering the atmosphere in the last decade.
It proves that if we listen to the right people and work as a collective, saving our climate doesn’t have to feel like such an insurmountable goal.