Your hemp grocery bag and reusable bottle are commendable, but here’s why they aren’t enough to save the planet
This column is an opinion of Todd Dufresne, professor of philosophy at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. He is the author of numerous books on Freud and psychoanalysis, and of a recent book on climate change entitled The Democracy of Suffering: Life on the Edge of Disaster, Anthropocene Philosophy. For more information on the CBC Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
It is a truism of environmental awareness that climate change has been caused by the individual decisions of hundreds of millions of consumers around the world, most notably in the West. And that’s why we’re being urged by experts to rethink our carbon footprint and tackle our unsustainable and destructive ways.
Many well-meaning people, including me, have risen to the challenge by adopting new practices.
We reduce, reuse and recycle. We bring our own bags of hemp to the grocery store. We are reducing and in some cases completely eliminating meat and dairy products from our diet. We eat local, avoid fruits and vegetables out of season, and buy fair trade coffee.
We buy efficient devices and then use them less. We refuse plastic and stainless steel straws as both are harmful to the environment. We pack lunches and carry reusable bottles to keep us hydrated. We avoid fast fashion and, like Europeans, instead buy high quality unique clothes and shoes that we mix and match. We sell our second cars, take public transport, and where possible walk or cycle to work.
Some of us have even remained childless, because no other decision could have a bigger impact on carbon emissions than this one.
Never before have so many people made so many decisions about so many actions in our daily lives.
The effort and the sacrifice are impressive. Because these innumerable actions are large-scale exercises of applied philosophy, an astonishing rise in power of a discourse, in every notable point, of individual responsibility and rationality.
- IDEAS | Todd Dufresne, who teaches philosophy at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, will give three talks on climate change and the unborn future for CBC Radio One IDEAS at 8 p.m. on June 16, 17 and 18.
Yet the causes of climate change and the possible sources of climate change mitigation are far more complicated than individual ethics. In truth, our sometimes obsessive focus on the details of daily consumption blinds us to the biggest problems of our time.
Consider the “carbon footprint calculator”. We now know that this calculator is a kind of magic trick, designed by Big Oil and marketing professionals, to make the corporate responsibility rabbit completely disappear from our minds. In this regard, popular memes on social networks like the one below are absolutely right:
The same sleight of hand informs public debates on taxes. On the one hand, demagogues in the pay of the very rich wave red flags on death taxes, welfare fools and socialism, while on the other they court government bailouts, award exorbitant bonuses to the privileged few and pluck the pockets of the public at every opportunity.
In addition to creating confusion, the overall effect is to divide ordinary people, pit us against each other and fundamentally distract us from the real enemies of society and the great problems they represent.
Still, the meme is correct. Since 1998, research indicates that a group of only 100 companies have caused 71 percent of all carbon emissions!
But of course, let’s go ahead and consider the COVID-19 pandemic – the greatest possible experience of the usefulness of individual climate actions. The global shutdown of the economy in early 2020 has indeed reduced our levels of carbon emissions. But not by much. Simply broadcasts fallen to 2006 levels – the year of Al Gore’s documentary, An inconvenient truth.
It’s not just ironic. It’s sobering. Tragic too, because the grandest gesture possible – an almost complete stop – still puts us on track for a climate catastrophe, just a few years later.
So no, we can’t just change our buying habits and shop around out of this mess. And no, your personal ethics, while laudable, will not save the planet from climate catastrophe. Not even close.
Rather, the primacy we all place on individual actions – ultimately, individualism – is at the heart of the climate change crisis.
This is because the two most fundamental drivers of climate catastrophe have little to do with individual actions. One of the drivers is the economic system, the way we organize production, consumption and trade. The other driver is the philosophical system, the way we organize our thoughts about life and all that.
Both systems, derived from approximately 2,500 years of Western thought and action, are the primary systemic causes of climate change. Capitalism and the cult of efficiency and instrumentality function as the almost invisible basic conditions of life in our globalized society.
Capitalism demands perpetual growth, only part of which is necessary for human survival. After all, almost everything that capitalism produces ends up in landfill within six months, while the almost unimaginable profits go to less and less people.
And thoughtless efficiency and instrumentalization turn human beings into cogs, a means to an end. It turns us into objects. This objectification not only denigrates existence, but facilitates the extinction of all life.
These dystopian results are embedded in Western economic and philosophical systems. In both cases, rationalistic individualism is the unthought-of condition of our existence.
Climate change is therefore not just an environmental crisis. It is a socio-political-intellectual crisis. Or, if you prefer, it’s a moral crisis.
These are the systems that make us who we are and set the framework for what is possible for individuals, for what is literally thinkable.
We must therefore face these extinguishing systems with care and intention. This means that we have to stop thinking and acting gradually as individuals in the face of the climate crisis. For what is needed is a radical change in the social and economic systems and structures that define us as human beings.
Therefore, we must stop thinking about the climate change and think more daringly about the climate revolution.
The radical changes already underway must include the end of capitalism, its self-interested billionaire class and the rise of endemic inequalities. It probably starts with some sort of democratic socialism, a universal basic income and a four-day work week. Where it ends will probably surprise us all. But there is no doubt that only some form of collectivism will save us.
So forget about individualism, the doctrine that not only whitewashes systemic problems and collectivist solutions, but also normalizes the conservative nonsense that “there is no alternative” to the status quo.
With this in mind, let’s make sure that our righteous concerns about the little things do not blind us to the most important things – our way out of the world. Holocene, the sixth mass extinction; and the arrival of a new world historical epoch, the Anthropocene.
If we are smart and a little lucky, we could together mitigate some of these impacts and advance a more equitable and virtuous future than our sometimes dystopian present.
This must be the motivation behind our collective efforts to not only demand a “better world”, but to bring about the radical changes that will make it a reality for all and everywhere.