Your Carbon Footprint Doesn't Matter: Or Why Policing Each Other's Footprint Is Not Going to Save the Earth
Please sit with the headline for a moment before you continue reading.
How does it make you feel?
If I'm the one breaking the news to you, I bet the answer is "not great". I'm sorry for that. Truly. I get it. I'm guessing you didn't land on this blog post, because you're a mega-villain who was Googling, how do I accelerate climate change and destroy the Earth, mwahhaha?
If in fact, you, like me, first became interested in climate change activism, because you wanted to make a difference, then you're probably astonished, flummoxed, and suspicious even upon hearing the news that your excellent efforts to change your lifestyle to net zero don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. If, like me, you began to read about climate change about five years ago and also began to enthusiastically share with friends and family how much water they could save by not eating one burger--660 gallons of water if you're interested-- or by wearing secondhand jeans instead of buying a new pair-- a whopping savings of 1,800 gallons-- you're probably feeling pretty heart-broken right now by the news that your sacrifices pretty much amounted to an anthill, (not even a bean hill) in the grand scheme of things.
Of course, I'm not preaching that you should go out and start burning barrels of oil for the fun of it in some crazed version of a gender reveal party. A climate truth reveal party!
No, no, no. The Earth doesn't need any more egomaniacs making themselves feel more important or better one way or the other. Actually, the Earth will be fine with or without its egomaniacs. We're the ones in trouble, and it's the climate that needs to heal and that's not going to happen while we're ignoring the issue entirely or happily adding up our virtue points on a scale that's so teensy small, that even if you achieve a Zen-level of living and barely stir again in a state of profound, blissful, footprint-free meditation for the rest of your existence, all while surviving on beans and sips of green tea... well, guess what?
Even that level of personal sacrifice wouldn't move the needle.
So what will? How about ALL of us sitting immobilized and eating beans and sipping tepid water?
Nope. Not that either. As Rebecca Solnit puts it in her excellent essay on carbon footprints for The Guardian (link below in Further Reading), "The revolution won’t happen by people staying home and being good."
It's because our carbon footprint doesn't matter. Not yours. Not mine. And that's for one reason alone: the real culprits of climate change are oil companies. (Just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of carbon emissions.) Oil companies' products are destroying the planet. They're the ones doing the damage, and until we get together, just as a relatively small number of ordinary folks did during the Civil Rights era and multiply* our political efforts instead of adding them up incrementally with a handy footprint calculator, no change for the better will happen.
Big Oil will win.
Well, they'll be the richest on a dead planet. I guess that's a win in their book, because that's where they're gleefully headed, pouring HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year into PR firms, while most of us who even care are burying our heads in our sustainably-made navels and actually, peacefully going along for the ride to destruction.
Take the phrase "carbon footprint". Did you know that a "carbon footprint calculator" is a phrase a PR firm called Ogilvy and Mather came up with in 2004 for British Petroleum, the second largest non-state owned oil company in the world? And it worked. It caught on like a colored explosive in the Arizona bush, because there's nothing good people like so much as feeling virtuous. It was an incredibly cynical and brilliant distraction technique, and it worked. They should make a summer blockbuster about it. The End of the Earth Brought to You by BP.
Speaking of movies, when Harrison Ford is next trending, check out whether, instead of attacking oil companies like British Petroleum for literally burning down the planet, social media users prefer to lambast climate activist Harrison Ford for owning vintage airplanes.
What "virtuous" people like that are basically saying is you might be a big, handsome movie star, but I drive an electric car, so I'm better than you. And they're feeling pretty good about themselves, too, I wager.
I actually got into a Twitter argument with one climate activist who we'll call Saint Nick, because looked like Santa Claus with his white beard and air of sanctimony, about whether or not Harrison Ford had the right to be a climate activist. It's actually what led me to learning more about carbon footprint calculators, and helpfully pointing out that they're a mirage. Saint Nick wasn't impressed. His rebuttal? "Go worship your crush then." Excuse me, Mr. Claus. I do NOT have a crush on Harrison Ford. Or, well, not anymore. Not since I found out he had an affair with Princess Leia, when she was 19 and he was married and in his 30s then, I believe. Carrie Fisher wrote about it in one of her autobiographical texts, The Princess Diaries, and it sounds like it was devastating for her.
But, while I resent Harrison Ford for hurting one of my idols, I STILL admire him for his activism. We need more charismatic people to speak out. People listen to charismatic people to a scary degree as we all learned in 2016. Harrison's private life sounds fishy to me, yes, but his public message is great. So whatever: maybe he does fly on private jets. Maybe my carbon footprint is "better" than his for that reason. (I guess it probably is, as I haven't gone anywhere in years. Partially, because I've been learning about living more sustainably, but also because we've been investing in our garden and home instead of traveling. I could pretend I'm terribly virtuous, but really I'm just terribly thrifty.)
Anyway, guess what: even if Harrison Ford never flew in another private airplane or never flew one of his dinky vintage planes again, it wouldn't move the needle on climate change. Not one bit. That's because, as Bill McKibben put it, "...atmospheric physics and chemistry don’t give you points for doing the right thing — they only care about how much carbon is in the atmosphere. We have so little time that we can’t waste any of it. Screw in a new light bulb? Sure. Screw in a new global treaty? Now we’re talking."
Harrison Ford has managed to save more than one world in less than 90 minutes. Heck yes, I'm hoping he manages that feat one more time again.
That's why I'm adding my efforts to his. Will you?
1. The Messy Truth About Carbon Footprints
2. Multiplication Saves the Day
3. Big oil coined ‘carbon footprints’ to blame us for their greed. Keep them on the hook
4. The Carbon Footprint Sham: A Successful, Deceptive PR Campaign