FEATURED IMAGE: Photo by Chris LeBoutillier via Pexels | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: a slightly abstract and colourful image of factory pipes with smoke coming out of them in front of a river with a ship
Chances are, you’ve heard the term “carbon footprint” before. Corporations, governments, schools, celebrities, activists have probably told you that you need to reduce your carbon footprint. But did you know that the term was popularised by the BP—read: an oil and gas company—the sixth-most polluting company in the world, as a greenwashing, PR campaign? In this deep dive, we uncover this not-so-hidden secret, discuss why the concept is problematic, and propose a better way to think about individual action…
“The carbon footprint sham”
Not many people know about the insidious back-story behind the popular term “carbon footprint”. Unsurprisingly, few people have written about it.. anywhere really, aside from this essay, “The carbon footprint sham”, by Mark Kaufman for Mashable (and this video-essay by ClimateTown on YouTube). As Kaufman sums up quite neatly, here’s a brief overview of the sham: “British Petroleum, the second-largest non-state-owned oil company in the world […] hired the public relations professionals Ogilvy & Mather to promote the slant that climate change is not the fault of an oil giant, but that of individuals. […] The company unveiled its “carbon footprint calculator” in 2004 so one could assess how their normal daily life — going to work, buying food, and (gasp) travelling — is largely responsible for heating the globe. A decade and a half later, ‘carbon footprint’ is everywhere.”
So basically, BP popularised the concept of the carbon footprint. (For proof, check out the GoogleTrends of the term “carbon footprint”). “This is,” as Kaufman quotes Benjamine Franta (who researches law and history of science at Stanford Law School), “one of the most successful, deceptive PR campaigns maybe ever.”
What’s wrong with it?
At first glance, the concept of a “carbon footprint” isn’t problematic. Besides, isn’t it great that in the early 2000s, a fossil fuel company wanted to do better, and engage the public in caring about climate change? The short answer to that question? No. The long answer? No, because it assigns responsibility, blame, and burden, to the everyday consumer, who kind of didn’t (and still don’t) have a choice. The company “wanted the public — who commuted to work in gas-powered cars and stored their groceries in refrigerators largely powered by coal and gas generated electricity — to attempt, futilely, to significantly shrink their carbon footprint.”
It’s genius, really, because, as journalist Amy Westerwelt points out, “they can just say ‘Oh well, if you really care then why are you driving an SUV?'” Plus, with this framing, not only do consumers feel bad, but BP can also position itself as a corporation that’s doing something about the problem. Even though, of course, BP didn’t, and doesn’t, actually want to reduce its own carbon footprint. The proof for that claim is this. That BP still produces, Kaufman highlights, “bounties of oil and gas every day (4 million barrels a day in 2005 versus 3.8 million barrels today). In 2019, BP purchased its ‘biggest acquisition in 20 years’ […] In 2018, BP invested 2.3 per cent of its budget on renewable energies. Its bread and butter is still black oil and gas.”
IMAGE: BP | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A cropped version of a 2006 ad by British Petroleum (BP), part of its carbon footprint campaign at the time; the cropped version of the ad is black text in a sans serif font, on a white background, which reads “Reduce your carbon footprint. But first, find out what it is.” with “carbon footprint” highlighted in yellow
Individual consumers as scapegoats
Why isn’t it fair for BP to scapegoat individual consumers? Because the everyday consumer kind of—we’ll get to the nuanced version of this statement later—doesn’t have a choice. We live, Kaufman notes, “in a society largely powered by fossil fuels,” so “even someone without a car, home, or job will still carry a sizable carbon footprint”.
The problem is that we inherited a system. And fossil fuels are embedded into this system. “Just because you can allocate [emissions] to an entity or to a location in a supply chain [i.e., us, the end-consumers],” explains Julia Steinberger, professor of ecological economics at the University of Leeds, “does not mean that the power of agency lies with that entity or that location in the supply chain.” Instead, ask “Who is actually taking the damaging decision?” (That’s fossil fuel companies like BP).
The extent of the problem? Let’s begin to name the uses of fossil fuels in daily life. This shouldn’t make you paranoid about everything you use. Rather, it should make you realise the extent to which these companies embedded themselves into our lives. It starts with powering transport: i.e., gasoline. All kinds of transport: aviation, maritime shipping, cars, etc. A multitude of products, mostly plastics, involve crude oil. Petroleum and natural gas produce electricity, powering entire industries and homes all around the world.
The biggest evidence of this problem is the pandemic (unfortunately). Kaufman explains why: “We were confined. We were quarantined, and in many places still are. […] Many of us dramatically slashed our individual carbon footprints by not driving to work and flying on planes. Yet, critically, the true number global warming cares about — the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide saturating the atmosphere — won’t be impacted much by an unprecedented drop in carbon emissions in 2020 (a drop the International Energy Agency estimates at nearly eight per cent compared to 2019).”
All of this is to say that fossil fuels are everywhere. And fossil fuel companies like BP intended for this (to profit, à la capitalism). So then why is BP scapegoating consumers for its emissions? As the video-essay by Climate Town analogises rather humorously, “it’s kind of like when your mom sends her friend Nancy a birthday card, but then she signs it also from you.” “I was not,” the narrator explains with a “You’re my roll model” card flashed on the screen, “involved in that card, Nancy, and I do not endorse the roll model pun. Nor would I have chosen a Cars 2 novelty stamp.”
In this case, your mom sending Nancy the birthday card and signing it from you is akin to fossil fuel companies making it impossible for us not to consume fossil fuel products, and then saying that we have a choice in reducing our carbon footprint. (We don’t).
An imagined “we”
Not only is BP scapegoating consumers for a problem it created in the first place, but this sort of campaign is also dangerous because it reinforces this non-existent, imaginary “we”. As in, “we” – you, me and BP. Solving climate change together, by reducing “our” carbon footprints. This is alluding to a much bigger narrative problem in the climate change debate. And it’s one that various activists and researchers have spoken about before.
As Genevieve Guenther writes in her essay “Who Is the We in “We Are Causing Climate Change”?”: “Given that climate change is a global problem, the temptation to use we makes sense. But there’s a real problem with it: the guilty collective it invokes simply doesn’t exist. The we responsible for climate change is a fictional construct, one that’s distorting and dangerous. By hiding who’s really responsible for our current, terrifying predicament, we provides political cover for the people who are happy to let hundreds of millions of other people die for their own profit and pleasure.”
Guenther argues, dovetailing nicely with the aforementioned problem of us being embedded in a fossil fuel world: “To think of climate change as something that we are doing, instead of something we are being prevented from undoing, perpetuates the very ideology of the fossil-fuel economy we’re trying to transform.”
Who’s really to blame?
We’d do well to remember that not only did fossil fuel companies like BP embed us into a system we can’t get ourselves out of, they did it while knowing that they would be major contributors to this mess of a climate crisis we’re in. (Hence, we can see BP’s “carbon footprint” stunt as a PR campaign.)
Today, we’re well aware that burning fossil fuels is the leading cause of the climate crisis. Cue: the major report in 2017 that just 100 fossil fuel companies emitted 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions over the past two decades. Also, see the new data in 2019 that revealed just 20 are responsible for a third of emissions. (And yes, BP is on both of those lists).
This data was never always publicly available. Once upon a time, only fossil fuel companies knew. Fun fact: this explains the #ExxonKnew campaign. In 2015, an investigation by Inside Climate News revealed that Exxon knew about climate change for decades. (They even accurately predicted global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels of 2019… in 1982!). And yet, despite knowing about their devastating impact, fossil fuel companies spent time and money on making people doubt the science and influencing how people understand the role of fossil fuels. Specifically, they spent money on a small group of scientists (linked to right-wing think tanks and industry) who have done most of the dirty work. (Historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway wrote an entire book about this called Merchants of Doubt).
As Westervelt explains: “They have put a real emphasis on creating materials for social studies, economics and civics classes that all centre the fossil fuel industry. I think there’s a real lack of understanding about just how much that industry has shaped how people think about everything, and very deliberately so.”
“We’ve seen this manipulative playbook before”
The point is, Kaufman writes: “BP wants you to accept responsibility for the globally disrupted climate. Just like beverage industrialists wanted people to feel bad about the amassing pollution created by their plastics and cans, or more sinisterly, tobacco companies blamed smokers for becoming addicted to addictive carcinogenic products.”
Come again? Big Tobacco? Yes, you heard it right. As Benjamin Hulac explains for Scientific American, from the 1950s onward, oil and tobacco companies were using the same PR companies and research institutes. And they shared researchers too. And they both funded the Stanford Research Institute (which split from Stanford University in 1970), which generated research for them. But the difference between Big Tobacco and Big Oil? We’ve punished one disinformation campaign. And we haven’t punished the other.
In 2006, Maxine Joselow writes for E&E News, “a federal judge issued a scathing ruling that would reverberate across the country.” That is, Judge Gladys Kessler found the largest US tobacco companies and their trade associations guilty of misleading American consumers about the harms of cigarettes and the addictiveness of nicotine. The parallels, Joselow notes, to fossil fuel companies, are striking. “Big Tobacco had to pay $206 billion,” Joselow headlines her story. “Is Big Oil next?” Notably, though perhaps unsurprisingly, fossil fuel companies reject the comparison. They argue that they shouldn’t be punished for providing an essential service—energy.
At what cost?
That’s probably why BP wanted to rebrand themselves as Beyond Petroleum. They wanted people to see them for what they were providing. But at what cost does this form of energy come at? For one, of course, there are the emissions that fossil fuels are responsible for. Which means they’re big contributors to climate change, global warming, “natural” disasters, etc. Then there are also devastating environmental costs. To nearby natural environments, detrimental to human, plant and animal life. We’re talking about the destruction of ecosystems. Impact on the soil, water bodies, forests. Toxic chemicals and radioactive materials. Noise and habitat fragmentation. Oil spills, gas leaks, air pollution. Natural resource use and waste. All extensively studied and explained here.
But the human cost is more damning. As written by activist Summer Dean for Intersectional Environmentalist: fossil fuels’ “very existence depends on the suffering of black and brown people. […] Fossil fuels tear apart communities of color and fill their air with toxins, causing severe health problems. Oil companies displace indigenous communities in the global south for the oil and gas that wealthier nations in the global north consume. Fossil fuels fill our atmosphere with carbon, which causes climate catastrophes that then impact those same communities the worst.”
The conclusion from this is this. When fossil fuel companies like BP tell you that we’re in this together? That you should be responsible too for the climate crisis we’re in? When it popularises the “carbon footprint” to make you shoulder the burden? We have to see it for what it’s doing: a big fat PR campaign.
The cherry on top
Here’s the cherry on top for this PR campaign. The concept of the now-popularised “carbon footprint”, makes us—the actual we—hold each other to unrealistic expectations. We end up, as Céline Semaan, Executive Director at The Slow Factory, and Molly Kawahata, former Obama White House Energy and Climate Advisor, explain in their recent IG live, “policing one another for not being the perfect climate activist”. Which “is counterproductive and benefits the fossil fuel lobby”.
We cannot let ourselves be at each other’s throats over a question of personal and moral ethics. We cannot reduce the climate fight to that. As Alexis Shotwell argues in Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times, “personal purity is simultaneously inadequate, impossible, and politically dangerous for shared projects of living on earth.” Instead, “if we want a world with less suffering and more flourishing, it would be useful to perceive complexity and complicity as the constitutive situation of our lives, rather than as things we should avoid”.
Shotwell, who is a professor of sociology, anthropology and philosophy at Carleton University, elaborates on this state that we’re collectively in presently, which she calls “purity politics”. This is bad. For one, as explained earlier, it’s not possible for us to achieve personal purity. In this case, because we’re embedded into a system, where every choice we make has been decided for us.
Further, as she explains in this interview, “it’s not politically useful. It doesn’t do us any good to aim for individual purity. When we start doing that, we become solipsistic, we become narcissistic, we become very focused on our own personal little thingy and that means that we don’t aim to make systemic, bigger changes. Aiming for that kind of individual absolution—as soon as we mess up, and as soon as someone points out that we’re actually still connected and implicated, we might be tempted to give up at that point.”
Do individual actions matter?
This is, in the end, the million-dollar question. (Now this is where the nuance you were looking for is).
Shotwell’s critique of purity politics seems to imply that individual actions don’t. But that’s not exactly it. Rather, it’s to say that the extent to which we are policing each other has become not useful. At this point, we’ve started caring more about what we individually are doing (or not doing). We end up holding activists, or people who want to be, too much higher standards than even politicians. And we disregard their message, as long as they’re not squeaky-clean, perfect environmentalists.
Not to mention, this policing often doesn’t recognise positionality. The hard truth is that being able to make ethical decisions come with privilege. You can go vegan? Great. But that’s because you have the time to plan. You can afford vegan options. And those vegan options are accessible to you. You can ride a bike to work? Great. But that’s because you live in an area where riding a bike is possible. You can afford owning a bike. And you don’t have to travel long distances to work.
And so on, and so on, and so on. For added nuance though, here’s something else to consider. Of course, we have to make more ethical decisions if we can. Certainly, if you’re privileged enough to make those ethical decisions, you probably need to make those decisions. Cue research about wealthy people and their carbon footprints: the richest 10% of consumers produce 50% of global emissions every year, and consume around 20 times more energy than the poorest 10%. These are the people who are, as Guenther reminds us, “taking multiple long-haul flights for pleasure travel, heating their homes instead of putting on a sweater, and driving swollen SUVs that they replace every few years.” Do we then blame them? Should we hold these people to a standard then?
Yes and no…
Steinberger, who co-authored the paper with the second finding mentioned above about wealthy people, says this. “If you’re rich enough to afford a big car, you’re also rich enough not to afford a big car. If the lifestyles that rich people choose to lead are very ostentatious and wasteful, they definitely have responsibility over this.” And “if we’re talking about who has the power to make decisions, it’s probably rich people in different roles.” As in, they have more ability to influence policy. (We’ll get to this in a bit).
So we should hold them to a standard, right? Well… not quite. Steinberger tells Timperley, it’s also a no, “because even high consumers live within a system that enables, and even rewards, their consumption.” This is not an excuse for wealthy people, especially not for the ultra-rich. But it is to say that we all live in a system, and the answer is not yes, nor is it no.
As always, it is about nuance. So what do we do?
Reframing the “carbon footprint”
“Carbon footprint” is here to stay. For better, or worse. So we need to expand the meaning of the term beyond what BP wanted it to mean. And we have to keep in mind two key perspectives.
The first, as Shotwell recommends, we should probably try to give up personal purity. Besides, doing so “liberates us from feeling like we have to do everything ourselves”. The weight of the world’s problems aren’t on our shoulders. This doesn’t mean we don’t have any ethical obligation. But rather, we’re turning to distributed ethics. “The ethical obligation,” she explains, “becomes not ‘How am I going to solve all these huge and enormous things,’ but instead ‘What can I work on? What’s within my reach? What am I connected to?'” This helps us keep in mind the positionality of folks. Those who can leverage their positions in the system and those who are more privileged can act.
The second, as Timperley points out: “The real importance of studies showing individual carbon footprints is not to point the blame at certain consumers”. Rather, it’s “to shed a light on the best way to make policies to cut emissions.” Meaning: we should be looking at strategies to enable better individual ethical choices. What does this look like? Making individual action more accessible. Legislation for ethical investments. Public transport. Renewable energies. More sustainable food options. More transparency in supply chains. That means voting for leaders who have these plans or pushing existing leaders to include these plans.
Part of this, of course, is also making these choices when you can. Making everyday choices towards a more ethical life is important. Again, especially so if you’re wealthy enough to make unethical choices. But there are particularly powerful individual actions one can take. Voting is one of them, divesting from banks is another. And if you’re influential enough to have a voice at an institution: use it.
Other individual actions matter too if they’re aimed at the collective. This looks like legislation against fossil fuel companies. Justice for communities directly impacted by fossil fuel companies. And communities indirectly impacted by them (via global warming). Get involved with organisations that are doing this, or support them financially. Or with your skills!
And finally, remember that fighting the climate crisis requires fighting many other things. As Dean writes: “It is impossible to separate the ideas of white supremacy and fossil fuel violence because they are deeply layered and interconnected.” So confronting white supremacy at an individual and community level helps. So does resisting the current “crisis of separation”. Resisting productivism and the logics of capitalism. Resisting the patriarchy, racism, and everything in between.
We can dream bigger
There are so many places to start, and in truth: all action is individual action. It starts with you, and ends with the system. It shouldn’t start with you, and end with another person. Individual action is the low-hanging fruit. We’re at a point in the climate crisis where we can’t be dreaming so small anymore. We can’t be fighting each other anymore either. So we need individual action, but the kind that acknowledges we live in a system. The kind that acknowledges not everyone can, nor should be, perfect.
That’s the kind of individual action that will change the world. We can do better. Together.
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