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We Didn’t Start the Fire: Personal Responsibility and the Climate Crisis

Adam Percival

Recycling and the carbon footprint. From the yellow and blue bins found in most homes and public places to the recent critical eye cast onto the carbon footprint of acclaimed celebrities, these are two of the most abundant reminders of having a personal environmental impact that you will find in your day-to-day life. Counterintuitively however, it has been some of the world’s most prolific polluters who have also been some of the biggest influencers in trying to hold people individually accountable to recycling and lowering their personal carbon footprint. Let’s explore why that might be, through the examples of BP and Coca-Cola.

A trivia fact that might surprise some people is that it was BP who popularised the idea of a carbon footprint in a 2004 ad campaign, complete with a carbon calculator to ‘drive down your carbon footprint’. The carbon footprint concept, while useful as a quantitative measure of your impact on the environment, runs the risk of having a more concerning dual purpose of diluting the pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions away from the most major producers and out onto the individual. If intentional, it is undoubtedly a clever marketing technique, and a divide-and-conquer strategy that can help big polluters to avoid public and political pressure to change. It is hard to critique a company for environmental wrongdoing when you and everyone that you know are complicit in the problem (although admittedly to a much smaller extent). If not, the consequence is still much the same, acting to take the pressure from producing vast quantities of carbon emissions off of petroleum companies and placing that blame onto everyone. The average Australian produces around fifteen tonnes of CO2 per year, while BP alone directly produces 55 million tonnes annually, and indirectly almost eight times that amount. Combined, this totals over twenty-eight million times the average Australian’s annual carbon emissions, and these numbers don’t exactly give credence to the idea that it’s the failures of individuals that are at the forefront of the climate crisis.

This dilution of corporate responsibility is not an uncommon problem as the world tries to move towards a more sustainable future. Another notable example, Coca-Cola, has funded many ad-campaigns showing off the recycling and sustainability projects they have been heading up, including lobbying for curbside plastics pickup programs (which, notably, is another campaign that puts the public into the driver’s seat instead of the company itself). At face value, these are exactly the movements you want to see from an influential global corporation. However, 2021 saw Coca-Cola maintain the damning title of the world’s worst plastics polluter for the fourth year running. More broadly, the plastics industry has been involved in multiple controversies around the usage of the ‘chasing arrows symbol’, a symbol widely associated with the recyclability of a plastic good, and yet which in reality makes no guarantee that the good will be - or even can be - recycled. In America less than 10% of plastics are actually recycled; the vast majority end up in landfills, and yet the plastics industry has lobbied to have the opaque symbol be placed on 100% of their products.

The unfortunate byproduct of many of these campaigns is the implicit statement that you are at fault, that you are a part of the problem if you don’t strictly adhere to the recycling and carbon footprint minimisation suggested to you by the world’s biggest polluters. To an extent, they are right; personal responsibility is vitally important. As the world warms it is going to take a unified effort involving everything from sorting your bottles to shutting down oil rigs to avoid the worst outcome. However, the concept of personal responsibility is not and should not be allowed to become an opportunity to obfuscate corporate inaction. Every person has a dual responsibility: one to hold themselves and those around them to account, and another to hold to account the companies that produce enough pollution to rival nations.

The message taken from this article should not be that personal responsibility is a bad thing, or that there is nothing we can do to make an impact in the face of massive corporate pollution. It is simply that responsibility is proportional, and that environmental problems need to be traced to their source before they can begin to be truly solved.

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