No, the Term 'Carbon Footprint' Is Not a Sham

Personal actions and the size of your carbon footprint matter.

Child doing recycling symbol
Start the brainwashing about recycling when they are young.

Adam Hester Getty Images

It is the most recycled story on the internet: The 1971 notorious "Crying Indian" public service announcement shows how consumers are manipulated by big business. Heather Rogers described it in her book "Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage" in 2006. We first wrote about it in 2008 and have been saying it ever since.

Now, yet another article in Business Insider claims it inspired the oil companies to use the same tactic: to invent the "carbon footprint" to shift responsibility from the producers to the consumers, and points to a Mashable article called "The Carbon Footprint Sham." Mark Kaufman writes about BP's marketing, called "one of the most successful, deceptive PR campaigns maybe ever" and "there’s now powerful, plain evidence that the term 'carbon footprint' was always a sham."

As someone who has just written a book about measuring and reducing one's carbon footprint, I have a dog in this fight and believe it is time to stop it with this sham talk. Kaufman even ends up there, after his first suggestion about voting—we have seen how effective that is—and then says OK, put solar panels on your roof and buy an electric car. I have written about this on Treehugger many times, but here's an excerpt from "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle" where I talk about the Crying Indian ad and BP.

Why Individual Actions Matter

BP ads
BP ads from around 2010.

 British Petroleum

My colleague at Treehugger, Sami Grover, wrote a few years ago:

"This is actually why oil companies and fossil fuel interests are all too happy to talk about climate change—as long as the focus remains on individual responsibility, not collective action. Even the very notion of “personal carbon footprinting”— meaning an effort to accurately quantify the emissions we create when we drive our cars or power our homes—was first popularized by none other than oil giant BP, who launched one of the first personal carbon footprint calculators as part of their “Beyond Petroleum” rebranding effort in the mid-2000s."

The climate scientist Michael Mann said much the same thing in Time Magazine, noting that “there is a long history of industry-funded ‘deflection campaigns’ aimed to divert attention from big polluters and place the burden on individuals.”

He raises the valid point that many of these campaigns for individual actions are organized by big business, which is certainly true; the best example is the obsession with recycling, which I have described as “a fraud, a sham, a scam perpetrated by big business on the citizens and municipalities of America.... Recycling is simply the transfer of producer responsibility for what they produce to the taxpayer who has to pick it up and take it away.”

Not only have the industries that have thrived on the linear take-make-waste convinced us to pick up their garbage, but a recent survey found that 79.9% of people around the world are convinced that it’s actually the most important thing we can do for our planet.

Recycling solved a big problem for industry; like the earlier “Don’t be a litterbug” campaigns, it shifted responsibility from the producer to the consumer. Carbon footprinting is thought by some to be similar, especially when you see BP trying to make us feel responsible for our fossil fuel consumption instead of blaming them.

But BP didn’t invent the carbon footprint; it was one of a few footprints that were part of the “ecological footprint” developed by William Rees of the University of British Columbia and Mathis Wackernagel. BP just co-opted it, and that is not a reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I believe it is just as dangerous and counterproductive to suggest that individual actions don’t matter very much, as Michael Mann does:

"Individual action is important and something we should all champion. But appearing to force Americans to give up meat, or travel, or other things central to the lifestyle they’ve chosen to live is politically dangerous: it plays right into the hands of climate-change deniers whose strategy tends to be to portray climate champions as freedom-hating totalitarians."

If we are worried about playing into the hands of climate-change deniers, then we have already lost. They already think we hate their freedoms; as Sebastian Gorka, former Deputy Assistant to Donald Trump, said about the Green New Deal: “They want to take your pickup truck. They want to rebuild your home. They want to take away your hamburgers.” It’s true; we do. However, it is not likely to happen in our current political system, and that doesn’t mean I have to drive an F150 to McDonald's.

Mann instead calls for “political change at every level, from local leaders to federal legislators all the way up to the President.” I agree, but anyone who watched the last American election knows how that worked out—they may have changed the President, but the party of climate deniers and delayers actually increased their control everywhere else. Furthermore, this whole discussion is setting up another diversion, another division. Do we just eat our burgers, drive our pickup truck, and say I’m waiting for system change? Or do we try to set an example?

As Leor Hackel and Gregg Sparkman suggest in a Slate article titled “Reducing Your Carbon Footprint Still Matters”:

"Ask yourself: Do you believe politicians and businesses will act as urgently as they need to if we keep living our lives as though climate change were not happening? Individual acts of conservation—alongside intense political engagement—are what signal an emergency to those around us, which will set larger changes in motion."

Of course, it requires more than individual action; it requires political action, regulation, and education. Perhaps the best example is the campaign against smoking, where we saw what happens when individuals, organizations, and government work together. Smoking was promoted by the industry, which buried information about its safety and owned the politicians, and fought every change. They hired experts and even doctors to challenge the evidence and deny that smoking was harmful. They had a real advantage in that the product they were selling was physically addictive. However, eventually, in the face of all the evidence, the world changed.

Forty years ago, almost everyone smoked, it was socially acceptable, and it happened everywhere. Governments applied education, regulation, and taxes. There was a lot of social shaming and stigmatizing happening too; in 1988 medical historian Allan Brandt wrote, “An emblem of attraction has become repulsive; a mark of sociability has become deviant; a public behavior now is virtually private.” Instead of virtue-signaling, we had vice-signaling.

But this shift also took a great deal of individual determination and sacrifice. You can talk to almost anyone who was addicted and has given up smoking, and they will tell you that it was the hardest thing they have ever done.

Fossil fuels are the new cigarettes. Their consumption has become a social marker; look at the role pickup trucks played in the 2020 American election. Like cigarettes, it is the secondhand externalized effects that are the motivators for action; people cared less when smokers were just killing themselves than they did when secondhand smoke became an issue. I wonder if at some point the big obnoxious pickup truck won’t be as rare as smokers have become.