How We Got "Locked In" to Fossil Fuel Consumption

CC BY 2.0. Seen on a wall in Rome/ Claire Alter

More on why our personal consumption habits matter in the climate emergency.

The post 'Do personal consumption habits really matter in the climate emergency?' started an intense discussion on Twitter and in comments and drew a fair bit of criticism, which I feel I should address and dig a bigger hole for myself.

Coincidentally, Beth Gardiner, an environmental writer in London, posted an article on CNN titled Why you shouldn't feel too guilty about flying. She flies a lot and and also addresses the question of personal choice.

It's a conversation that is heavily skewed toward individual behavior and personal choice -- how much I fly, what kind of car you drive, whether we've installed efficient light bulbs. And that obscures a much bigger, and more important, picture.

While we fret over our own actions -- and each other's -- we are failing to ponder much more consequential questions about how the systems that shape our lives have led us to this point of crisis. Questions about corporate malfeasance, the power of big money and decades of political failure.

The finding that just 100 companies -- including vast oil and gas concerns -- are responsible for 71% of all greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 has provided a framework for a different way of thinking about this problem.

But if you read the list of the top 100 producers of greenhouse gas emissions here on the Guardian, they are, with (I think) one exception – Maersk, a shipping company that burns a lot of fuel – fossil fuel producers. They don't actually generate most of the CO2; that comes from the users. They make the jet fuel that powers Beth Gardiner's airplane or the gasoline that moves our car or the coal that fires the blast furnace that makes the steel for our new pickup truck or the generator that keeps our billboards lit. They make the petrochemicals that make the single use plastics holding our takeout food.

And every day, we buy what they are selling, either by choice or necessity. Beth Gardiner writes:

"The big polluters' masterstroke was to blame the climate crisis on you and me," said the headline of a Guardian column that summed up the dynamic nicely. And we've fallen for it, spending far too much time worrying about our individual choices and too little demanding the political changes needed to make real progress against this existential threat.

That headline points to a George Monbiot article, in which he states that the biggest and most successful lie is that this crisis is a matter of consumer choice. Companies are excusing their actions by saying "they are not responsible for our decisions to use their products," which is kind of what I am saying. But then Monbiot explains:

We are embedded in a system of their creation – a political, economic and physical infrastructure that creates an illusion of choice while, in reality, closing it down. We are guided by an ideology so familiar and pervasive that we do not even recognise it as an ideology. It is called consumerism. It has been crafted with the help of skilful advertisers and marketers, by corporate celebrity culture, and by a media that casts us as the recipients of goods and services rather than the creators of political reality. It is locked in by transport, town planning and energy systems that make good choices all but impossible.

So we are stuck in a rut. "In such a system, individual choices are lost in the noise." And as a tweeter noted, reiterating Monbiot, a lot of people don't have the ability to chose.

Critic Chris points out that, as Emma Marris noted in the original article, not everyone has these options; many are, as Monbiot notes, "locked in." Chris followed up: "It's also about people in global south, many working poor in global north, people with disabilities: lots of people don't have discretionary income: the impact of their living expenses is out of their control." Point taken; I may be falling into the trap of Jarrett Walker's elite projection, "the belief, among relatively fortunate and influential people, that what those people find convenient or attractive is good for the society as a whole."

But does that mean that we shouldn't try to make appropriate personal choices? Of course not. To a certain extent, we can decide what to consume. To live in a smaller home closer to work. To not eat as much meat. To fly less. And it is beginning to make a difference; it's happening in Europe where short-haul flights are declining and people are switching to trains. They are moving real estate markets in North America. They are changing restaurant menus. Tiny stuff, for sure, but more and more people are doing this. And if I didn't believe that our actions could make a difference, I couldn't continue writing or teaching.

Individual choices are, in fact, never individual. Our votes are individual yet they are the most important choices we make. Individual choices can change governments. They can move markets. They can put those 99 fossil fuel producing companies out of business. Or 98 I should say, as number 72 on the list is Murray Coal, and it just went bankrupt, thanks to changing markets.

Now it is cold and yucky out but I have to get on my e-bike to go teach my class all about living the 1.5 degree lifestyle. I could take a streetcar or even drive, but I am getting on the bike to send a message to my students, to set an example and show solidarity with all the other cyclists out there. It's an individual action, but it matters. And every week, there are more of us.