Shell Oil Preaches Personal Responsibility

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Shell Oil refinery near New Orleans
Shell Oil refinery near New Orleans.

Charles Rotkin/ Getty Images

Treehugger emeritus Sami Grover and I often argue about personal responsibility, and about whether our actions matter in a world where supposedly 100 companies are responsible for 71% of carbon emissions. I have written that individual responsibility matters, that "if we are going to get through 2030 without cooking the planet, that means thinking about our consumption habits." I disagreed with Sami when he wrote:

"Contrary to popular belief, fossil fuel companies are actually all too happy to talk about the environment. They just want to keep the conversation around individual responsibility, not systemic change or corporate culpability."

Sami reminded us that oil companies have been doing this for years; "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." I thought he was overstating the case about BP. And then along comes Shell Oil with a poll asking people what they would be willing to change.

It didn't get a lot of votes, and the results were no surprise; switching to renewable energy, the most popular answer, doesn't involve giving anything up or taking any real personal responsibility. But the reaction must make Sami proud; everyone is piling on in the comments, 7,300 at last count, almost entirely negative and unquotable on a family-friendly site like Treehugger.

Many of the objections have to do with the shifting of responsibility from the oil company to the consumer, with Professor Katherine Hayhoe tweeting "What am I willing to do? Hold you accountable for 2% of cumulative global GHG emissions, equivalent to those of my entire home country of Canada. When you have a concrete plan to address that, I'd be happy to chat about what I'm doing to reduce my personal emissions."

Meanwhile, the CEO of Shell, Ben Van Beurden, blames “consumers who choose to eat strawberries in winter" and "a throwaway culture" for our problems, which, I have to admit, I complain about too. Mr. Van Beurden conspicuously does not complain about inefficient pickup trucks, making his arguments sound particularly self-serving.

However, a good number of the responses to Shell include the "100 companies responsible for 71% of emissions" thing, which I continue to believe is a distraction when the vast majority of those emissions come out of the tailpipes of our cars. I have written that "we are responsible, with the choices we make, the things that we buy, the politicians we elect. We are buying what they are selling and we don't have to."

The Shell poll looks pretty silly right now – in the midst of pandemics and elections, worrying about living the 1.5-degree lifestyle and not eating California strawberries in winter doesn't seem to be the most important thing on anyone's mind. I reached out to Sami Grover to get his thoughts:

“Two things can be true at once. Shell Oil has no place asking us about our personal carbon footprints, and also we should probably be asking ourselves about our own carbon footprints. Where it gets murky is how much we should be focusing on each other – and certainly on pointing the finger. Because that can quickly derail the movement.”

He's right, it is no time for finger-pointing. I think I will close with a quote from journalist Martin Lukacs, who wrote about the subject a couple of years ago, about how we have to do both:

"So grow some carrots and jump on a bike: it will make you happier and healthier. But it is time to stop obsessing with how personally green we live – and start collectively taking on corporate power."