As more and more damning climate change data is revealed, a sense of existential dread is beginning to capture young people’s visions of the future. While the UN Governmental Panel on Climate Change proposed a twelve-year deadline on irreversible climate damage in October 2018, other climate scientists are telling us the even sadder truth: dangerous climate destruction is already here.
Greater environmental awareness has begun to foster anxiety and with it, the feeling of personal responsibility. To young people, the crisis feels like the culmination of our personal failure to go green. For years, it has been drilled into us that making daily environmentally- friendly choices is the key to “saving the earth.” If we buy less single-use plastic and stop idling in our cars, surely our individual contributions will be enough to slow the warming and pollution of the planet, right?
Despite what we’d like to believe, our personal choices as consumers are relatively miniscule in impact when compared to the destructive actions of major producers.
A Dirty Secret
Data shows that the responsibility for a large portion of man-made climate change rests on giant fossil fuel enterprises. A 2017 study from the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) concluded that just 25 corporate and state fossil fuel entities have produced 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. Considering the top 100 producers in all, 71% of total gases can be traced back to their activities.
By 1988, the CDP estimates that companies “knew or should have known” the damage their production was causing to the environment. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that companies were genuinely unaware or even unsure about their contribution to global warming. In 1981, an Exxon scientist reported his predictions to superiors that global temperatures could increase by up to three degrees with rising levels of carbon dioxide. An internal, confidential report from Shell Corporation concluded in 1988 that greenhouse gases were an effect of large-scale fossil fuel consumption and that continued activity would “impact the human environment, future living standards and food supplies, and could have major social, economic and political consequences.”
Not only did Shell and other major corporations ignore scientific warnings, they spun peer-reviewed data and analysis as “unreliable” and lobbied heavily to oppose environmental policy. The corporate-funded Global Climate Coalition organized with climate deniers to leverage wealth and resources against greenhouse gas regulation. Soon, more and more organizations began to covertly fight their own battles against science and climate policy.
Other major corporations also play a role in the degradation of the environment. In the last year, nearly 10,000 volunteers under the Break Free From Plastic movement conducted a “brand audit” while cleaning nearly 200,000 pieces of plastic. Surveying 42 countries on 6 continents, they found that the greatest contributors to plastic waste were Coca Cola, Pepsico, Nestlé, and Danone. Coca Cola products were found in 40 of 42 countries evaluated and even in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. While Coca Cola and others have pledged to introduce more recyclable plastics, as the brand audit report points out, “recyclable does not equal recycled.” Sure, buying less Coca Cola can be a helpful personal choice. But with the corporation making $31.9 billion using 3 million tons of plastic in 2018 alone, one less bottle of Coke fails to make a dent in their profits.
It’s on us. Or is it?
Why should young people obsess over individual environmental responsibility when corporations and state entities have yet to substantively address their own damages? Despite the overwhelming statistics supporting producer-driven climate damage, an entire culture has been constructed around the idea of going green—and corporations are buying in.
The “reduce, reuse, recycle” that followed us through childhood has morphed into a new online culture of green consumerism. While every other tweet seems to rail against plastic straws, artboard after artboard of green replacements for household items pops up Instagram daily.
Taking individual environmental steps is not unhelpful. Initiatives to reduce unnecessary consumption like using reusable shopping bags, metal straws, and wooden toothbrushes can certainly cut down on personal waste over a long period of time. Carpooling, biking, and going vegan do help reduce an individual’s “carbon footprint.” The actions of major producers, however, cancel out and far outweigh the efforts of individuals to save the earth.
While a 2014 study showed that vegans can output less than half of the CO₂ emissions of heavy meat-eaters, the food production industry itself contributes to only one fourth of global emissions. Another one fifth of U.S. emissions alone come from personal vehicle use. However, major fossil fuel business and state interests have continued to push the global economy toward gasoline and traditional engines. Choosing to personally switch to renewable energy or an electric car is a much more expensive, tedious, and unpopular task than veganism. When the status quo is constructed around companies profiting from destructive practices, the consumer cannot be given full personal responsibility for driving their car to work and eating meat.
Capitalizing on Anxiety
Many people still believe that making more sustainable purchasing choices can help them do their part, but young people especially may struggle with to regularly purchase eco-friendly alternatives. As many young adults struggle to make a living, the cheapest product is often their only choice, “green” or not. With the general public, on the other hand, eco-friendly consumerism has gained momentum. 87% of Americans will reportedly buy a product if a company appears to advocate for an issue they care about. Companies are taking note, continuing to latch onto the trend and make a profit with targeted advertising, even without actually reducing their environmental impact. Often, the truth behind “green” consumerism is that it still benefits corporations, whether or not they are ethical.
Last year, Starbucks famously pledged to eliminate plastic straws from all their locations by 2020. Applause from environmental organizations and celebrities quickly overshadowed the truth behind Starbucks’ “milestone” initiative: the new nitro lids would contain even more plastic, even if recyclable. Coca Cola’s 2020 Sustainability Goals betray the same “eco-ethical” messaging with relatively unimpressive results. Despite allegedly reducing the “carbon footprint of the drink in your hand” by 19% in 2017, Coca Cola’s recovery and recycling rates have stagnated at 59%, far from their less-than-lofty 75% goal. By employing green messaging, destructive corporations succeed in making consumers feel less guilty for consumption, while allowing the producers to continue to operate wastefully.
Youth are rightfully troubled about their environment and how their choices affect it. But saving the earth does not come down to to a $60 aluminum water bottle or forgoing a straw at the restaurant, no matter what companies may advertise.
Ultimately, our generation has made great steps in climate awareness and concern for the environment. While it is admirable that individuals pursue vegan, low-waste, or simply “eco-aware” lifestyles, small personal choices will never be able to undo the actions of gigantic producers. Making individual environmental choices should always be done with a keen awareness of the most impactful contributors to climate destruction: the global economy, especially fossil fuel giants and multinational corporations.
To truly begin to address a system that places profit above the safety of our air, water, and living spaces, we as young people must stop blaming ourselves for climate destruction and start advocating to change the way producers manipulate resources and policy. The destruction of our earth is a massive problem requiring massive solutions, mandating a movement of global change, not only of self-awareness. There is nothing wrong with starting small—as long as we think big picture.