2023 was set to become the hottest year on record. Carbon dioxide levels are at their highest point in history. Heat waves and wildfires are scorching our planet… Need I go on? It is impossible to turn a blind eye to the climate crisis we face today. And many of us aren’t—we feel we are doing our part, whether that be bringing a water bottle to class or using public transit more.
These micro actions tend to have little impact on the planet’s health, and remove the blame from corporations that are responsible for the majority of fossil fuel emissions. More so, most environmental activism is performative, and does more harm than good—it eases our consciences while excusing us from getting outside to protest these destructive corporations. It is time to ask: Are the green choices we make helping to save Earth, or doing more for our ego?
“It is time to shift from virtue-signaling to making real change,” says Dennis Baldochhi, the Executive Associate Dean of Rausser College of Natural Resources and a Professor of Biometeorology here at Cal.
Focusing on individual actions to save the world will not be enough. 76% of greenhouse gas emissions come from energy produced by fossil fuel companies that are supported by the government. Many large companies also mislead the public to think that they are doing more for the environment than they really are. This deceptive tactic, referred to as greenwashing, causes consumers to trust companies that are falsely pledging to reduce their emissions or lying about how “eco-friendly” a product is. We tend to shame individuals for not spending a little extra on that green label. Under capitalism where the main goal is profit, companies produce more and more to usurp each other in the competition for gains. Pro-capitalist rhetoric that encourages people to buy into this game (the pun is not lost on me) adds to the collapse of the environment. Companies know that people who have the means will spend a little more on an allegedly eco-friendly product. Consumers feed into this cycle by doing so without researching the company or the product, then making others feel bad for not doing the same. Our energy should be placed elsewhere: shaming the companies that are being intentionally vague in their claims in order to shift blame to the consumer. In a world that cannot sustain endless production, the limitless creation of goods must be inhibited, not encouraged.
This is what corporations want. By deflecting the blame, big companies ensure that consumers are wrapped up in their own webs of guilt and finger-pointing. This web is also ridden with classism and racism; many people cannot afford to go vegan, or to give up travel for the year. Scolding people for using plastic straws, for instance, is ignorant. But it is even worse than that—it’s a cop out.
When consumers feel that they have done their part for the day, whether on social media or in the store, they sit back and feel satisfied rather than engaging in real activism. When we focus more on who is woke or who is bad, we stop showing up to fight—falling right into large corporations’ traps. Arguably, performative environmentalism is more detrimental than silence.
There are underreported efforts that are making a difference. Indigenous communities across the world take the lead in climate action. Locally in Northern California, the Karuk tribe released a climate adaptation plan, urging people to return to prescribed burning to minimize wildfires. In Washington, the Tulalip tribes are helping to move displaced beavers from urban areas to watersheds where they traditionally help in decreasing the river’s temperature and support salmon livelihood. These initiatives by Native populations are largely overlooked, but they are what makes a true difference unlike pro-capitalism “green” changes.
What the planet needs is legislation and structural reform. Baldocchi emphasizes that we must invest in infrastructure rather than feel-good solutions. Fossil fuel divestment campaigns are a great way to urge larger corporations to move their money out of the industry and hopefully towards renewable energy. Activists, especially those that come from privilege, must commit to efforts that aid the environment instead of perpetuating a cycle of division from above.
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