I'm Sick Of Being Told I'm Ruining The Planet

If you’re expecting a frothy dig at Greta Thunberg, I’m sorry to disappoint you.

At Montreal's climate change strike on Friday, the 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist put the personal attacks levelled at her and her millions-strong global army of young protesters down to adults disgruntled by the stunning impact their deafening call for action is having.

Be loud, I say. Break the sound barrier. Give the governments around the world a good arse kicking. You’re aiming wide and at the right target.

What I’d like to hear less of is the sanctimonious targeting of individual responsibility for the health of the planet. Virtue signalers, social media eco-warriors, governments, corporations and the media call on each of us to be superhero saviours of the planet with the list of “don’ts” becoming ever more draconian.

Don’t eat meat, don’t eat dairy, don’t fly, don’t buy new clothes, don’t have kids, don’t drive gas-guzzling cars…

We’re living in a society where a growing pressure-creep has us justifying how  we live our lives to legitimise our green status, or ashamedly lamenting how green we’re not. It’s enough to make you fashion a poison ivy whip to self-flagellate and get a feel for the wrath of mother earth now, rather than later.

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When I go to pick up some meat from the local branch of a supermarket behemoth, I’ve started to side-eye to check if I’m being judged. I’m told by the experts I need to go full vegan if I’m to save the planet and decrease greenhouse gas emissions from livestock farming.

So I’ll leave the eggs on the shelf then and forgo my coffee too -- dairy’s also a no no.

I’ll try and keep my facetiousness in check: the state of the planet is no laughing matter. All I’m calling for is a little more balance, a little more than the suggestion that even skipping my next burger (which are few and far between anyway) will somehow help the Amazon rainforest. Or the idea that meat will be outlawed one day.

Make no mistake, the livestock sector is a substantial contributor of global human-induced greenhouse gases, sitting at 14.5 percent according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations. But the FAO has also stated that the adoption of “climate-smart agricultural practices” could reduce emissions by 30 percent, a data morsel that seems to get maligned in the meat maelstrom.

But by scapegoating meat, as it were, we’re losing sight of the bigger picture says Michael E Mann, Professor of Atmospheric Science at Penn State University and a former contributor to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Scientific Assessment Report.

“The overwhelming source of fossil fuels, 65 to 70 percent, is the burning of fossil fuels for energy and transport,” he told NBC News. “To the extent that we can influence the main slice of the pie, to me that’s much more important.”

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In fact, according to a report by the Climate Accountability Institute, 100 fossil fuel producers have been responsible for more 70 percent of the world’s industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.

Another cause for climate change shamers is the cause célèbre: flying. It may sound like something you need an Allen key for but in Sweden, where the anti-flying movement has really taken off, there’s a name for flight shame: “flygskam”. People around the world are considering their carbon footprint with commercial air flights currently responsible for just over two percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. And virtue signalers can’t get enough of #flygskam , where they make earnest boasts of their environmentally friendly travel practices, spew forth a barrage of statistics and berate frequent flyers.

But as arse-end-of-the-world Australians, the decision not to fly overseas is not so easy.  And even within this big, broad land, it’s not exactly realistic to jump on the tågskryt bandwagon (that’s Swedish for “train brag” where people encourage travelling by train over plane).

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Some studies have shown that guilt-tripping doesn’t work in encouraging people to voluntarily change their behaviour for the good of the planet. But positive reinforcement does. Research by the University of California, San Diego found that framing the causes of climate change as a collective responsibility over a personal one increased donations for climate change advocacy in the general public by 50 percent.

Meanwhile, a Princeton University study of almost 1,000 participants found that guilt-based pro-environment messaging had the potential to backfire because “some people react badly and get defensive when they’re told they should feel guilty about something, making them less likely to follow a desired course of action.”

Several climate scientists and activists argue that focussing on individual responsibility for climate change action deflects attention away from the major culprits of global warming, and the need for systemic change.

Mary Annaïse Heglar, director of publications at the environmental advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council in New York and a climate justice essayist, compares the approach to “sweeping leaves on a windy day”.

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“While we’re busy testing each other’s purity, we let the government and industries -- the authors of said devastation -- off the hook completely,” Heglar wrote in an essay for Vox earlier this year.

Climate scientist Anders Levermann of Potsdam Institute believes the emphasis on individual responsibility is counterproductive.

Give the governments around the world a good arse kicking. What I’d like to hear less of is the sanctimonious targeting of individual responsibility for the health of the planet. (Image: Getty)

“It suggests that all we have to do is pull ourselves together over the next 30 years and save energy, walk, skip holidays abroad, and simply ‘do without’,” he wrote in The Guardian. “But these demands for individual action paralyse people, thereby preventing the large-scale change we so urgently need.”

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I’m not advocating we absolve ourselves of personal responsibility. There’s more we can all do, there’s more I can do. But nitpicking and berating each other for the 'greenness' of the choices we make is only wasting time. And we have precious little of that.