I’m tired of being told leave my car at home, to eat veggie burgers and to use less plastic. Why? I already do all that. I (sometimes) leave the car engine off; I do eat lots of veggies, by the way; and I carry a reusable shopping bag folded up in my handbag wherever I go. My exasperation lies in the fact that despite all that I do (note: as I live in Abu Dhabi, not driving doesn’t always work if the only way to get somewhere otherwise is by taxi), the planet is still in trouble. So, clearly, all my efforts toward conscious consumerism are not having any effect. I am not discouraged. I will continue to do my part. But let’s not pretend that I, one person (or indeed, “we” the global collective), am going to have some huge, outlasting effect on the environment when most industries remain unfazed by my altruism.
This month, South Korea hosted the 48th session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Throughout its existence, the IPCC has consistently dealt out bad news. Its refrain is that the world is not in great shape. Change your industry practices, it says. But apparently, most big companies and the global policymakers who regulate them are surly hedonistic teenagers who would rather enjoy the current moment than think about our collective global futures.
Forty-eight neglected sessions later and the IPCC is no longer warning policymakers about the dangers of climate change. It has given them an ultimatum: if we don’t reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in the next 12 years, irreparable damage will be done to some ecosystems.
Perhaps it isn’t fair to infantilize policymakers, especially those of developing nations that are depending on industrialization to build their economies. It’s easy for someone like me, an American consumer, to disparage a nation like China that has the highest greenhouse gas emissions in the world. What I’m forgetting is that only two centuries ago the United States depended on fossil fuels to industrialize and develop its economy. We don’t get a moral pass just because we were the first polluter.
However, all of the complexities of global policymaking aside, I don’t understand why anti-climate change campaigns single out the consumer. Almost every eco-campaign is directed at us, the ordinary patron of minute amounts of consumption goods. On the other hand, according to the IPCC, we need to completely change our industrial practices in order to stop committing environmental damage.
That, of course, does not and should not stop the consumer doing the right thing. Still, as much power as the consumer has (supposedly), we don’t have direct control over industrial practice. We can put pressure on businesses to change their practices by boycotting and lobbying, but at the end it’s in the hands of the corporate leaders and the government entities that regulate them.
Even if every government banded together to save the environment it is unclear how some would start. Countries like China rely on fuels that create these harmful emissions. And as the former worst polluters from a century or two ago, the developed world can’t just say to the developing one to just stop developing. In addition, developed nations like America have a consumption-based economy that doesn’t encourage big businesses to use alternate eco-friendly practices. It’s time to turn the heat on the ultimate perpetrators of our environmental destruction: big business and policymakers.
I will always think twice about whether or not I need to drive. I enjoy my vegan diet so that’s not even a decision I have to ponder. And I have plenty of sustainably made shopping bags if you’d like to borrow one. But I don’t think you and I, even multiplied several billion times, are enough to stop the planet going from a simmer to a boil. Really, it does not matter how many times I refuse a plastic bag, if the major grocery store chains don’t start taking the environment into account in all the other areas of their business.