I don’t remember when I first heard of the Carbon Footprint. But over the years, the idea escalated from a troubling thought into an obsession. The average American puts 16 tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year. That is 4 times the global average, and 16 times more emissions than people in the global South. By simply existing in the place I was born, I am contributing exorbitant amounts to the destruction of the atmosphere that my daughter, and all the other beings on the planet, will need to survive.
The more attention a (struggling to remain) middle class American like me puts towards the Carbon Footprint, the more overwhelming the predicament becomes. I have spun myself into circles trying every lifestyle change I can manage to reduce my personal contribution to the impending climate apocalypse. I avoid buying new things. I reuse and recycle. I minimize single-use plastic consumption. I shop local. I drive a hybrid vehicle, because I cannot afford to buy fully electric. I use only clean power sources at home and in my office. I compost. I invest my pension in a fossil fuel free ESG fund. I eat no beef and I am trying really hard to minimize my dairy consumption.
Dairy is an excellent example of my personal Carbon Footprint labyrinth. I admit, I love it. It is comfort food. Since I don’t eat beef, is it morally acceptable to continue eating dairy? What if I cut out chicken too? What if I eliminate milk but keep my favorite cheeses? I’ve tried every milk substitute. Almond is out of the question; its water-heavy production is wrecking CA farmland during the megadrought. Coconut is my favorite flavor, but so over-exploited since coconut water became trendy, and shipped from so far away. Oat is probably the most sustainable but my least favorite flavor. After a while any substitute becomes tiring, and I just want good old fashioned milk in my (organic, fair trade, but already heavily guilt laden) morning coffee. Morning coffee, used to be such a simple pleasure back in the carefree days of the 1990s… I will buy milk just this one time, so I can enjoy my coffee again for a few days… well, maybe once more… And on it goes.
The height of this self-torturous thinking trap occurred during the early phase of the pandemic, when bulk bins were closed in grocery stores. I could no longer reuse plastic bags until they crumbled, but had to purchase grains and nuts pre-packaged into containers that soon surpassed even my daughter’s creative forms of usefulness. Sometimes I would spend hours stuck in the store, pondering: do I buy the local item now that it is prepackaged? Do I buy the organic item that came from across the country, also in more plastic than I would wish ? Do I buy the conventionally farmed item that is packaged mostly in cardboard but includes Monsanto GMO grains?
It is a privilege to have so much choice, I know. But a twisted privilege, when we lack good options to choose from. We are enmeshed within a system of seemingly perpetual carbon production, and the journey from complicit to unwilling participant is arduous. Also, it turns out, largely fruitless.
In 2008, MIT students conducted a study in which they concluded that the “floor” of individual carbon production in the United States is 8.5 tons per year. That number represents the estimated amount generated by a homeless person, sleeping in shelters and using soup kitchens for meals. Turns out I was right that by simply existing in the USA, a person generates an untenable amount of atmospheric carbon. The amount of individual carbon emissions the world can afford, to avoid a 2C rise in global temperature? Less than 2 tons per year.
A few months ago, I listened to what might be the single best podcast episode I have ever heard: The How to Save a Planet broadcast entitled “Is Your Carbon Footprint BS?” I highly recommend it. They conclude, after examining the evidence, that there is inherent value in individual actions to minimize our consumption of carbon emitting fossil fuels. I know this to be true from experience. Awareness is the first step to creating change. Recognizing just how much we over-consume, and just how hard it is to create a semi-sustainable lifestyle within this system, is an important learning process.
But more importantly, they argue, we need to advertise our choices, for our power lies in their spread. Here in Northern CA, the collective impact of these individual actions are apparent – especially when we put our vote behind them. For example, the city of San Francisco has eliminated all food service waste – all disposable items are now compostable, and compost bins have replaced trash bins inside establishments. In Sonoma County all of my power is generated from clean sources, because Sonoma Clean Power is an option that the community collectively made available.
But the podcast concludes the now obvious: individual actions to reduce carbon emissions are essentially meaningless. In spite of generating 4x the global average of carbon each year, the individual American is only responsible for .0000000003% of total annual emissions. A fraction so low, that statistically speaking, it is actually zero.
But that is not the real scandal of the Carbon Footprint story. It turns out that the term Carbon Footprint has a nasty history. It was popularized by none other than the oil and gas giant BP.
In the early 2000s, the company formerly known as British Petroleum highered the advertising agency Ogilvy to rebrand their image. They became Beyond Petroleum, and launched the first PR campaign by a fossil fuel company that acknowledged the existence of climate change. “It’s time to go on a low-carbon diet” their website read in 2006, positing themselves as already doing so. This was, of course, pure greenwashing. Their solution to reduce carbon emissions: natural gas. Which, while tacitly better than oil in terms of atmospheric carbon generation (20% better, that is) is devastating to the surrounding land and water in its extraction, and will do nothing to get us to to Net Zero, where we need to be by 2050 in order to avert apocalyptic level catastrophe.
To this day, BP has only invested 2.3% of its budget on renewable energies. But they have been enormously successful in popularizing the Carbon Footprint. The first Carbon Footprint calculator appeared on their website following a campaign that is so Machiavellian in its manipulativeness that I cannot stop ruminating about it. The purpose: to shift the blame for climate change away from oil behemoths like BP, onto the individual consumer.
This tactic apparently had precedent. Beverage production companies applied similar tools in the 1970s. When the bottles and cans they distributed began to overflow onto roadsides and riverbeds, they created a PSA: “People Start Pollution. People can stop it” encouraging individuals to take responsibility for their litter, while completely abdicating responsibility for creating the trash in the first place.
The Carbon Footprint campaign emphasises individual actions as the cause of the problem, and suggests individual actions can be a solution. When in fact, just 100 companies generate 71% of all global carbon emissions. And as of 2019, BP’s place on the list of top polluters is still #6.
Friends, we have been played. I have been I so damn played. I think of all the hours and the energy I have wasted bouncing from guilt to anxiety to despair as I navigated my Carbon Footprint-centered approach to climate action. To what do I owe this regular emotive spin out? To BP and Ogilvy, thank you. That cycle can pull even the most climate conscious of us into spirals of helplessness. Those kind of emotions, left unchecked and unreflected upon, can freeze us. They silence and shame us, isolating us from like-minded community and preventing us from taking even the most basic of effective actions. And that loss of our productive, climate conscious energy serves only the likes of BP.
“Is Your Carbon Footprint BS?” was a life changing listen for me. Their information on the reality of personal carbon emissions was valuable, but not nearly as much as the action they recommend in conclusion: Stop spinning out in the gridlock, and discover how you can best apply your life force to genuinely effective action. Their tool for doing so is the Climate Superpower venn diagram:
My understanding of how I can engage in the Great Turning has expanded exponentially in recent months. I still do every thing in my power to minimize my participation in the fossil fuel economy. But I recognize the limits of this practice. And I have stopped trying to be something I am not – a full time activist – and begun to explore just what I can be. Children of all ages are at risk of getting lost in that cycle of anxiety and despair as they encounter the depth of damage we adults have inflicted upon their biosphere. They, and all of us, will need to maximize our capacity for emotional resilience in the upcoming years. My skills as a trauma therapist and mindfulness practitioner will be much needed. And the more I explore how to integrate my offering into the world of climate activism, the more amazing people I meet, the more inspiring stories I hear, and the more fully immersed in true collective action I feel. To quote Joanna Macy: “In rising to the challenge and playing our best role, we discover something precious that both enriches our lives and adds to the healing of the world.”
BP, I am no longer uselessly spinning my wheels. You do not hold that power over my mind any more.
The beautiful thing about the venn diagram activity is that anything can be a Climate Superpower. We all can find our fit. I will close with an example far removed from my own skill set, but extremely admirable and inspiring. My journey down the rabbit hole of BP’s dirty history led me to discover Brandalism. This group from the UK is working with activists across Europe, such as Adfree Cities and Badvertising, to end misleading advertising on behalf of fossil fuel companies. They hack into digital billboards by roadways and in bus stops, and replace the ads with ones of their own making. This week, their “subvertizing” campaign was directed at ad agencies like Ogilvy, who craft climate crimes from behind the scenes. See below for examples of their brilliance.
When someone brings this brilliance to the United States, I will be there, happy to help them sustain the emotional energy needed for their efforts.
Additional Information on BP and Ogilvy’s great scam can be found here: