When it comes to climate action, there is one narrative I hear more than any other. It’s sad, and scary, and wrong.
This view was epitomised in a social media post I saw a few months ago. “I don’t know if individual action at consumer level does do much until at a huge scale”, wrote its author, with thinly-veiled despair. “But for now it seems like all we have.”
People tell me this all the time. When talking to friends, family, even those who work in the business of planet-saving, I consistently hear this sense of powerlessness in the face of the climate emergency. “Of course I’m scared”, someone said to me recently, “but what can I do as an individual: recycle better? That feels so useless I just prefer not to think about it”.
This narrative is so widespread that even in sophisticated discussions of what “individuals can do to fight climate change”, the recommendations are still stuck on these consumer-level shifts: stop flying, move your money, go vegetarian, give up your car. To be clear, I believe these are admirable things to do. I have done several of them, because I think there is satisfaction and peace to be found in living, as far as possible, in line with your values.
But when seen as your only options, these feel deeply inadequate – for several reasons. Firstly, because your power is limited to the size of your wallet. Even if I swap all my beef burgers for tofu, is it any more than a drop in the ocean of global agricultural emissions? This emphasis on “purchasing power” is also skewed – giving richer people (and those who already have higher emissions footprints) more power to make a difference.
Even if I swap all my beef burgers for tofu, is it more than a drop in the ocean?
Even as a former sustainability consultant, it’s tough to cut through the noise of greenwashing and “eco-friendly” claims. Without standardised carbon labelling, most people don’t have time to select the best option every time. We end up chasing perfection and feeling guilty when we, inevitably, fall short. This points to a broader issue: that making these climate-friendly choices without systemic shifts to support them can be more expensive, time-consuming and difficult.
And on a broader scale, if we believe our consumerist system is partially responsible for climate change, “consuming” our way out of a crisis feels counterintuitive.
Why BP wants to limit your options
If you feel dismayed at your lack of options to end climate breakdown, you are not alone. Research with young adults from six different European countries found that we consistently feel helpless in the face of climate change. We recognise that much power lies with governments and big companies, but we don’t think we can affect their actions. We don’t believe that individual shifts like diet changes are enough to combat the crisis – and many feel they are distractions. But when asked what else we can do, we fall silent.
This sense of choice limitation is troubling. It’s also, as I said earlier, wrong. There are a hundred things you can do that fall outside the “consumer change” paradigm. Some are “radical”: put a lentil in an SUV, shout at your politician on national television, blow up a pipeline. Some are not: bake cakes for your local climate group, write a press release about an upcoming protest, meet with your councillor to demand an end to high-carbon advertising. These are not imperatives, but they are options: real options, that people like you have chosen to take.
However many times you’ve heard it, never forget that BP (supported by PR firm Ogilvy & Mather) created the personal carbon footprint calculator. This may be the cleverest and most destructive act of advertising in human history – and not just for the reasons you think.
This calculator puts the onus, and the guilt, on you to lower your fossil fuel consumption rather than on BP to provide an alternative to fossil fuels. But it also drastically narrows your range of options without you even noticing. Suddenly it’s not a choice between going on a protest and staying home to write an inspirational sitcom about climate revolution. The carbon calculator shrinks your choices to the kinds of change that can be measured with certainty and, by design, disregards those that are dangerously unpredictable. It swaps out revolution for recycling.
We need new stories
In Raveller’s manifesto, we say that we need new stories. We need new stories about the world; what it could look like; what we have the right to hope for. But you and I also need new stories about the options we have available to us; the kinds of people we are.
We can fight back against fossil fuel companies’ attempts to make us feel powerless. One way to do this is remembering a time you’ve done something you considered impossible – whether facing personal tragedy, overcoming school or work challenges, or making sacrifices for people you love. Another is reading stories of evidence-based hope and remembering how much can change in situations that seem unshakeable to those living through them.
We can fight back against fossil fuel companies’ attempts to make us feel powerless
These are desperate times. But in desperation there is huge possibility. Whoever you are, whatever your skills, you are needed. If you’re a musician (or like hitting things loudly), join a protest samba band. If you’re a writer, tell your climate story – and inspire others to do the same. If you live in the UK, challenge your MP to do better on environmental policies. If you’re a worker, campaign for your company to set climate targets or introduce a slow travel scheme.
Over the next few months, Raveller will examine many of these options; helping you decide where to place your time and energy. Some of our suggestions will be safe and sensible. Others will seem ridiculous. We think there is strength to be found in taking on the toxic “common sense” narratives of fossil fuel companies with our beautiful, whimsical imaginations.
In facing the seemingly unfaceable, we stand on the shoulders of giants. These people recognised that the first step to a reimagined world is reimagining the tools we have to bring that world about. They were not constrained by what seemed pragmatic, or even possible. They glitter bombed politicians, sabotaged Barbies, held giant wink-ins to protest homophobic policing and got naked in Barclays.
Let these absurd ideas be the fuel for you to fail better and faster. Don’t get caught up in chasing perfection and don’t be paralysed by the fear of being a hypocrite. Go to a protest, even if you forget your reusable cup. Embrace silliness, and hopefulness, and mistakes.
But above all, don’t let your human possibility be shrunk to the size of a pocket calculator. You are more diverse and more powerful than they could ever imagine.