Who’s to Blame?

Often you hear people say “our emissions are…” or “we are producing…” However the usage of the term “we” is almost always questionable. There is a tremendous gap in access to electricity and clean water across the world. Within countries as well, often a small minority owns and has control over many more pollution sources, either directly or indirectly. A recent study showed that the richest 1% of people on the planet cause more heat-trapping pollution than the bottom 50%. Humans across the planet are not all equally responsible; there is no single “we” when it comes to blame.

Even the notion of the “carbon footprint,” an individual’s responsibility for their contribution to global heating, is the result of a fossil fuel ad campaign. The oil company BP first proposed the idea of a carbon footprint in a large ad campaign in 2005. The corporate strategy of shifting blame to consumers is an attempt to distract from the political change that is required for real progress to be made. Any policy change would obviously come at large expense to the industry’s bottom line. And industry typically invests heavily in lobbying to prevent any such real change from occurring.

Industry wouldn’t invest in misdirection campaigns if they didn’t work. The history of this technique goes back at least to 1971, when, in response to rising public concern about environmental damage following the first Earth Day, the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign launched. The famous “Crying Indian” ad, featuring an actor who falsely claimed Indigenous heritage his whole life, despairs at litterbugs, as the voiceover reads “People start pollution, people can stop it,” is one of the most remembered ads of the 1970s in the United States. This campaign was funded by the makers of the litter themselves: the plastics industry, and companies such as Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi whose products are ultimately the source of much of the garbage.

Dearborn St. Seattle by Virginia Wright-Frierson

The emphasis on individual footprints has sowed discord within the environmental movement, setting what may seem to be an impossibly high bar of purity for entrance. Any “greener than thou” competition is going to exclude new participants, and this kind of internal division is exactly what fossil fuel executives want to see. Climate justice essayist Mary Annaïse Heglar’s work provides insight into what’s needed from those who feel individually inadequate: “I’m not here to absolve you. And I’m not here to abdicate you. I am here to fight with you.”

Cultural shifts are essential for enacting the scale of change we need, so the movement needs to spread. But barriers to entry need to be dropped, and the ways of interacting need to be welcoming. Projects such as community gardens and mutual aid/sharing networks can be effective at reducing consumption and ultimately fossil fuel use, while building community resilience. Purchasing power should never be a barrier to entry, since so much of the problem is caused by luxury expenditures. Using less, and creating more locally is a great strategy for building the movement to stop the fossil fuel industry.

When we discuss blame from a justice perspective, one should consider both the hierarchy of responsibility, as well as whether policies could be implemented that solve more than one problem at once. Here are a few small examples to consider:

  • How is a renter to blame for high heating emissions when the landlord controls decisions about insulation and efficiency upgrades? Can public investment fix both?
  • How are workers in the fossil fuel industry to blame for extraction when they carry severe health effects from their work? Can we provide a just transition for these laborers?
  • How are industrial agricultural emissions the fault of a consumer when there are inadequate local or fresh food options available in their community? How can we build food sovereignty around the world?

Justice requires taking into account past harm when determining paths forward. In order to have restorative climate justice, it’s important to measure both the harms done to a given group, the lack of benefit to their citizens of the extractive industries, and the culprits that are to blame for the pollution.