Taylor Swift has an environmental problem. The singer’s private jet has racked up more air miles than any of her fellow celebrities, according to sustainability firm Yard, dumping tons of carbon into the atmosphere and hastening the demise of our fragile and burning planet. Kylie Jenner – the youngest Kardashian sister – also has a lot to answer for. A 15 minute plane ride? Really?
This kind of news always elicits a fatalistic reaction. Why bother, the argument goes, moderating your own carbon output when celebrities (and even politicians with eco-conscious policy platforms) seem unwilling to make such a sacrifice?
I remember being taught the central importance of recycling in primary school. The practice was never going to be a silver bullet – 10-year-olds don’t generate nearly as much landfill as any business. But the message, that the environment was everyone’s responsibility, was equally important. In the following years, however, the debate has shifted radically.
You can burn tires and heat the coliseum with turf and not make an identifiable dent in the world’s weekly – let alone annual – emissions
Our personal choices no longer matter at all. Instead, “the big polluters’ masterstroke was to blame the climate crisis on you and me” argued George Monbiot in the Guardian. Michael Mann lamented the “industry-funded ‘distraction campaigns’ aimed at diverting attention from major polluters and placing the burden on individuals.” In the Daily Beast, Jay Michaelson said “individual behavior change isn’t action—it’s distraction.” SE Smith wrote an extended essay condemning senseless “personal action” as a solution to the rapidly warming planet.
And Martin Luckaks blamed our favorite scapegoat for everything: “Neoliberalism has tricked us into fighting climate change as individuals”, went the headline.
So much for recycling then, I guess. But the problem with her case is that it is as simple as it is weak. The climate crisis is not the fault of the little guy like you and me, they explain, but corporations, airlines, funny governments and energy providers who elevate profit as their ultimate goal. They can cite the 2017 Carbon Majors report which attributed 70 percent of emissions to just 100 companies.
Nothing they say is technically wrong. We can be sure that one individual changing their habits will not change the trajectory of the planet; and that drastic changes to correct the current apocalyptic prophecies are within the gift of multinationals and governments. You can burn tires and heat the coliseum with turf and not make an identifiable dent in the world’s weekly – let alone annual – emissions.
But rather than progressive or thoughtful, this message is about as solipsistic and individualistic as they come. The fatalists declare that the problem is a “systemic” one, far beyond the scope of the recycling habits of a 10-year-old. But, we can ask what these people think that the so-called system consists of if not people like you and me. The “system” and its members are not separate entities. On what plane should someone operate, so obviously detached from the rest of the world, that none of their behavior matters?
The argument that our behavior is irrelevant because we are not famous like Taylor Swift, selfish like four-by-four drivers, or powerful like Shell is completely moot
In author Annie Lowery’s defense of performative environmentalism—that is, making small personal behavioral changes to offset the climate crisis—she explains that “social change is built on a foundation of individual practice.” Humans are remarkably conventional minded, and behave much more like herd animals than anyone likes to admit. Lowery goes on to cite several studies: the decision of when to have children depends on whether our peers do the same; the tendency to drink also depends on your social circle. “Taxes and Peer Effects,” a 2016 study, found much the same when it comes to paying and reporting your income taxes. Popular teenagers who smoke are more likely to influence their peers to do so as well.
So it seems strange to follow the reasoning of the fatalist. Why shouldn’t individual action on climate change – such as recycling, buying an electric car, giving up short-haul flying wherever possible – be subject to this age-old, well-documented and scientifically supported phenomenon? Our behavior affects the people around us, and in turn, those circles of influence become larger. If we want to throw around terms like “system change”, this is as much a part of it as anything else.
This refusal to believe that personal action matters is not only foolish on a pragmatic level. It shows that we live in an age of chronic self-infantilization. The argument that our behavior is irrelevant because we are not famous like Taylor Swift, selfish like four-by-four drivers, or powerful like Shell is completely wrong. And more importantly: it outsources our moral responsibility to the bogeyman of ‘neoliberalism’, which seeks to absolve us of every kind of sin. Nihilism enters and becomes the guiding principle.
Taylor Swift’s plane may be one of the most well-traveled in the world. But what message would it send to children that everything they do is unimportant because of it?
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