Climate policy must break with individual fixation – By Daniel Frank Christensen, Cand.mag
The global school strike for climate movement, FridaysForFuture – the latest major manifestation of the climate justice movement – extended beyond the ranks of students in a week of demonstrations, strikes and actions from September 20 to 27 leading up to the UN Climate Action Summit in New York City.
Copenhagen-based progressive communication agency NXT held an event that Friday and featured a sequence of presentations, prose readings, a film portrait of a tree, a collective eco-psalm and discussion, ending with choir singing from the position of jellyfish relishing the benefits of climate change and signaling the perseverance of biology in conditions toxic to other species.
I arrived at NXT that Friday with my five-year old daughter, well prepared with sweets and a screen to keep her entertained while I participated in the event. As we entered the room during the opening presentation, the seats were filled up with a mixed group of people, some younger students, green activists and a handful of adults who gave off airs of professional careers.
Slightly tussled about turning up a few minutes late, we promptly sat down cross-legged on the floor in the corner of the room. I fumbled to set my daughter up with her sweets, awkwardly and noisily opening candy wrappers and finding a cartoon on my phone while curator of the salon, Madeleine Kate McGowan, made introductions. I immediately became aware of my sense of embarrassment about the plastic and use of energy-intensive data streaming and got the feeling that people in the room noticed and made a similar judgment.
The first act of the event began and what turned out to be to event’s main theme came up and perked my ears with immediate relevance to my waste qualms: Personal responsibility and green consumer choices vs. political responsibility and sweeping structural policy changes. I felt somewhat relieved – and then again, not really.
Individual fixation is a distraction
Activist and philosopher Esther Michelsen Kjeldahl, a member of the Danish Green Students’ Movement (Den Grønne Studenterbevægelse), started to speak about the background of her master’s thesis in Philosophy and Public Policy.
Kjeldahl’s thesis made use of an empirical study that measured green consumption identities with actual emissions. The study didn’t find a correlation between green selection and actual lower greenhouse gas emissions. One personal factor that did align with lower emissions, she told, is lower per capita income.
More purchasing power apparently translates into higher emissions. And mainstream political and commercial actors, some feigning a climate conscience, insist on maintaining and even accelerating economic ‘growth’. Higher GDP, some believe, can be decoupled from emissions and resource depletion – albeit with a few clever fixes and innovative updates that incidentally open new growth markets.
Kjeldahl told of a period when she tried to consume green and limit her own carbon footprint through individual choices. She came to consider, however, whether doing so was not only in conflict with the position of the Green Students’ Movement but was perhaps also detrimental to the group’s political aims, which advocate a structural approach through coordinated public policy and shun individual-centered, consumer choice angles.
Small green tips and tweaks abound in daily climate change discourse. Use less toilet paper, don’t preheat ovens, buy LED light bulbs, eat a bit less meat and take fewer plane trips, Kjeldahl relayed. Buy industrial absolution tokens. Convince yourself you’re not to blame. She adds that many of the more effective personal options like going vegan and having fewer children are rarely entertained in mainstream channels.
In a recent article published by Danish newspaper Politiken, Kjeldahl elaborates on this notion of distraction, writing that so many people already do make efforts, often quite self-denying and socially marginalizing, to limit their contribution to the problem. Meanwhile, both the political left and right often scurry to locate hypocrisy in individuals doing what they can to limit their impact.
Critics seem to never fail to point out faults in even the most demanding personal attempts to limit emissions, for instance, the return air travel plans of the sailors who accompanied Swedish activist Greta Thunberg in a sailboat across the Atlantic to New York to speak at the summit. Thunberg has apparently also travelled by train through Germany on electricity fired by RWE’s coal plants. Flawed. Shame. Shut up and eat a cheeseburger!
However noble, the sum of such efforts doesn’t seem to have accomplished much in the material world. Climate-conscious consumption has been around for decades, and there’s still a crisis. Instead, like so much else, responsibility is parcelled up, privatized and monetized, and capital diversifies its assets, selling feel-good consumables and framing the future as the past, just with better stuff – and more of it.
Author and activist Naomi Klein makes a similar point in her new book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal:
“Restricting plastic straws is great, but we also need a ban on those significantly larger cylindrical sucking things. And electric cars? They’re nice if you can afford them, but what we really need is free, zero-emissions public transit, with energy-efficient, nonmarket housing and healthcare steps away,” Klein says.
To illustrate, Norway has the world’s larger per capita electric car fleet but continues to host, support and draw benefits from a giant export-based oil industry. Here, on an individual nation level, we see the problem of taking long greens strides while walking on toxic tar sands. Even if Norway achieved domestic net-zero emissions, it would still be compounding the problem through its exports – not unlike a person cycling to work for a company that contributes to the problem. This also underlines the climate crisis in a globalized world. Fixes only really work if coordinated.
Kjeldahl explains that the fixation on individuals, both as the problem’s source and solution, tends to depoliticize people and obscures their ability to identify the social root of the issue. It also sets them up in a fruitless antagonism with their own conscience and those of others.
Many people at the event repeatedly spoke of ad hominem attacks – a logical fallacy and cheap rhetorical device that seeks to undermine the truth value or moral claim of a proposition indirectly and falsely by attacking the character of the person – often used against people who are vocally concerned about problems like climate change and environmental degradation. Anyone taking an activist position on climate will have to withstand probes into their flawless purity – and any deficiency or inconsistency is then turned against them and used, implicitly, to justify maintaining status quo and all that entails.
Irrespective of how blameless, green and immaculate an individual’s consumption can become, it will literally be in vain if such a position isn’t extended to others and a wider system of resources.
What is effective, Kjeldahl argues, is becoming involved in climate activism to shift public opinion and help urge voters toward electing truly climate-minded representatives and pressuring politicians to implement structural policy changes, for instance, introducing plant-based food in public institutions, expediting electrification of energy infrastructure, setting higher caps on carbon emissions and so forth.
Kjeldahl concludes that personal moral responsibility thus lies in raising one’s voice to demand collective climate action. But she concedes that when people are engaged in green activism, they should still try to limit their personal impact on the environment – but not at the cost of limiting action.
Nothing short of a general strike
The week of protest in September sought to assert such a collective will, aiming for far-reaching political shift by means of a practically forgotten political tactic: The general strike, a critically large and vital part of a population and labor force refusing to operate as usual until concessions are made and power lines redrawn.
Whereas the scale, intensity and duration of the Friday protests did not achieve the level of a general strike, the day’s events definitely cemented the global movement’s status as such. According to some accounts, more than six million people participated in protests and strikes during the week, cumulating that Friday. Organizers say the movement has only begun and repetitions are now planned. With enough activism and political organizing, perhaps such a mass mobilization will be possible. Probably nothing short of an international general strike will actually work.
Activists are calling for sincere, effective responses to the global threat of climate change – responses that reach far beyond anything thus far even considered by national governments or companies: Fundamental structural rearrangements in production, distribution, consumption and waste management.
Kjeldahl suggests we start off by showing up to the next climate march. There’s already an event this October 11. I think I’ll show up with my kid and try not to feel so bad about bribing her with candy.