As the plane shook violently 36,000 feet in the sky, I gripped onto the plastic armrests and began praying to God. My flight from Tunis to London was not going well. This is what I get for taking my fourth flight in a month, I jokingly thought to myself, I will die in a moment of environmental hypocrisy.
Of course, I didn’t die. But the shame I felt about flying home to visit my parents – a week after flying on holiday and two weeks since leaving Glasgow after the COP26 conference ended – has since stuck with me. I felt dirty getting off the plane that night. I felt like a Polluter.
Once I arrived home, the climate guilt started gnawing at me. So naturally, I checked how big my “carbon footprint” was (a thing we’re told to do to be Good) and did some frantic calculations about how much carbon I put into the atmosphere merely by existing. I added up things like how much energy I use in my house and for travel, as well as how much energy is needed to produce and ship the food I eat, the clothes I wear or to power all my devices.
Despite making endless personal choices, such as going vegetarian, doing my recycling, reducing the number of things I buy, riding my bike everywhere, donating to green charities and organisations as well as constantly trying to learn more about the climate crisis, my carbon footprint calculation still came in at a whopping 10.38 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
To put this into context, that’s over two and a half times the global average (which is around four tonnes per person). It was confirmed: I was a Bad Person and a Hypocrite!
I couldn’t understand how, after making considerable lifestyle changes over a number of years, my existence was so carbon-heavy. So I read up on the carbon footprint and how the term came into existence. And I was shocked to discover that the idea of a carbon footprint was popularised by a fossil fuel giant in 2004. It turns out that British Petroleum (BP) unveiled a carbon footprint calculator that year to essentially divert attention and responsibility from the fossil fuel industry to individual consumers. They did this by convincing people to go on a “low-carbon diet” and many of their campaigns have since focused on the idea of the carbon footprint.
At the time, BP didn’t make any effort into reducing the company’s own carbon emissions and has since expanded its oil drilling well into the 2020s. My jaw? On the floor. The “carbon footprint” is Big Oil propaganda and we’ve all been buying into it for almost 20 years.
Nearly two decades later, the idea of a “carbon footprint” has casually entered our lexicon and always attaches itself to conversations around the climate crisis. If everyone was to reduce their carbon footprints, we’re told, we will save the world from overheating and extinction; the floods, cyclones and forest fires would stop. Who knows? We might even live long enough to see our grandchildren!
I, too, was recently arguing that though large-scale climate efforts are what we need, making better individual choices and therefore reducing our “carbon footprints” wouldn’t hurt.
But I’m beginning to realise that even with this framing, we’re all playing a losing game.
Research from 2008 showed that in America, homeless people – who barely have personal belongings – were indirectly emitting around 8.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. That’s still twice the global average! While in the UK, the average footprint per person, including all greenhouse gases, is around 13 tonnes per year – nearly three times the global average. So how is anyone meant to be making sustainable choices and working on our individual footprints when currently, the largest part of our energy system is made up of fossil fuels, extracted by companies consistently willing to skirt any environmental responsibility?
Many people who care about the environment will know the shameful feeling of climate guilt. For me, it swells in my chest every time I need to buy new clothes, purely because I don’t fit into my old ones. It also weighs heavy on me when I buy fresh fruit or vegetables grown on the other side of the world, shipped to the UK and wrapped in a hundred layers of plastic that may or may not get recycled.
What’s the point of carrying these environmentally-friendly tote bags if the things I’m putting into them are just all made of plastic? I also feel like a sinner each time I fly to see my family, who have lived on the other side of the world to me for the past eight years.
But I’m getting really sick of blaming myself for things that are largely beyond my control and now that I’m aware that fossil fuel companies are behind the “carbon footprint” PR campaign, I know exactly where to channel my energy.
Though I want to remain mindful of my individual actions, I simply refuse to spend any more time feeling guilty and shameful over the shocking range of “personal choices” being presented to me. As far as I’m concerned, that’s less time being spent on putting political pressure on governing bodies and getting involved in direct action concerning fossil fuel giants.