We each have an individual responsibility to promote a healthy planet and future, but our own guilt distracts us from the real corporate culprits
To understand the meaning of environmental guilt, let’s first examine the feelings associated with them in a real-life situation:
You see a dreaded plastic water bottle someone dropped on the floor. You look both ways to make sure there’s no one around as you cringe to extract the bottle, tuck it into your deep coat pocket, and either take it back to dispose of it in your room or home where there is a clearly marked recycling bin or wait until you find one.
I am an Environmental Studies major so my awareness of the fact that I will see the effects of climate change in my lifetime is very real. And it feels horrible. I worry that I am the reason the ice caps are melting, the weather is changing and people are dying because, in truth, my actions seem like they would contribute to the problem. But what we do as individuals is outweighed by the actions of far more impactful parties such as corporate polluters and massive companies, whose carbon footprint is undeniable. And yet we still feel utterly responsible for the state of the planet.
These actions require us to realign the way we look at our consumption as individuals. Although drinking from a plastic water bottle is not environmentally friendly, eating a more plant-based diet, getting involved with community-based composting and local organizing campaigns, and choosing not to buy fast fashion, or use online superstores are all direct ways you can make a difference. None of us are perfect, so being conscious of the choices we make is where we all need to start. Guilt or shame we feel when making unsustainable decisions, regardless of how small, has a name.
It’s called environmental guilt, and is defined as a sense of wrongfulness specifically associated with individual actions that harm the environment. Environmental or eco guilt is often associated with sentiments of eco-anxiety, which instills fear or uneasiness of the Earth’s future. Feeling like a decision is the end of the world has validity as climate change and its potential doom looms, but the average consumer’s isolated actions cannot significantly alter the planet’s trajectory.
How do we mitigate these feelings of guilt? The first step is in identifying the biggest contributors to climate change: greenhouse gas emissions.
Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere and cause climate change. And corporate polluters are some of the worst offenders, responsible for a large percentage of atmospheric pollution. The 2017 Carbon Majors Report found that 25 corporate and state producing entities account for 51% of global industrial GHG emissions. All 100 producers account for 71% of global industrial GHG emissions. In 2018, the EPA categorized greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector.
Industry accounts for 22 percent of that year’s emissions, the third-largest sector after transportation and electricity production. On a 2019 list of the most toxic corporate air polluters, Huntsman is the first on the list, falling into the industrial sect. Immediately after Huntsman, landing at the second spot is air transportation giant, Boeing. Despite variations on where those culpable can be categorized, corporations are highly involved in pollution in all of the major economic sectors that contribute to significant emissions.
If environmental issues caused by businesses are so prevalent, then why are consumers continually plagued with environmental grief? A perfect example is oil companies. They know the effects of fossil fuel extraction as informed by their own scientists, yet they create doubt over climate change’s existence in order to continue making a profit. They continually seek to deflect blame because “it’s good for business.”
George Monbiot writes in The Guardian: “In response to the Guardian’s questions, some of the oil companies argued that they are not responsible for our decisions to use their products. But we are embedded in a system of their creation—a political, economic, and physical infrastructure that creates an illusion of choice while, in reality, closing it down.”
One of the earliest examples of corporations attempting to shift the blame off of consumers was the 1971 “Crying Indian” advertisement by Keep America Beautiful, an organization opposed to littering. In the video, an indigenous man played by an Italian American actor watches his home get covered in more and more trash until someone throws a trash bag that lands on his moccasins. A single tear falls down his face as he encourages an end to pollution. Ironically, this ad was funded by beverage and packaging companies, shifting the burden to stop littering onto individuals instead of simply producing fewer plastic goods.
British Petroleum (BP) reiterated these sentiments by reimagining the concept of the individual’s average carbon footprint. Ten years after the 2010 oil spill that pumped the Gulf of Mexico with 130 million gallons of crude oil, the aftermath is far from over as there are still struggling species, notably dolphins. However, in 2004 BP created the carbon footprint in a PR campaign, and the model is now widely used. BP utilized William Rees’ concept of the ecological footprint and rebranded it for their own benefit. Ultimately, this marketing strategy proved effective because it shifted pollution onto individuals citing their reliance on products corporations built or powered using fossil fuels. It’s designed as a manipulation tactic to imply that even the greenest of citizens have adopted an unsustainable lifestyle.
Looking at today’s rate of pollution and how that is translatable in modern technology, there is an app launched in connection with BP called VYVE. VYVE tracks your carbon footprint whether you travel by car, bus, or train. It records how much carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are being produced during your travels and encourages you to reduce those emissions by offsetting them to projects around the world.
Kate Yoder of Grist.org writes, “That’s the real-life story of VYVE (rhymes with ‘five’), one of a handful of new carbon-tracking apps. It’s backed by a subsidiary of BP called Launchpad, a venture capital-like group that funds low-carbon startups which might one day become billion-dollar companies—’unicorns’ in startup lingo.” The development and continuation of the fallacy that the individual holds the most responsibility allows corporate polluters like BP to continue to shy away from significantly altering their own actions, lending to the cultivated sentiments of environmental guilt and eco-anxiety in everyday consumers.
As Sriram Madhusoodanan, U.S. Climate Campaign Director at Corporate Accountability articulates, distracting from environmental initiatives through empty promises and false sincerity is something to be conscious of in the future. Corporate Accountability is a Boston-based non-profit that campaigns against multinational corporations and their destructive tactics. This distraction can be applied to the prevalence of net-zero plans by major polluters. This can be applied to the prevalence of net-zero plans by major polluters. BP has an initiative to reach net-zero by 2050, citing ten vague major aims ranging from investment changes to establishing new trade expectations. These initiatives rely on actions such as planting trees or buying and conserving forested land to sink carbon, as well as other technocratic solutions, but it still introduces questions of how these solutions can measure up to the amount of fossil fuels BP is already using.
In November 2020, the UN released a statement citing the need to halve emissions by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050, warning:
“Science is clear: if we fail to meet these goals, the disruption to economies, societies and people caused by COVID-19 will pale in comparison to what the climate crisis holds in store.”
BP isn’t alone in its actions. On Nov. 2, 2020, Shell tweeted a poll asking its followers what they’d alter to reduce emissions. This post tremendously backfired, causing many activists and Twitter users to accuse Shell of gaslighting its followers to distract from their own culpability. Some of the biggest public critics of the tweet include Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and activist Greta Thunberg.
When asked about passing blame onto individuals, Madhusoodanan had this to say: “Big Oil and other polluters’ efforts to foist responsibility for climate and environmental damage onto individuals—from social media campaigns to lobbying dollars—is so common, it’s practically another line in their enormous marketing budgets.”
He adds, “What’s even more insidious is their true intent: distract from corporations’ role in fueling environmental and social crises, and convince lawmakers to embrace those corporations as ‘part of the solution,’ instead of holding them accountable for the impacts of their harmful practices. Today, the real solutions are clear. People’s movements on a global scale are demanding a just transition away from fossil fuels—because it is abundantly clear that individual action is not the primary problem, nor will it save us from climate disaster. Big Polluters’ and their hollow ‘net-zero’ plans cannot distract from the just and equitable action people are demanding around the world.”
So the next time you feel guilty about using baggies or accidentally tossing that plastic into a regular trash bin versus a recycling one, look at the bigger picture beyond just how consumers affect the environment. Refocus your ideas of climate change to include a reality where all companies, individuals, and other entities have accountability for the health of our planet.
Your own impact matters, as does your contribution to the problem and the solution, but it’s crucial to recognize where individualized pressure that lends to environmental guilt comes from. Encouraging companies to stop using fossil fuels can make a real tangible difference, potentially saving our future from further climate destruction. That change can start with you, but it needs to expand, to alter greater corporate systems to successfully thwart the catastrophe looming on the horizon.
Corporations have as much responsibility to help the planet as they do to face repercussions when they actively harm it. And that’s where the climate conversation needs to be directed. We’ve been duped by corporations before, and we should continue to be wary of corporate polluters jumping on the environmental causes bandwagon to promote their own public image and deflect from the blame they deserve.