Nearly four million people — inspired by the example of teen activist Greta Thunberg — took to the streets to demand climate action in September. Even before the protests were over, conservatives took to their keyboards to make smug comments about the apparent hypocrisy of young people, whose worst crime was caring about the environment.
“I bet they’re going home to charge their iPhones, or play video games, or watch TV.”
“How many of them drove to the march?”
“This generation is the most wasteful generation ever! How dare they lecture us about the environment!”
“I’ll listen to them when they turn off their air conditioning at school!”
You get the drift. This was coupled with a misinformation campaign by conservative internet trolls falsely blaming climate strikers for copious amounts of rubbish left behind after the protest. The comments across platforms and news sources were so eerily consistent I started to wonder if there had been some secret memo released exclusively for boomers’ eyes only.
The problem with the above statements, however, is that I don’t have to give up my bloody iPhone to demand climate action.
These comments are just a smokescreen (or big old CO2 smogscreen) thrown up by people who would rather do nothing about climate change than do, well, anything. After all, because they are posting on the internet, it follows that they aren’t listening to their own advice.
These comments attempt to paint climate protesters as hypocrites based on a logic that asks: how can you possibly claim to care about the environment if you produce any carbon emissions?
The False Dilemma
This is what philosophers call a false dilemma. Psychologists call it black-and-white thinking. Whatever you call it, it doesn’t make sense. It’s illogical because it creates a false binary between being a perfect, flawless human being, and a horrible polluting scumbag.
The only way to live in our society with literally zero carbon emissions would be to not live in it at all. You would have to exist as part of a small self-sustaining commune in the wilderness, cut off from the rest of humanity; you could never purchase any goods or services produced, shipped, or packaged using fossil fuels. (Though now that I write it down, I do get the appeal given the current state of politics.)
While I’m sure activists’ complete isolation would provide some relief for climate deniers, it would also do very little to make our world a better place. After all, the vast majority of CO2 emissions do not come from sources directly influenced by consumers; a handful of large companies produces them.
That’s right, even if every single individual in Australia stopped using electricity tomorrow (a scenario that, by the way, nobody is calling for), it would not sufficiently slow down climate change unless these efforts were combined with significant changes on the part of business and industry. Individual action is useless if it isn’t coupled with large-scale reform.
The single largest contributor to CO2 emissions in Australia is our energy production. If the climate strike goal of 100 percent renewable power was met, it wouldn’t matter how many iPhones we have plugged in, how long we run the air conditioning, or how much time I waste playing video games.
This is the crux of the problem. It is impossible to live in our society and limit ourselves to sustainable levels of carbon emissions. Not because we are lazy or wasteful, but because our governments refuse to provide the physical and legislative infrastructure to support it. Currently, living carbon-neutral is a luxury only the rich can afford.
To reduce travel emissions, we need better public transport and infrastructure to support electric cars.
To reduce energy emissions, we need greater renewables (both publicly and privately owned), which will require subsidies allowing all individual—not just the rich—to invest in solar panels and battery storage.
To reduce the greenhouse gasses generated in producing goods and services, we need renewable energy infrastructure coupled with some incentives (hell, any incentives) for big businesses to reduce their emissions. On this last point, it is especially unfortunate that Australians have become so poisoned by our politicians against any form of pricing mechanism on carbon (i.e. a so-called “carbon tax“) that we are left unable even to whisper the name of this (highly-effective) tool for reducing emissions.
And, sure, I will concede that individual action is not entirely pointless. Even though most of the world’s carbon emissions are produced by large corporations, this is partly and indirectly in response to consumer demand. However, the point is that these companies generally have alternative, more environmentally friendly options than the ones they are using.
The problem is that they have no incentive, without government pressure, to switch to these better options. The usual market forces for applying pressure to companies (namely: shopping elsewhere) do not work in this instance because there are either no green alternatives or—at the very least—no widely accessible or affordable options.
This easily accessible, green alternative is what climate activists are begging for. They don’t want a return to the stone age, because that isn’t necessary. What they want is for politicians to step up help fill the void that the free market isn’t filling on its own.
Ultimately, this discussion comes down to the fact that we should not have to choose between our mod cons and a society that is not destroying our planet. At risk of sounding like some kind of hippy, the technology and knowledge exist for us to live in harmony with the natural world. What doesn’t exist is the political will.
Therefore, those concerned with the fast-approaching-but-not-entirely-inevitable climate catastrophe will have to continue to put pressure on our politicians, through strikes and protests, until they have no choice but to listen.