Your hemp shopping bag and reusable bottle are laudable, but here’s why they aren’t enough to save the planet


This column is an opinion by Todd Dufresne, a professor of philosophy at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. He is the author of numerous books on Freud and psychoanalysis, and of a recent book on climate change called The Democracy of Suffering: Life on the Edge of Catastrophe, Philosophy in the Anthropocene. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

It’s a truism of environmental consciousness that climate change has been caused by the individual decisions of hundreds of millions of consumers around the world, most especially in the West. And so we are exhorted by pundits to rethink our carbon footprints and address our unsustainable, destructive ways.

Many well-meaning individuals, myself included, have responded to the challenge by adopting new practices.

We reduce, reuse, and recycle. We take our own hemp bags to the grocery store. We reduce and, in some cases, drop meat and dairy altogether from our diets. We eat local, avoid fruits and veggies out of season, and buy fair trade coffee.

We buy efficient appliances, and then use them less. We refuse both plastic and stainless steel straws, since both harm the environment. We pack lunches and sport reusable bottles for hydrating. We eschew fast fashion and, like Europeans, instead buy single high-quality items of clothing and shoes that we mix and match. We sell our second cars, take public transit and, whenever possible, walk or bike to work.

Some of us have even gone childless, since no other single decision could have a greater impact on carbon emissions than that.

Never before have so many people made so many decisions so often about so many actions of our everyday lives.

The effort and the sacrifice is impressive. For these myriad actions are large-scale exercises in applied philosophy, an amazing raising of the stakes on a discourse, notable in every way, of individual responsibility and rationality.

  • IDEAS | Todd Dufresne, who teaches philosophy at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, will deliver three lectures on Climate Change and the Unborn Future for CBC Radio One’s IDEAS at 8 p.m. on June 16, 17 and 18.

Yet the causes of climate change and the possible sources of climate mitigation are a lot more complicated than individual ethics. In truth, our sometimes-obsessive focus on the minutia of everyday consumption blinds us to the biggest issues of our time.

Consider the “carbon footprint calculator.” We now know that this calculator is a kind of magic trick, devised by Big Oil and professional marketers, to make the rabbit of corporate responsibility disappear entirely from our minds. In this respect, popular memes on social media like the one below are exactly right:

The same sleight of hand informs public debates about taxes. With one hand, demagogues on the payroll of the very rich wave red flags about death taxes, welfare bums, and socialism, while with the other they court government bailouts, give out exorbitant bonuses to a select few, and pick the public’s pockets at every opportunity.

Aside from creating confusion, the overall effect is to divide regular folks, pit us against each other, and fundamentally distract us from society’s real enemies and the big issues they represent.

Yet the meme is correct. Since 1998, research indicates that a group of only 100 companies has caused 71 per cent of all carbon emissions!

But sure, let’s go ahead and consider the COVID-19 pandemic – the greatest possible experiment in the usefulness of individual climate actions. The global shutdown of the economy in early 2020 did in fact reduce our carbon emission levels. But not by a lot. Emissions merely dropped to 2006 levels – the year of Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.

That’s not just ironic. That’s sobering. Tragic, too, because the grandest possible gesture – nearly complete shutdown – still has us on track for climate catastrophe, only a few years later.

So no, we can’t just change our buying habits and shop our way out of this mess. And no, your personal ethics, while laudable, won’t save the planet from climate catastrophe. Not even close.

If anything, the primacy we all give to individual actions – ultimately, to individualism – is at the heart of the climate change crisis.

That’s because the two most fundamental drivers of climate catastrophe have little to do with individual actions. One driver is the economic system, the way we organize production, consumption, and exchange. The other driver is the philosophic system, the way we organize our thoughts about life and stuff.

Both systems, derived from about 2,500 years of Western thinking and doing, are the big systemic causes of climate change. Capitalism and the cult of efficiency and instrumentality operate as the nearly invisible background conditions for life in our globalized society.

Capitalism demands perpetual growth, only part of which is needed for human survival. After all, nearly everything that capitalism produces ends up in a landfill within six months, while the nearly unimaginable profits go to fewer and fewer people.

And thoughtless efficiency and instrumentality turns human beings into cogs, a means to an end. It turns us into objects. This objectification not only denigrates existence, but facilitates the extinction of all life.

These dystopic outcomes are built into the systems of Western economics and philosophy. In both cases, rationalistic individualism is the unthought condition of our existence.

People attend a climate change protest in Montreal on Sept. 26, 2020. The global shutdown of the economy in early 2020 did reduce carbon emissions, but only to 2006 levels. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Climate change is not, therefore, just an environmental crisis. It’s a socio-political-intellectual crisis. Or, if you prefer, it’s a moral crisis.

It’s about the systems that make us who we are and establish the frame of what’s possible for individuals, for what is literally thinkable.

We must therefore confront these systems of extinction with care and intention. This means we must stop thinking and acting incrementally as individuals when it comes to the climate crisis. For what’s required is radical change of the social and economic systems and structures that define us as human beings.

Consequently, we have to stop thinking about climate change and think more boldly about climate revolution.

The radical changes already underway must include the end of capitalism, its self-interested billionaire class, and the rise of rampant inequality. It probably begins with some sort of democratic socialism, a universal basic income, and a four-day work week. Where it ends will probably surprise us all. But there’s no doubt at all that only some form of collectivism will save us.

So forget individualism, the doctrine that not only whitewashes systemic problems and collectivist solutions, but also normalizes the conservative nonsense that “there is no alternative” to the status quo.

With this in mind, let’s ensure that our righteous concerns about the little things don’t blind us to the biggest things – our exit from the Holocene, the sixth mass extinction; and the arrival of a new world historical epoch, the Anthropocene.

If we’re smart and a little bit lucky, we might together mitigate some of these impacts and advance a future that is more equitable and virtuous than our sometimes-dystopic present.

That must be the motivation behind our collective efforts to not only demand a “better world,” but to institute the radical changes that will make it a reality for everyone everywhere.


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