Personal responsibility for the environment?

What is our own environmental responsibility? In the scale of the destruction that is going on against the natural world it seems obvious to many people that we need to make better choices. So people who care often choose to recycle and to buy ecologically grown vegetables. The people who do more than this, to go vegetarian or vegan for example, or who ride a bike instead of taking the car, are often labeled as spoil sports, unable to enjoy what our modern life has to offer.

There are two sides to this issue. The first one is the side are the individual activists, the lifestylists that believe in showing the way forward by “being the change”. We know the lifestyles that will impact our own environmental footprint. We need to drastically reduce meat consumption, fish consumption, using fossil fuel transportation reducing waste and simply consuming less. There are some advantages, for a start you can feel like you are doing something, this is actually very powerful. Especially things that literally take no hit on your lifestyle. None of us really need a plastic bag every time we go to the shop, none of us need to use single use straws, none of us need to throw away so much food that we buy. It is just a depressingly long list and when you start going through it the guilt and your own hypocrisy starts to dawn on you. It all depends how far you take it. Should I own a smartphone? Should I travel abroad? Chocolate chip cookies with milk in them? Is that kosher or should I abstain? This level of activism runs the risk that religion has taken for thousands of years. Telling people who is morally right always risks backfiring, if you don’t believe me ask the Catholic church how their war on sex is going. Also, you know who funded these popular tests of testing your own carbon footprint? That’s right. That would be the fossil fuel industry, keen for you to keep talking about your own contribution to the crisis and taking the heat off them.

On the other side is the populist argument. The populists are often criticized, also by me, because of their simplistic view that that “the people” want one thing and “the elite” want another. For example the popular notion that “the elite” is flooding Europe and the USA with immigrants while “the people” are all against this. It is incredulous to the point of conspiracy thinking to believe that this is the way the world works, and indeed we find a whole lot of antisemitic tropes attached to this in the darker corners of the internet, i.e. that the Jews are the actual “elites” who are pulling the strings to the race mixing.  But populism is not an exclusively right wing problem, in Venezuela the left wing populists drew left wing people all over the world into supporting a government that grew into a petro-state of corruption and illiberalism simply because some of the petro dollars went to welfare programs.

However distasteful most of the populist propaganda is there are times when the “the people” against “the elite” is a bang on the money description of how the world works. It is crucial to see how systems supporting our societies function and understand that we are much more than a bunch of individuals making our individual decisions. We need to be able to talk about power, about who holds it and who does not. In environmental terms, as with tax evasion, it is evident that the concept of “the people” against the “the elite” is a real thing. In tax evasion, while we are all living in society and somehow fit in to the economy, some people live in a world with income tax, municipal tax, property tax and VAT, while the elite live in a world of shell companies, tax havens, lawyers and lobbyists. It is simply impossible that the people who hide their money in tax havens will have the same interests as the ones trying to pay their rent or mortgage. In environmental terms, while we all are part of this society and in some way contribute to the destruction of nature, we do not do this on anything like an equal footing. People can change how we eat and how we travel, while the elites can buy politicians to challenge environmental law or bully communities into accepting toxic waste dumps or coal fired power plants. 70 per cent of all greenhouse emissions are made by the most polluting 100 companies in the world. They also have all the resources that the environmental movement lacks, from armies of lobbyists to an ecosystem of lawyers. The differences between the impact of the industry and the impact of everyday decisions made by individuals is vast and must be constantly brought up.

Think of the recent commercial on channel 12 with Rick Perry, until recently energy secretary to Donald Trump. Rick Perry, for those of you who don’t know him  (I am sure lots of Israelis don’t) is in the running for the most corrupt of all of Trump’s cronies, no mean feat considering the competition. He is little more than a paid spokesperson for the fossil fuel industry. The mere fact that he was chosen as the Energy Secretary of the USA says something about the disregard Trump has for the wellbeing of humanity. In the commercial he proposes that the gas that Texas fossil fuel companies are fracking out of the Mediterranean seabed presents a vast opportunity for Israel, even going so far as to say that it will help the relations to Egypt and Jordan, seemingly forgetting the peace treaties signed decades ago. However this was not the most shocking part of the commercial, the most egregious of all is that the commercial was tied to the news that came right after it and made to look like a news item rather than a commercial. Just imagine the amount of power and influence you have to have to make your commercial about how everything is fine, (great even!) that the fossil fuel industry is destroying our future for some money for their shareholders. Then, instead of owning the commercial, spin it into looking like a news item on the news that everyone trusts to tell them what is going on. This is fake news on prime time. Of course, there is an upside. They wouldn’t spend all this money to tell us that everything is ok if they felt safe from criticism. They know that among the people that will be affected by the increased pollution on the coast that this idea is incredibly unpopular. Because of their massive power it is great news that TOI has uncovered how Noble Energy were burying the emissions data about the actual pollution that is to be expected from the project and underestimating it massively. They never even admitted that 20 000 Tons of methane will be released during there project. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, steering our climate toward catastrophe. Funnily enough they declined to mention in their fake news segment.

Greta Thunberg tries to bridge this gap between the global and the individual by both talking to the most powerful and influential people in the world, and who at the same time lives by a strict discipline in her personal life. She is both vegan and doesn’t fly, she doesn’t want Christmas presents because of the destructive force of consumerism. Her steadfastness is a reason for her popularity, the carbon free sail across the Atlantic ocean was perhaps her most successful public awareness project yet.

It is truly heartwarming that people are ready to make sacrifices for a better future. However, don’t get lost in your own role, don’t get lost in guilt or in blaming the people in your life for these systems. Whenever you are advocating people changing their lifestyles, do it kindly. Remember peoples deep seated desire to keep doing what they have always done, remember to be gentle to their lives.

Save your wrath instead for the tiny group of people who own the fossil fuel economy, intent on destroying our future. Save your ire for the political leaders who spread their lies and talking points. That is the way to actually win!

About the Author
Toby Gisle is 42 years old, and a trained circus performer who now works as an English teacher in Tel Aviv. Although he grew up in London, he is originally from Sweden. His writings have appeared in a few different publications in Sweden.