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Don't be hoodwinked by fossil fuel's clever PR

Did you know that the concept of an individual carbon footprint calculator was created by BP?

BP saw the stats that most Americans not only believe in climate change, but also are concerned about its health and safety impacts. Fearing the fate of tobacco companies, they knew they had to do something.

So, in 2004, BP launched a PR campaign promoting the individual carbon footprint calculator. The goal was to distract consumers (aka us) from focusing attention on the root of the problem (aka them), while appearing rational and caring. Pretty brilliant.

“Don’t worry about us,” the message said. “We understand climate change and we care a lot. In fact, we care so much that we are going to help you figure out what you are doing wrong. Worry about yourselves.”

The PR strategy has been effective. Like the good people we are, we looked at our personal impact and tried to do better.

Meaningful impact can come from changing our individual behavior. Really, truly. (For how and why, see here or here.)

But - and this is a big “but” - our action shouldn’t end with changing our individual actions just because BP said so. Actually, our action doesn’t even have to begin there, if that’s not your thing. Because let’s be honest: the focus on individual action catches us all in a bit of a conundrum.

For starters, the individual actions that are usually promoted for helping to stop climate change feel like being told to go on a lifestyle diet. "Cut meat consumption, limit gas, avoid plastic." The (current) messaging has a lot of "restrict, give up, cut back." Where’s the joy in that?

Further, it’s hard to ignore that nagging feeling that this “lifestyle diet” isn’t going to amount to a hill of beans when it comes to actually stopping climate change. Yes, I can bring my reusable bags to the grocery. But, what about all the shrink wrapped cucumbers? It’s easy to get discouraged. Which I have to imagine makes BP happy.

So, what to do?

  1. Find the levers that you can individually pull to influence systemic change.

  2. Get involved in ways that feel like you are ADDING (not restricting) good stuff to your life.

If you don’t know where to start, here are some ideas:

  • Join Coffee, Conversation and the Climate. The book we’re reading next (The Big Fix, by Hal Harvey and Justin Gillis) focuses on the levers that individuals can pull to move large systems. The group discussions give camaraderie, insight and motivation.

  • Help the Environmental Voter Project, a non-partisan organization, turn out more environmentally-conscious voters. They are constantly working on local elections, which matter a lot for climate policy and for building the habit of regular voting among climate-concerned people. You'll gain a sense of efficacy and satisfaction.

  • Sign up for an environmental organization's newsletter and sign their petitions when you get their emails. There are lots of great organizations. Two suggestions are here. These newsletters deliver opportunities for action right to your inbox.

  • Take individual actions that meet two criteria: they bring you joy and you can’t help but enthusiastically talk about them with others. Two examples I’ve heard from people are planting a pollinator garden or finding a fantastic CSA. Individual actions do matter because they bring you closer to the issue and they also ripple out, with your enthusiasm, to the community around you. And, by definition, they bring you joy. (Read more here or here.)

  • Don’t like any of these ideas? Email me and let's see if we can figure out a way you would like to be involved! A way that adds joy to your life and has a meaningful impact.

There is no single solution. There is no single right way. As Rumi says, "There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground." Or, as is said more colloquially (and a lot less poetically - actually, horrifyingly), "there is more than one way to skin a cat."

It doesn't matter so much what you do to get involved in the movement, as much as it matters that you do something to shift the momentum. Momentum builds from many small actions. Let’s not get stymied by a PR strategy that asks us to only take a small view.


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