It can be easy when it comes to environmental issues for my concerns to narrow down to the individual level. Weighed down by guilt, I’m always asking myself how I can do less damage to the planet. I never drive, fly only once every two years, get my plastic, paper and glass recycled, don’t eat meat or use plastic bags or non-recyclable coffee cups and I’ve recently started using bamboo toothbrushes and shampoo bars and shaving bars to cut my plastic waste. Now I’m planning to get all my shopping from “zero waste” stores.
If I’m not looking at my own actions, I’m looking at what my fellow citizens are failing to do. I struggle to understand how people can leave their engines idling while eating fast food or watching movies on their ipads in their cars, how they can allow themselves to get multiple flights per year or come out of luxury shops laden with new plastic bags, all puffed up with pride at their new purchases.
And why are nearly all people present at environmental protests middle class and white? Hasn’t the message that we’re facing a climate emergency got through to the rest of the population?
But talks like the one delivered by independent researcher and author Dario Kenner at Toynbee Hall on 9.7.19, serve as a reminder that the solutions to our environmental woes lie more in challenging our economic elites than in persuading ordinary individuals steeped eye-ball deep in the ‘me, me, me’ consumer culture to change their behaviour.
For one thing, the super-rich do far more harm to the planet through their consumption and investments than the rest of us. Referring to damage done through consumption, Kenner pointed out that in 2013 in the UK, the richest 1% (64,000 people) were responsible for 147 tonnes of Co2 each, while the poorest 10% (6 million people) were responsible for just four tonnes per head.
Judging that wealthy people’s excessive spending habits have been well publicised already, Kenner dedicated more time in his talk to unveiling the harm done through the investments of the “polluter elite”,the wealthy people who run fossil fuel multinationals. For example, BP’s CEO, Bob Dudley, was responsible for 4,307 tonnes of carbon emissions in 2015 courtesy of his 0.008% share in the company, which generated 51,200,000 tonnes of emission that year.
“That’s the advantage of going to the individual level. You can see the motivation behind what they’re doing and they’ll do anything to defend their net worth and status,” said Kenner.
And herein lies the biggest problem of all. The wealthy people and companies running fossil fuel multinationals are doing everything in their power to block a transition to a green economy, using their political muscle to keep us dependent on the energy sources that generate their wealth.
In 2008 the Climate Change Act was passed in the UK, making us the first country to set legally binding targets aimed at reducing carbon emissions. Had we actually adhered to the Act, the UK would have taken a key step towards reducing our role in the global climate emergency.
But in 2015 the polluter elite stepped in to reverse the good work by setting up the Oil and Gas Authority, a body designed to maximise oil and gas extraction in the UK. It was established on the recommendations of a billionaire who made his money from oil services in Aberdeen.
Using a combination of lobbying power and donations, the polluter elite has also prevented us from switching to electric cars and persuaded Government to back fracking and provide oil and gas companies with subsidies.
Meanwhile, UK Governments are loath to challenge the energy companies because our economy needs oil and gas to achieve annual increases in GDP, a useless measure of progress that Governments nonetheless consider vital to their political survival.
The way forwards
The UK’s extreme economic inequality has left us with club of super-rich polluters who feel insulated and aloof from the problems that affect the rest of us. Given that they’re unlikely to ever do anything that damages their interests and that the Government is unwilling to break free of its dependency on energy companies, the onus is on ordinary citizens to fight for change.
“The polluter elite have proven that they will fight to maintain their status and therefore we need to counter them and the best way to do this is by joining existing protests,” said Kenner.
Only if Government feels pressured by public protests, says Kenner, will it consider taking the kinds of actions that could weaken the polluter companies’ political and economic influence, with one such action being the re-routing of their subsidies to green energy companies.
With the window of opportunity to stop irreversible climate change and species extinction rapidly closing, ordinary people can no longer hide behind our curtains and hope for the best. It’s time to take to the streets.