Cast your mind back to the middle of March. This wasn't quite the pre-Covid era – those halcyon days when the only place publishing articles about "curves" and "flattening" was the sidebar of shame – but it still feels like a lifetime ago. By the third week of that month, we all knew that lockdown was coming. We'd seen what was happening in Italy. Yet, somehow, the British government seemed to be incapable of delivering clear instructions.
On Monday the 16th, four days after telling the country that "many more families would lose loved ones", Boris Johnson stood at the podium in Downing Street and announced: "You should avoid pubs, clubs, theatres […] and non-essential contact." He didn't order venues to close. He didn't make guidance legally binding, or introduce any enforcement measures. Instead, he effectively abdicated responsibility, leaving it up to the general public to decide which actions were appropriate. For the next week, until lockdown was finally introduced on the 23rd of March, confusion reigned. The consequences, as we've seen, were catastrophic.
It's far from a perfect analogy, but in many ways that third week of March is where we're currently at with the climate crisis. The British government, and indeed governments around the world, know that this is an emergency (today, one of the world's leading energy experts warned we have just six months to avoid a climate crisis). They're well aware that radical action is needed, and that any delay will be disastrous. But rather than legislate, they prefer to shift the burden of responsibility onto companies (which all too often can't see past their immediate bottom line), and onto us as individuals.
There's a long-held misconception that individual consumer choices can make a significant difference when it comes to tackling climate change. You see it in the many thousands of articles listing ways to cut your carbon footprint. You see it in the campaigns to stop people driving to work, drinking from single-use plastic, or buying clothing from fast fashion brands. These initiatives are usually well-intentioned, and can help kickstart useful conversations. But most climate activists agree that unless they include calls for concrete, legislative change, consumer-focused campaigns make little difference – and may even do more harm than good.
"You hear it all the time on the news, items on how individuals can change their habits," explains Angus Satow, from the campaign group Labour for a Green New Deal, "but that's something we really need to move away from."
For starters, 71 percent of all global carbon emissions come from just 100 companies. While these fossil fuel producers continue to pump out pollution unabated, using a refillable coffee cup makes about as much difference as moving a deckchair on the Titanic two centimetres to the left. But focusing on consumer choices doesn't just fail to address the scale of the problem, it misunderstands the nature of the problem completely.
"The way you consume is determined by the free time you have, and the economic system which dictates that," argues Satow. As long as it's quicker to travel by car, more convenient to buy Coke in plastic bottles and cheaper to wear disposable, polyester dresses from Boohoo, people can't really be expected to make positive decisions for the planet.
"We're all living in this toxic system," says Alice Wilby, a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion. Even when there are good options, taking "individual responsibility is often not a matter of choice, but a matter of privilege". Which is why, in common with most climate groups, XR argues that it's the system itself that needs to change, not just the way individuals operate within it.
Alice is one of the coordinators of XR's fashion action team, working on ways to clean up what’s arguably the most consumerist industry of all. She explains that their aim is never to shame individuals for their purchasing choices, but to stop companies from producing clothes like that in the first place. Unfortunately in fashion – and, indeed, in most industries – "the current capitalist system provides zero incentive for corporations to change", she explains. "So we have to pursue it at a legislative level."
The idea that individuals, not governments, should somehow be responsible for fighting climate change isn't just misguided. It's more pernicious than that. As Canadian writer Martin Lukacs has pointed out, the world's worst polluters have a vested interest in the neoliberal ideology which convinces people "you are responsible for bearing the burden of potential ecological collapse", because as long as the public is talking about individual actions, it's distracted from the real issues.
It's not just climate activists who are convinced by this argument. Fossil fuel companies have quite literally bought into it too. Between 1974 and 2004, ExxonMobil pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into a coordinated, 30-year-long campaign of misinformation, spearheaded by weekly "op-ads" in the New York Times.
Designed as conversation starters, these articles were often crude attempts to muddy the waters around established facts (the "Unsettled Science" advertorial from 2000 is an oft-cited example). But "perhaps the[ir] most insidious narrative", according to Amy Westervelt, a journalist and podcaster who's written extensively on the issue, was "instilling in the American public the idea that solving global warming is up to individuals, not systems. That it's about you driving too much, or eating too much meat, or changing your light bulbs – not any sort of broader systemic change."
This misleading narrative is one fossil fuel companies continue to push to this day. In October, seemingly without irony, BP launched a carbon footprint calculator and invited people to make pledges on reducing their individual emissions.
"It's like a sleight of hand magic trick," says Alice Wilby of XR. "While [individuals] are focused on getting something small scale done, and feeling quite rewarded, the larger polluters go unchecked."
A lot has been written in recent weeks about how it was "everyone doing their bit" that flattened the curve of the coronavirus epidemic. Right-wing commentators have fondly invoked the spirit of Dunkirk (somehow missing the point that the public having to bail out a shambolic retreat is hardly an aspirational example of leadership). But although the extent of the collective endeavour has been impressive, the lockdown was far from spontaneous or self-imposed. If that disastrous week of dithering in the middle of March taught us anything, it's that you need the government to provide clear guidance if you want the kind of coordinated, society-wide response needed to tackle problems of this scale. Radical changes are perfectly possible. You just need elected leaders to actually lead.
"We've shown what societies can do when they want to," the climate activist and Guardian columnist George Monbiot said recently, in a podcast interview about the pandemic. "If [the] government gave us a clear steer and said, 'We've got a climate emergency, we need to do something fast,' we would do it," he argued. "We just need that clear steer."