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 continually ask myself how I can do less damage to the planet. I never drive, fly only once every two years, get my plastic and paper recycled, don’t eat meat or use plastic bags and recently started using bamboo toothbrushes and shampoo and shaving bars to cut my plastic waste.
If I’m not looking at my own actions, I’m looking at what my fellow citizens are doing. I struggle to understand how people can leave their engines idling while eating fast food, or watching movies on their iPads in their cars, or how they can allow themselves to get multiple flights per year. Sometimes my frustration at others’ inaction is so intense it makes my temples throb.
But arguments like the one delivered by independent researcher and author Dario Kenner at Toynbee Hall in East London last month remind me that the solutions to our environmental woes lie more in challenging our economic elites, than in persuading ordinary individuals to change their behaviour.
For one thing, the super rich do far more harm to the planet through their consumption than the rest of us. Kenner pointed out that in 2013 in the UK, the richest one pe cent (64,000 people) were responsible for 147 tonnes of Co2 each, while the poorest 10 per cent (six million people) were responsible for just four tonnes per head.
But what is less well understood, explained Kenner, is how much harm is done through the investments of the ‘polluter elite’, the wealthy people who run fossil fuel multinationals. Petrol giant BP’s CEO, Bob Dudley, for example, was responsible for 4,307 tonnes of carbon emissions in 2015 courtesy of his 0.008 per cent share in the company, which generated 51,200,000 tonnes of emission that year.
Rather than trying to make amends for what they’ve done, the polluter elite is doing everything in its power to block a transition to a green economy, using its political muscle to keep us dependent on their energy sources.
In 2008, the Climate Change Act was passed in the UK, making us the first country to set legally binding carbon emission targets. 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.
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, explained Kenner, the UK is 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.
Only if government feels pressured by public protests, says Kenner, will it consider taking the kinds of actions that could weaken the polluter companies’ influence.
His argument makes sense. Individual lifestyle changes are certainly welcome, but the scale of change required for us to avert ecological disaster can only be made by governments and fossil fuel multinationals, neither or which will voluntarily change their ways.
For ordinary folk, this means our prime focus needs to switch from lifestyle changes to protests. With the window of opportunity to stop irreversible climate change rapidly closing, we can no longer hide behind our curtains and hope for the best. It’s time to take to the streets and demand that our government steer us away from the cliff edge.