Green shame won’t help solve the climate crisis – this is how we can move forward
I have a carbon conundrum.
Scientists on the planet told us last month – again – that we are in an age of climate computation. It is the “red code for humanity”. Every molecule of carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere is too much.
I have spent the past two decades chronicling this story as a journalist. And that meant doing research with scientists all over the world, witnessing their findings so that I could write about them. It meant a lot of travel.
Most recently I turned the search for my book Seasickness in a play, with the help of artistic directors Franco Boni and Ravi Jain. So I toured the world too, explaining the dangers of carbon build-up in the atmosphere and the ocean.
We took a travel break during the COVID-19 pandemic, like everyone else. But now the world is opening up again, and like many of us, I’m ready to start flying again. For me it starts with a trip to Ireland next month.
Of course, my theater crew and I offset all of the carbon from our travels, usually through the Ocean Foundation, which plants sea grasses to create ocean habitat and suck up an amount of carbon equivalent to traveling in. the air.
But is it enough?
I’m not the only one wondering which trip can be justified. Globally, the control of carbon spending is becoming more and more intense.
Much of it is about criticizing anyone who flies, a phenomenon that has been dubbed “flight shaming”. Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, 18, refused to travel by plane, citing carbon emissions. In 2019, to travel to New York on her way to an international climate conference, she took a 15-day renewable-energy yacht trip across the Atlantic Ocean. A flight from Stockholm would have taken eight hours each way and would have spent nearly a ton of carbon.
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But even that was not virtuous enough for some. In order to bring the boat back to Europe after its trip, a few people had to fly to New York. An accusing German newspaper calculated that it therefore cost more carbon for Thunberg to go by solar and wind-powered yacht than if she had flown.
But the shame doesn’t end with aviation. In some circles, it focuses on food: if you always eat meat, you doom the planet. And if you don’t eat meat, but still eat dairy products and eggs, you just aren’t doing enough. And if you are completely vegan but don’t eat organic vegan, how come? And if you are organic vegan but not exclusively local, organic vegan, how can you even look at yourself in the mirror?
The bar to be virtuous in carbon continues to rise. A note was recently posted to my Facebook thread from someone announcing that they were ditching computers due to the carbon load involved in manufacturing electronics. A young relative who came to dinner recently – My god, we ate salmon! – was upset because a teacher told her that the lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars have a terrible impact on the environment. Until then, she believed that driving an electric car was environmentally sustainable. Now she wasn’t sure.
On the one hand, it is encouraging to see that knowledge is growing about the world destabilized by carbon that we have created. A few decades ago, when I started reporting on global warming, we didn’t have these conversations.
On the other hand, the conversation seems crippling. Often triumphant. It’s like a collective eye narrowing as we assess not only our own carbon purity, but everyone else’s.
But can we breathe deeply? It seems to me that this greener state of mind than you is not going to get us where we need to go. While billions of us stayed at home during the pandemic, reducing much of our personal carbon consumption, emissions fell by seven percent. That’s all.
This tells us that most of the carbon that damages our planet comes from the vast systems we have put in place to manage the global economy rather than individual actions. Changing these systems will require significant and far-reaching policy changes, something that one person’s food and travel choices cannot accomplish, no matter how small.
How to move forward?
One idea is to let go of the belief that the problem is your personal choices and that only your choices can solve it.
Katharine Hayhoe, a Canadian climatologist who works at The Nature Conservancy in the United States, advocates using our voices to push for policy change. She points out in a recent webinar that those who benefit the most from the current carbon system have an ulterior motive in trying to convince us that it is our fault. It allows them to continue on “their own way” while we are obsessed with what we are doing.
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Alexis Shotwell, a philosopher at Carleton University, suggests giving up the urge to succumb to the politics of despair. Instead, open up to surprise. We are all entangled in this terrible danger. Together we can work to create the world we want. She calls it “staying with the troubles we find ourselves in”.
“Aiming for individual purity can produce a seemingly satisfying self-righteousness in the rare moments we do, but since it is ultimately impossible, aiming for purity will always be disappointing,” she writes in her book. Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times.
Kathryn Norlock, a philosopher at Trent University, has an even more drastic prescription for our cranky age: forgiveness.
“Since we are all guilty and we are, the starting point should be, first of all, to forgive each other for the fact that we are all guilty, ”she said, adding:“ Forgiveness is a commitment to deal with the offender, and sometimes the offender is you -same.
Even myself? Take a plane to play a play about the harmful effects of carbon?
Yes, said Norlock. If you are doing it because you have the hope that it could change hearts and minds, then fly away.
It’s a delicate dance. Be careful with your own choices, but strive to fix the world. Let go of absolutism and shame. Embrace the mess of the human condition. Even take a flight if you feel the need to. But don’t expect everything to be easy.
Alanna mitchell is a journalist, author and playwright living in Toronto.
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