By the numbers, blame for the state of our planet lands at the feet of a tiny handful of individuals. When we’re honest with ourselves about the last several decades of economic development on planet earth, we find that just 100 companies are responsible for well over two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Worse? Many of the guilty parties knew exactly what they were getting into and chose to mislead the public about it. We’ve all been gaslighted for years into believing it’s the individual’s solemn duty to turn the entire climate change ship around.
There’s a little more to it, of course. Individual choices do make an impact even with a problem of this magnitude.
But the greatest trick the Devil pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. And the greatest trick Corporate America pulled was convincing the public it’s their straw-using, meat-eating ways that are destroying the planet and not the hundreds of billions of tons of chemical and plastic waste, carbon dioxide and monoxide, and metal-heavy water they pour into the environment in any given year.
Because of the apparent lack of humanistic leadership at either the corporate or federal level, consumers are now taking on the lion’s share of the responsibility for saving the planet. This was never how it was supposed to go — and believing “voting with our wallets” is the solution is putting the future of the planet and our species in even graver jeopardy.
Cheeseburgers and Plastic Straws Are a Distraction
There are several reasons why companies are falling all over themselves to get plastic straws and similar products out of their supply chains. One of these is because they’re bending to the will their customers. But the other reason is cynical beyond belief.
Look at it this way: If a politician is talking about term limits as the sole solution for corruption in politics, it’s because they’re trying to distract you from the real problems — like superPACs and gerrymandering.
Likewise, if a company wants you to pat it on the back for eliminating plastic straws, that’s because it doesn’t want to make other, more consequential, changes.
One democratic presidential candidate got this distinction at least partially correct. During an answer to an unhelpful debate question about government lightbulb standards, Senator Elizabeth Warren said:
“Oh, come on, give me a break … This is exactly what the fossil fuel industry wants us to talk about … to stir up a lot of controversy around your lightbulbs, around your straws, and around your cheeseburgers, when 70% of the pollution, of the carbon … comes from three industries.”
The Senator was referring to the building industry, the oil and gas industry, and the electric power industry. But one she missed was agriculture, which by any measure ranks among the top three or four industrial sector contributors to GHG emissions depending on how you group them.
Like it or not, cheeseburgers are a big part of the problem. More specifically: the sky-high, well-cultivated cultural demand for cheeseburgers, bacon, and other environmentally detrimental meat products. The United States is #1 among the top 10 nations for meat consumption, with 97.1 kilograms (214 pounds) of meat eaten per person per year. This number is 143% of New Zealand’s 67.5-kilogram (149-pound) tenth-place finish.
The Cruelty of Capitalism and False Scarcity
Pivoting to hemp-plastic straws, or no straws at all, is a nice PR move. But it doesn’t move our animal agricultural concerns or our restaurant chains any closer to reducing the demand for meat products. There are two things that Americans have a uniquely voracious appetite for: guns and meat. The U.S. is home to more guns than people and eats more meat than any other “world power.”
Straws aren’t the whole problem. Products derived from animal flesh aren’t the whole problem either, obviously. The problem is decades of corporate conditioning thanks to ad campaigns dripping with bacon grease, followed by additional decades of completely unsustainable levels of consumption.
To put it another way, to save the planet, Corporate America must realize that infinite economic growth has always been a dangerous and childish fairytale. We’re all paying the price for institutional hubris and an economic and political model — capitalism — that is so resistant to change that scientists now warn we may reach the point of wholesale ecological collapse before we find the will to try and turn things around.
The cruelest thing about this situation is that so much of the world lives in bondage to poverty and hunger while so few of us feast on abundance. Americans forget this, but the U.S. represents just 5% or so of the world’s population. And yet the consumption habits of this tiny 5% are strangling to death the last few fruitful branches of the Tree of Life.
They say that what America exports more of than anything else is “culture.” What a terrifying realization. Under our watch, ecologically disastrous products have proliferated and the popularity of disposable culture has skyrocketed.
What Did Companies Know, and When Did They Know It?
Does the health of the planet and the survival of its species depend on the individual shopping and eating choices we make, as some argue? Certainly, yes. In the same way that every vote “counts” in an election. The trouble, here and always, isn’t about who has the will to enact change. It’s about who has the means.
The people with the means are the gargoyles lining the boardrooms at the 100 multinational corporations contributing two-thirds of all greenhouse gases. The people with the means are CEOs and shareholders. Unfortunately, the public doesn’t vote for these people. So all the political will in the world is toothless without actual laws in place to enforce sane and ethical business practices.
We know corporations know that straws aren’t the answer. Just like they knew low-tar cigarettes weren’t the answer to smokers’ cancer, they know vaping isn’t the answer to smoking, they know natural gas isn’t the answer to oil, and they knew opioids weren’t the best answer for pain management.
If you think these companies are our friends for making straws with 11% less plastic, or for selling us back the cure for opioid overdoses, you’d better think again. They look for the easy, profitable route first.
Popular magazines began reporting on climate change more than 100 years ago. Exxon and other big oil companies knew to take these warnings seriously 40 years ago and perhaps earlier. There is no reason to believe they will abandon their comfy position and outrageously lucrative government subsidies until “the consumer” puts up a greater fight than “the market” and “choice” presently allow.
For example: a majority of homes in the U.S. rely on fossil fuels for heat. We should have begun chipping away at this statistic the very instant the benefits of solar power became widely known and panels became a feasible residential option. Instead, the companies of the world are selling people natural gas furnaces and telling us to ignore all the fracking earthquakes.
That leaves regulation. Capitalism got us into this mess, so the people can either demand through regulation that capitalism reform itself in some fundamental but eminently practical ways or we can regulate capitalism out of existence. Such is the urgency of the situation we now face.
What Do We Need to Do to Balance Capitalism and Environmentalism?
We need three big things to bring capitalism and environmentalism back into a balance that won’t end with the heat-death of earth. They are:
- A comprehensive Green New Deal to help transition fossil fuel workers and others out of obsolete positions and into green energy and other jobs.
- A progressive tax system that holds corporations and billionaires accountable for years of assorted tax dodging, including offshoring corporate profits, to pay for the Green New Deal as well as public investments in clean energy.
- A well-designed international carbon market to standardize the price of offsets and ensure corporate entities account for their entire GHG footprints.
Unfortunately, the most recent opportunity to put that third point into practice ended in disappointment. The recent climate conference in Madrid, Spain, ended without any substantial framework in place for pricing carbon or building a global carbon market.
But Starbucks promises to eliminate straws globally by 2020, which is nice. And LED lightbulbs are more affordable than ever. These are good moves to make. Unfortunately, as far as saving the planet goes, it’s kiddie table stuff.
Government intervention is perhaps the last bit of leverage average people have that doesn’t involve “voting with their wallets.” If you believe in the scientific method, and that corporate profits don’t have to come at the expense of a livable planet, it’s time to put that leverage to use.