You Are Not the Problem — Climate Guilt is a Marketing Strategy

Opinion: You Are Not the Problem — Climate Guilt is a Marketing Strategy

Helena Kilburn
|February 15, 2023

Photo: Pixabay

For years I felt, like many people I know, that I wasn’t a good environmentalist unless I brought a reusable cup every time I bought coffee, only ever bought second-hand clothes, composted every food scrap, biked everywhere, and pushed every other individual in my life to do the same. If I didn’t do this perfectly, if everyone around me didn’t do this perfectly, then we were the problem … right?

Climate guilt, or guilt coming from our inability or unwillingness to effectively protect the environment, is becoming an increasing cause of stress. Most of us either give up entirely on trying to be environmentally friendly, or we fret at each trip, bite or purchase.

Feeling guilty every time we can’t be perfect environmentalists isn’t sustainable. The path towards a safer climate doesn’t need consumers to get every action right, but it does need us to understand the scope of our actions within the greater crisis.

The problem is that societal expectations are set way too high for any individual — and they were set too high to benefit the oil industry.

Do you remember the first time you thought about climate change?

The oil industry has been thinking about it since 1977, when James Black, a scientist at Exxon, reported that the burning of fossil fuels was impacting the climate.

Do you remember the first time you felt guilty about climate change?

Since 2000, oil companies have been working, through advertising, to convince consumers that we should feel guilty.

But first, they spread doubt about the reliability of climate science. In the late 1990s, as public consciousness of climate change was growing, the oil industry was planning how to undermine the public’s understanding of this issue in order to keep its business safe. A 1998 internal memo from the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association and lobbying group encompassing companies such as Chevron and Exxon, stated that “victory will be achieved when average citizens … recognize uncertainties in climate science.”

This strategy of sowing doubt was effective for a long time. But there were still those who believed the science, so the fossil fuel industry used its advertising power to blame consumers.

British Petroleum hired Ogilvy & Mather, an advertising agency, in the early 2000s specifically to sell the narrative that climate change was the fault of the individual. This was how the term “carbon footprint” was coined and popularized. They even designed a carbon footprint calculator so you could see your personal impact on the planet.

I have used that calculator, and mostly remember how it made reducing my carbon footprint feel deeply overwhelming. The concept of your “carbon footprint” emphasizes personal impact, personal responsibility, and personal guilt.

This guilt can breed inaction. As I increasingly studied the climate crisis, I went from doing what I could to limit my environmental impact to feeling that any actions I took were pointless … so why try?

A very reasonable logic underpins the argument for personal responsibility. Oil companies and their supporters argue that they are just serving a market, that it is individual consumers that drive the demand.

This argument falls apart, though, when considering the oil companies’ years of actively misleading the public on the truth of their industry’s impact on the climate. If they had brought this information to light rather than actively hiding it, there would have been more time for a transition away from fossil fuels.

We consumers wring our hands over the use of a plastic straw, a light left on overnight, or a plane ride. Meanwhile, oil companies continue to profit billions of dollars, primarily from fossil fuels.

Individual action did not get us here, and individual action alone cannot get us out, but there are actions that we can take that can help … tremendously. We can call out the decades of hypocrisy and deceit from the responsible oil companies. We can elect leaders that do not place climate change solely on the shoulders of the individual. And we can take small sustainable actions when we can, understand the history of the guilt we feel when we can’t, and remind others that they, just like us, are not the problem.

Helena Kilburn is a sustainability professional and a graduate student in Columbia University’s M.S. in Sustainability Management program.


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