Big oil coined ‘carbon footprints’ to blame us for their greed. Keep them on the hook | Rebecca Solnit

Big oil coined ‘carbon footprints’ to blame us for their greed. Keep them on the hook | Rebecca Solnit

Climate-conscious individual choices are good – but not nearly enough to save the planet. More than personal virtue, we need collective action

Personal virtue is an eternally seductive goal in progressive movements, and the climate movement is no exception. People pop up all the time to boast of their domestic arrangements or chastise others for what they eat or how they get around. The very short counter-argument is that individual acts of thrift and abstinence won’t get us the huge distance we need to go in this decade. We need to exit the age of fossil fuels, reinvent our energy landscape, rethink how we do almost everything. We need collective action at every scale from local to global – and the good people already at work on all those levels need help in getting a city to commit to clean power or a state to stop fracking or a nation to end fossil-fuel subsidies. The revolution won’t happen by people staying home and being good.

But the oil companies would like you to think that’s how it works. It turns out that the concept of the “carbon footprint”, that popular measure of personal impact, was the brainchild of an advertising firm working for BP. As Mark Kaufman wrote this summer:

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