Going Beyond “Carbon Footprint”

By Jenevra Wetmore

Activists young and old take a stand for climate change, climate action, and a better future. NYC September 2019. Photo by Katie Rodriguez on Unsplash

Most of us are familiar with the term “carbon footprint,” defined as the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions associated with all the activities of a person or organization. People have individual carbon footprints, but so do governments, schools, and businesses. Your footprint is determined by the food you eat, how and how much you travel, how you heat your home, how much waste you produce, and much more. All of these activates produce direct or indirect CO2 emissions; CO2 is a greenhouse gas that absorbs and radiates heat, contributing to global warming.

There are many carbon footprint calculators on the internet, and countless articles about ways to reduce your personal footprint. The idea behind the carbon footprint is that it acts as a way for us to evaluate our contribution to climate change and encourages us to adopt more sustainable practices. These are important and meaningful changes we can all make in our lives, such as composting, eating less meat, installing a heat pump, and even simple things like turning off the lights and unplugging devices you aren’t using. These efforts all focus on the actions that we as individuals can take to combat the climate crisis–but they miss the source of the problem.

As we focus on personal responsibility, we risk overlooking the need for sweeping, systemic changes. This is not by accident. The roots of the carbon footprint concept trace back to a strategic move by BP in 2004. This multinational oil and gas company, seeking to improve its public image, enlisted the help of the public relations firm Ogilvy & Mather. The result was BP’s carbon footprint calculator, a tool that shifted the narrative of responsibility from corporations to individuals by encouraging people to reduce their personal carbon footprint. This calculated move diverted attention away from the companies primarily responsible for environmental degradation, placing the onus on everyday consumers.

Placing the responsibility for climate change squarely on the shoulders of consumers can induce paralyzing guilt. This is especially true for low-income people, who do not have the extra income to spend on electric vehicles and heat pumps. Our American society does not guarantee health care, or even enough food for struggling families. Expecting these individuals to monitor and reduce their carbon footprint becomes not only unrealistic but profoundly unfair. Creating guilt around a person’s inability to afford an electric vehicle will not advance the climate movement– rather, it is disempowering.   

Author and activist Bill McKibben urges us to look beyond the practical green initiatives in our personal lives and engage in symbolic political action. He writes, “along with spending a lot of time figuring out how to make your own life practically green (because, it’s true, how are you going to face your kids if you don’t?), spend at least a little time figuring out how to engage in the symbolic political action that might actually add up to something useful.”

While reducing personal carbon footprints remains a commendable endeavor, it must coexist with a broader commitment to political engagement. We must shift the narrative back to the industries responsible for environmental degradation, and ensure that the burden of climate action does not disproportionately fall on the shoulders of individuals already grappling with the challenges of daily life. When we transform from mere consumers to political actors, we unlock the potential for real change – a change that transcends the limitations of personal responsibility and addresses the climate crisis at its core.

What you can do:
  • Write a letter of support to your local paper or call your legislators when climate initiatives are up for discussion.
  • Join 350Vermont, part of an international environmental organization addressing the climate crisis, or the Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC), which maintains a constant presence in the Vermont Legislature.
  • Join Sustainable Woodstock’s Energy Action Group by emailing programs@sustainablewoodstock.org. This will notify you of important opportunities for local advocacy.


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