A Google search for “carbon footprint” might yield 188 million results, including a continuous stream of daily Google News results explaining why you should cut salmon or chicken from your diet, wash clothes more sustainably, or check the emissions of your grocery list. At the same time, googling “pipeline protest” yields maybe 11 million results, or “coal mine protest” 5 million results, with far less representation of prominent news sources and sites. In this discrepancy of coverage and discussion, we see a grievous misunderstanding, because it is collective action — including action against fossil fuels — and not small changes to personal behavior that can meet the challenges of our time.
An individualistic approach to environmental justice — focusing on personal emissions and “starting with small steps” at home — too often serves as a distraction. It can absorb attention from caring, environmentally conscious people who need to be acting to build movements and implement environmentally and socially responsible policies at local, regional, and national levels. Indeed, the term “carbon footprint” itself is a BP invention — placing the responsibility for climate change on small consumers. But it is only through collective power and organizing that companies like BP can be kept from baking our planet — not through individual steps.
In the absence of social housing, transit, regulatory, environmental protection, and energy policies, the steps individuals take to reduce consumption accomplish too little. Reducing online video streaming or calculating and buying carbon offsets hit our wallets and our day-to-day relaxation with little return. Using less AC and heat is good, but in an American suburban development model, enormous wasted living space by global standards will soak up energy anyway. Even the Holy Grails of personal emissions reduction — going solar and getting an electric car — require a lot of time and money for their benefits. Small solar installations are cost-inefficient compared to big projects and dangerous to roofers. Typical electric cars cause a couple tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, which is significant. Steps to live simply can benefit us financially, spiritually, and emotionally and certainly free up our resources — all of these above-named steps are worth taking for many people in many circumstances. The mechanism for environmental change is, however, not privately shifting behavior, but rather acting together.
Tangible action on the environmental crisis is social. It looks less like greening your house, and more like going to city council meetings and pushing for dense public housing projects and public transit; acting against homelessness and developing climate-friendly housing. It’s less about going vegetarian and more about advocating for local schools to participate in Meatless Mondays, sharply reducing all sorts of environmental harms. It’s less about biking to work, and more about asking your councilor why on Earth there is no enforcement when cars block bike lanes.
And perhaps the epitome of a social, organizing approach to fighting fossil fuels is obstructing coal mines and pipelines. When we look at real resistance to fossil fuel projects, we see the truest contrast of reduced consumption versus climate organizing. If 1,000 Americans each make lifestyle adjustments to reduce carbon for a year, they will modestly reduce their emissions for one year. If these same 1,000 people organize themselves to protest a coal mine and prevent a single larger coal mine bucket wheel excavator from working for three days, based on a sample of 144 mines, they will have prevented the extraction of coal whose CO2 content equals their entire 77.28 year lifetime emissions. Needless to say, effective protest actions that affect full mining operations have effects at a huge scale. In Germany, thousands of protestors likely delayed the destruction of the village of Lützerath for years, perhaps sparing tens of millions of tons of coal being extracted and burned — perhaps the equivalent of the lifetime emissions of 100,000–200,000 Germans.
Thwarting pipeline projects delivers even greater benefits. The 773 people arrested protesting Enbridge Line 3 — an enormous pipeline — to name another example, can hold their heads high for having contributed significantly to delaying that project for two years. In two years running at capacity, that pipeline could pump enough oil to equal the lifetime carbon emissions of about 215,000 Americans.
Even in the case of pipeline or coal mine protests that do not realize long-term delays in projects, protests can massively increase costs in ways that affect fossil fuel industries. The Dakota Access Pipeline protests were short and hotly fought in 2016–2017 – they killed the project under the Obama administration, only to see the project resurrected by a victorious Trump after protesters had gone home. In the end, the pipeline was only delayed briefly, but several billion dollars of extra costs accompanied it — as many as $7.5 billion in total costs, twice original expectations — a real impact on a several hundred billion dollar industry.
Stand With Standing Rock delivered even more important benefits later. It powered a surge of mobilization of Native American organizing and cultural and land-rights actions that extends far beyond fossil fuel protests. It directly activated and politicized Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez by her own account, and electrified a generation of young leftists. The blow to the industry of course increased the insurance costs of future projects and generated huge negative publicity for fossil fuels. These effects on insurance costs are unknowable (even more so than many other statistics that are relevant to these arguments, with so many variables), but we can know this: protest actions are massively costly for corporations and the law enforcement thugs they deploy.
Actually, assigning numerical values to the real effects of protests and direct action against pipelines would be very difficult. Knowing the exact emissions avoided is impossible because it depends on how close to capacity a mine or pipeline is running. Assessing the financial losses would depend on market values for fossil fuels at a given time and the added costs borne by corporations for their projects and for increased insurance costs in the future — unknowable. It is fairly easy to see, though, that the scale of these projects and the destruction they cause is massive, and disruption to them can come at low financial cost, though of course at high cost in personal courage and engagement on the part of activists and supporters.
Environmental and indigenous activists who resist fossil fuel projects tend not to portray their actions as climate pragmatism, for a variety of understandable reasons. But communities of environmental wonks, academics, and day-to-day environmentally conscious folks should take note: tossing fossil fuel projects into the dustbin of history profoundly shapes markets and provides an excellent and perhaps the only way to a sustainable future. We do not have a functioning democracy. Gerrymandering, racialized incarceration, corporate donations and lobbying and bribery, election queues, and billionaire-owned media deny us the mechanisms for change. The fossil fuel projects they force through are by-and-large against the will of both local and national communities — we do not have to live with them. With protests, direct action, donations to organizers, financial support and advocacy for protestors’ legal needs, and phone banking, we can defeat or hamstring fossil fuel infrastructure, and the numbers show that we should.
An individualized, consumer-focused sense of complicity and responsibility is perhaps a sign of this mentality. We are taught to think our responsibility in the face of climate change is to consume less or differently. But this is not how we understand historic wrongs, even ones tied to consumer products. Global consumers’ responsibility in the face of slavery was not to not buy clothes or sugar (though there were some boycotts as a part of political strategy) — it was to illegalize the slave trade so that no one could choose to buy slave-produced products, not simply those who chose to shop differently. The responsibility of occupied Europe in World War II was not to stop shopping to slow the Nazi economy — it was to end Nazism. We need people to be responsible citizens in the face of climate change. But to understand that responsibility primarily or even solely in terms of personal living habits diverts us from extraordinarily effective steps we can take — collective, powerful action that is the best hope we have for meeting the crisis.
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