Challenging our High-Carbon Narratives

It has become trendy among climate activists to focus their efforts on the production, rather than just the consumption, of fossil fuels. This has a pretty solid rationale: If we take oil out of the ground, then somebody is going to burn it. If we want to save the global climate, then we have to leave fossil fuels in the ground. The implications of this are radical, but hard to deny: Most major fossil fuel extraction projects have to be phased out, and we should absolutely not be initiating any new ones such as fracking or drilling in the Arctic. This is not an idle proposition, either; it has motivated a worldwide divestment campaign, as well as some very brave protesters taking on the fossil fuel industry wherever they try to frack some shale gas, dig up some bitumen, or build a new pipeline. These people deserve your support.

We can’t afford to completely forget about fossil fuel consumption, however. Consumption and extraction are very closely linked. Just as somebody is going to find a use for all that surplus oil we’re digging up; if we don’t address high rates of fossil fuel consumption then we can also expect a massive backlash from people who are still dependent on fossil fuels to threaten our progress at keeping oil in the ground. We need both approaches.

Beyond its immediate usefulness, the “leave the oil in the ground” also contains a broader philosophical and strategic implication that we should consider; namely that on any environmental issue, we should resist the temptation to focus on proximate causes, such as people heating their homes, and make sure to take account of the root causes, such as fossil fuel production and the lack of renewable home-heating infrastructure. There are social, economic, and political drivers for every environmentally destructive practice from littering on city streets to nuclear weapons testing. The actual act that harms the environment is often merely the last step in a chain of events that was set in motion in some disparate time and place. Often it would be better to tackle the first link in the chain, rather than the last one.

It gets a bit more complicated than that, because fossil-fuel extraction is not the only thing thing that sets in motion a chain of events leading to fossil-fuel combustion. Another one, which I want to address here, is our narratives of consumption. Think about the last major purchase you bought. Were your reasons for making that purchase completely rational? If you’re honest with yourself, and you’re not a Vulcan, then the answer is probably ‘no’. Our lifestyle choices are, at least on some level, performative. We do things, spend money, and, yes, emit carbon, because doing so allows us to align ourselves with certain cultural story-lines. One of my favourite examples of this is travel. If you’ve any kind of overseas backpacking holiday, then I would wager that you did so at least partly because you bought into story-line that says that such travel experiences will change your life. Unfortunately, they also emit massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.

I don’t mean to shame anybody with this post. The fact that we base our life choices on cultural narratives is perfectly okay, and is probably a fundamental part of how culture and society works. My point here is a more positive one: The fact that these narratives can be a major driver of carbon emissions gives climate activists an in. Because these stories are always at least a little bit arbitrary. Particular narrative exist for a reason, of course-each one is probably a complex combination of historical and psychological factors, but there is more than one potentially compelling cultural story-line about any given thing. In other words: Our high-carbon narratives, like fossil fuel extraction, are just one of the many root-causes that we can tackle.

At this point, I have to turn to British Comedian David Mitchell’s rant about climate change:

The basic point of Mitchell’s rant is that we should stop pretending that climate mitigation will be fun, because we will never be able to compete with people like Jeremy Clarkson if that is our strategy. But I’m not so sure. To take one of Mitchell’s examples, who says driving a 4×4 to the North Pole while drinking gin is actually that much fun? To me, it sounds cold, dangerous, hangover-inducing, and mostly monotonous once you’ve been doing it for a day or so. Of course, very few of us actually drunk-drive large vehicles to the planet’s polar regions. But we can similarly re-frame the discussion around more everyday driving. Our myths about driving tell us that it is the ultimate freedom, because it allows us to go wherever we want completely autonomously.

I don’t deny that there are some specific cases in which driving fits this description. Despite my frequent anti-motorist killjoying, I am in fact familiar of the sense of freedom and fun that comes with a good road-trip with friends. But that’s a tiny subset of the driving that people do. Lots of things about driving are the opposite of freedom. Drivers are saddled with the responsibility to find parking spots and feed the meter, to fret over the price of gas at the nearby station versus the one in the next town over, and to ensure they remain sober enough to get themselves home safely and legally. As a non-car-driver, by comparsion, I am perfectly free to jump on a train to the other end of the country whenever I want. Once I have arrived, I can step right off the train into a city centre with no need to look for parking, and I can go to the pub without worrying about whether I will get a DUI on the way home. I enjoy a similar freedom in local travel: My bicycle can be locked up almost anywhere, and can be safely left there overnight if I decide to take the bus home instead. So while you can tell a story in which driving is something that gives you the freedom to go where you please on your own schedule; you can tell a different one in which driving imposes a whole set of extra responsibilities on you that severely restrict how you can live your everyday life.

The choice between the two narratives I just presented is somewhat arbitrary. There is no scientific experiment or logical argument that could actually determine whether cars embody freedom. Furthermore, the freedom I experience as a non-driver is contingent on having public transit options and cycle infrastructure available to me. The point I want to make, though, that there is a cultural battle here that climate activists should be fighting. It is, thankfully, already being fought in a few places. And not just in terms of transportation, either. Financial blogger Mr. Money Mustache, in particular, is doing a great job dismantling some of the myths driving consumption, and replacing them with a very appealing narrative about frugality and a life of leisure and autonomy. We should do more of this. We should be challenging the adventure narratives that make people carbon-intensive holidays to other continents, the personal fulfilment narratives that make people buy a bunch of useless and environmentally-destructive stuff, and the health and fitness narratives that make people feel like they have to eat meat every single day of the week. Because ultimately, asking people to live more sustainably while continuing to perpetuate myths of conspicuous consumption is about as sensible as digging up a bunch of fossil fuels and asking people not to burn them.

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