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We are living in a time of chronic infantilisation and it’s hurting our environment

This refusal to believe personal action matters in fight against climate change is foolish on multiple levels

Taylor Swift has an environment problem. The singer’s private jet has racked up more air miles than any of her fellow celebrities, according to the sustainability firm Yard, dumping tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere and hastening the demise of our fragile and burning planet. Kylie Jenner — the youngest Kardashian sister — has a lot to answer for too. A 15-minute plane journey? Really?

This kind of news always engenders a fatalistic response. Why bother, so the argument goes, moderate your own carbon output if celebrities (and even politicians with eco-conscious policy platforms) seem unwilling to make any such sacrifice?

I remember being taught the central importance of recycling in primary school. The practice was never going to be a silver bullet — 10-year-olds do not generate nearly as much landfill fodder as any company. But the message, that the environment was everyone’s responsibility, seemed an important one. In the ensuing years, however, the debate has radically shifted.

You could burn tires and heat the colosseum with peat and make no identifiable dent in the world’s weekly — let alone annual — emissions

No longer do our personal choices matter at all. Instead, “the big polluters’ masterstroke was to blame the climate crisis on you and me” argued George Monbiot in the Guardian. Michael Mann lamented the “industry-funded ‘deflection campaigns’ aimed to divert attention from big polluters and place the burden on individuals.” In the Daily Beast, Jay Michaelson said “individual behaviour change isn’t action — it’s distraction.” S E Smith wrote a sprawling essay condemning meaningless “personal action” as a solution to the rapidly heating planet.

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And Martin Luckaks blamed our favourite scapegoat of all: “Neoliberalism has conned us into fighting climate change as individuals” the headline went.

So much for recycling then, I guess. But the problem with their case is that it is as simple as it is weak. The climate crisis is not the fault of the little man like you and I, they explain, but corporations, airlines, miserly governments and energy providers who elevate profiteering as their ultimate goal. They might cite the Carbon Majors report of 2017 that attributed 70 per cent of emissions to just 100 companies.

Nothing they say is technically wrong. We can be sure that a single private individual changing their habits will not alter the planet’s trajectory; and that sweeping changes to ameliorate the current apocalyptic prophecies are within the gift of multinationals and governments. You could burn tires and heat the colosseum with peat and make no identifiable dent in the world’s weekly — let alone annual — emissions.

But rather than progressive or thoughtful, this message is about as solipsistic and individualistic as they come. The fatalists explain that the problem is a “systemic” one, far beyond the reaches of a 10-year-old’s recycling habits. But, we might ask what these people think the so-called system is comprised of if not people like you and I. The “system” and its members are not separate entities. On what plain would someone have to operate, so obviously detached from the rest of the world, that none of their behaviour matters at all?

The argument that our behaviour is irrelevant because we are not famous like Taylor Swift, selfish like four-by-four drivers, or powerful like Shell is utterly supine

In writer Annie Lowery’s defence of performative environmentalism — that is, making small personal behavioural changes to offset the climate crisis — she explains that “social change is built on a foundation of individual practice.” People are remarkably conventionally minded, and behave far more like herd animals than anyone likes to admit. Lowery goes on to cite several studies: the decision of when to have children is dependent on whether our peers are doing the same; the propensity to binge drink is contingent on your social circle too. “Taxes and Peer Effects”, a 2016 study, found much the same when it comes to paying and reporting your tax burden. Popular teenagers who smoke are more likely to influence their peers to do so, too.

It seems odd, then, to follow the fatalist’s line of reasoning. Why would individual climate change action — such as recycling, buying an electric car, opting out of short haul flying where possible — not be subject to this age-old, well-documented, and scientifically supported phenomenon? Our behaviour influences those around us, and in turn those circles of influence grow larger. If we want to throw around terms like “systemic change” then this is as much part of it as anything else.

This refusal to believe personal action matters is not just foolish on a pragmatic level. It demonstrates that we are living in a time of chronic self-infantilisation. The argument that our behaviour is irrelevant because we are not famous like Taylor Swift, selfish like four-by-four drivers, or powerful like Shell is utterly supine. And more importantly: it outsources our moral responsibility to the bogeyman of “neoliberalism”, attempting to absolve ourselves of any kind of sin. Nihilism settles in and becomes the guiding principle.

Taylor Swift’s plane might be one of the most well travelled in the world. But what message would it be to children that everything they do is inconsequential because of that?