Last October, I visited the Anthropocene exhibit at the AGO. This exhibit featured work from the award-winning trio comprised of photographer Edward Burtynsky, and filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. From the AGO’s exhibition overview: “Anthropocene dramatically illustrates how we, individually and collectively, are leaving a human signature on our world.”
There were incredible drone shots of landscapes from every continent that at first glance looked beautiful. The colours, the shapes, the lines—I didn’t understand what I was looking at. Upon closer inspection, I realized all the images depicted places that were completely desecrated due to human activity. These were not just forests being cut down, or icebergs melting, these were unbelievably large expanses of land that held astronomical amounts of waste and pollution caused by giant corporations and production processes. There were photos of waste created by copper and metal mining (which are used to make technology that companies plan on making obsolete), huge swathes of marine life completely marbled by oil companies, and more images that portrayed similar horrors. By the end of the exhibit, I felt small. I thought using reusable totes and mason jars made a difference, but I could see that in reality, it was so incredibly marginal.
When I was 10, I did a project on the lives of David Suzuki and Jane Goodall. They made me fall in love with nature! But they also made me feel like I had the power to make a difference. I became a vegetarian and never looked back. I would delight in checking out library books about being “eco-friendly” and felt like I could even call myself an environmentalist (this confidence a result of a 13-year-old girl who got an A on her climate change project). This is also where I was introduced with the concept of the ‘Individualization of Responsibility’.
Within the context of the environment, the individualization of responsibility is the misunderstanding that the current environmental crisis has been caused through the shortcomings of everyday individuals and can be solved through the efforts of consumer choices. This is an incredibly toxic world view because it dumps the responsibility to take care of our planet on the everyday person. It does not consider political influence, institutionalized power dynamics, or even the fact that hey! only 100 companies are responsible for over 70% of global emissions!
Companies like Shell, BP, and Exxon who lobby powerful policymakers to continue society’s dependence on fossil fuels are slowly killing the Earth. All so that they don’t risk losing more than 2 TRILLION dollars from investments.
It’s really infuriating that we’ve been convinced that doing things like banning plastic straws (which is actually incredibly ableist), bringing reusable totes everywhere, or hoarding mason jars is how we are going to solve climate change. Yet we refuse to acknowledge the ridiculousness of the concept that everyday people contribute to the same lengths that the coal industry does. Now, don’t get me wrong, public awareness of the environment and reducing your carbon footprint is AMAZING! But multi-billion dollar corporations DEPEND on this “every little bit helps” rhetoric in order to deflect the responsibility of climate change onto individuals instead of themselves.
It’s not the fact that I make the choice to bring my reusable mug to Tim Hortons, it’s the fact that Tim Hortons hasn’t created a better (recyclable?) cup even though millions end up in the landfill every year—and that’s wrong! What makes more sense: calling a struggling university student lazy for not bringing a reusable cup, or calling a multi-billion dollar company irresponsible for not being accountable for the waste directly caused by them? It’s the fact that McDonald's has signs displayed in their stories about using only one napkin per meal while relying on the meat and dairy industry, one of the leading causes of global warming.
Now, my gut reaction was to ignore all this. All my reduce, reuse, recycle bullshit of bringing my reusable bags and refusing plastic water bottles all made me feel like I had control; I had control over if I wanted to contribute to more of the environmental crisis. But that control was an illusion. Our society needs a massive overhaul of the way we produce and exist if we want to meet the UN’s 12-year goal before irreversible environmental destruction occurs.
So this is my challenge for you: find that inner environmentalist that loves nature and that I know is inside every one of you. Vote for politicians who do not subsidize or take money from the fossil fuel industry. Vote for people who have an environmental plan, endorse green energy and sustainability projects. Vote for policies that offer sustainable alternatives. What is most powerful, and perhaps why the individualization of responsibility is so prevalent amongst environmental discourse, is that the alternative is realizing you can’t single-handedly change the world—and that’s okay.
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