The problem with environmentalists’ “consumer good, producer bad” narrative
The Carbon Majors Database was established in 2013 by Richard Heede of the Climate Acccountability Institute. Its premise is simple: rather than analysing the carbon emissions of nations, it instead looks at the output of individual companies. In 2017, they published their first report, with a stunning revelation: that year, just a hundred companies produced nearly one trillion tonnes of greenhouse gases, which indeed constitutes 71% of total emissions. Perhaps even more surprisingly, just 25 producers have been responsible for more than half of emissions since 1988.
It isn’t hard to see why these figures have been received enthusiastically by so many on the left. It fits perfectly with the narrative that all economic, social and planetary ills are traceable to a handful of commercial villains, propping up the evil system of western market capitalism. Just recently, a clip from BBC show “Frankie Boyle’s New World Order”, featuring a monologue by environmental campaigner and Guardian journalist George Monbiot, went viral on social media. Denouncing calls for environmentally responsible lifestyles as “consumerist b******s”, he had his own somewhat predictable solution to one of the biggest and most complicated challenges facing humanity in the next century: “We’ve got to go straight to the heart of capitalism and overthrow it.”
The problem with this assessment of the situation is that, when it comes to environmentally damaging products, it takes two to tango. BP will only drill as much oil as society demands. Coca-Cola will only manufacture as many single-use plastic bottles as we who enjoy guzzling their drinks buy. Mobile phone manufacturers will only procure as much coltan as the market demands. The fashionable “consumer good, producer bad” rhetoric is nonsense. You cannot reduce the production of anything without also, by the very same token, reducing its consumption. You cannot hurt producers without also hurting consumers. Companies are not producing anything for the sake of it, and they are not emitting CO2 for the sake of it either. They are satisfying a market demand for goods and services (including intermediary ones, which are part of the production process of something else), and CO2 emissions are an unfortunate by-product of that.
By shifting the emphasis from the consumer to the producer, anti-capitalist environmentalists are implying that there is an easy, costless and painless solution to climate change. Don’t bother making lifestyle changes. Let’s just shut down those 100 companies (or at least, severely restrict their activities), and presto – problem solved. You’ll barely notice the difference; it will just hurt a few billionaires.
Once you spell it out like that, the absurdity becomes self-evident (which is why campaigners prefer to keep it vague). Given that we all use goods and services produced by those companies – sometimes directly, and more often indirectly, because their products are used in the production of something else – a major reduction in their activities automatically and inevitably also leads to a major reduction in our living standards. If this is what environmentalists want, fair enough – but they should be honest about it. They should stop pretending that these companies are just sitting there, polluting the atmosphere and making money, and that this has nothing to do with the rest of us.
The fact of the matter is, precisely how to allocate responsibility for emissions is an extremely difficult task, which requires a nuanced appreciation of the interplay between different agents – both corporate and consumer. Likewise, the question of how to tackle climate change is extremely difficult. The narrative that we are only encountering difficulties because of capitalism, corporate greed and a hundred or so companies is convenient, but it ignores the reality of the situation: that the enormously complicated situation in which we find ourselves was essentially an inevitable challenge posed by the chemistry of our planet, rather than being a result of a specific economic system.
It was inevitable that humans would discover the amazing potential offered by the chemical fuels buried beneath our feet. It was inevitable that we would build our societies on these fuels, and become intractably reliant upon them in every aspect of our lives. And it was inevitable that transitioning to suitable alternatives in a timely fashion would be an unprecedented challenge. It is not inevitable that we fail – but we must firmly resist those who cynically use this challenge as an excuse to destroy centuries of progress and tear down the entire economic system, which would be an enormous step back for the environment as well as human welfare.