Cop26 leaders blame individuals, while supporting a far more destructive system
It suits governments to lecture us on our consumption, but they need to offer systemic change if we are to tackle the climate crisis
- Stephen Reicher is a member of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science
The protesters gathered in Glasgow for Cop26 are a diverse group – at the demonstration on Saturday I watched everybody file past – from international socialists to Scottish nationalists, healthcare workers to striking refuse workers, from indigenous activists at the very front to cycling enthusiasts at the very back.
But while the groups were all very different, I was struck by the commonality of their message: they all recognise that we cannot solve the climate crisis through the same means that created it. Whether that is the extractive industries destroying indigenous lands, or the carbon-hungry transport systems that crowd out cyclists.
In short, they proclaim that we cannot survive through business as usual. Sadly, those inside the conference rooms at Cop are focused on doing precisely that. Too often they are simply grafting superficial climate solutions on to the basic machinery of profit-seeking, resource-extraction and endless growth.
This is exemplified by the fact that there are 503 delegates from fossil fuel companies at Cop26, two dozen more than the largest country delegation. Despite an official ban on fossil fuel companies participating directly, few in power have raised the alarm about this.
In wider society, we can see this attitude in the torrent of greenwashing adverts coinciding with the conference. One recent McDonald’s spot boasts of the way the company is recycling cooking oil into truck fuel, coffee cups into greetings cards, and plastic toys into children’s playgrounds. It concludes with the slogan, “Change a little change a lot”.
The problem is that it makes no mention of the fact that McDonald’s beef footprint alone constitutes 22m metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year. And it is simultaneously running another advert for a limited time offer of a double Big Mac. It is asking us to double our consumption of something already disastrous for planetary survival.
McDonald’s advertising approach is emblematic of the way in which companies seek to continue with business as usual, by distracting us from where the real problems lie. Its adverts represent just one of many strategies by which this is accomplished.
One of the most common methods is to turn the climate crisis from a systemic into an individual issue. Some defend the consumerist system by insisting that it is up to the public to change their patterns of consumption – even as companies urge us to consume ever more.
George Monbiot has traced the long history of this strategy, which started in 1953 with the Keep America Beautiful campaign, funded by packaging manufacturers who sought to blame “litter bugs” – rather than the shift to plastic packaging – for environmental damage. He shows the success of such strategies, which lead the public to think that their own misbehaviour in the form of littering is the major cause of, for example, river pollution, when this is actually relatively trivial compared to the constant flow of chemicals from farming and sewage spills. He calls this approach of focusing on minimal-but-personal individual actions “micro-consumerist bollocks”, or MCB.
In fact, MCB is an instance of something larger: the politicised reduction of behaviour to individual psychology. Powerful actors such as governments and corporations often blame individuals for bad choices, while avoiding calling attention to the larger societal pressures that influence their behaviour. This is something I have written about in relation to the Covid crisis: government blaming the public for breaking lockdown or not self-isolating when infected, when the real problem was the lack of government support to allow them to do so. Or ministers castigating people for mixing more socially, when the real problem was the requirement that they go back to work.
By suggesting that our own fragile psychology is the problem, government seeks to deflect from the fact that its refusal to act is the real issue – the ultimate source of our failures. Exactly the same is true with regard to the climate crisis.
What is vital in both crises is to understand that this is not primarily about intractable individual psychology. We must realise that the major problems derive from society-wide factors and that the solutions primarily involve changing the systems of society itself. As with Covid, we can’t expect people to improve ventilation in their rooms if they’re in a building where the windows don’t actually open; so we can’t break our dependency on gas-guzzling cars if clean and publicly accessible alternatives don’t exist.
This doesn’t mean that psychology is entirely irrelevant to the climate crisis. But we must shift from an obsessive focus on individual consumer psychology to a psychology of collective action. We should ask what leads to people coming together to demand the systemic change we need, and what are the barriers to achieving this.
Further, what are the forms of appeal and of organisation that will involve people in solutions rather than demoralise or alienate them? How can we organise and facilitate engagement in mass action in such a way as to make them fully democratic and inclusive spaces where everybody feels at home?
Once we take that approach, we can return to the question of individual consumption and ask if there are ways of making our personal choices as a way of developing – rather than distracting from – systemic change. Perhaps we can learn from the anti-apartheid movement, which turned a consumer boycott of South African goods into an overt political act, and brought people together to put pressure on institutions to disinvest. In this way a grassroots movement of individual people gained the power to force corporate giants such as Barclays Bank to change its policies in South Africa.
The bottom line is that those inside Cop26 have let us down with their focus on business as usual. Our governors have failed to act as leaders. We need to use every means we have to force change upon them. To do that, we must not ignore the micro-realities of our everyday lives and everyday choices, but rather use them as forms of movement building.
Stephen Reicher is a member of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science. He is a professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews, a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and an authority on crowd psychology