Regulations Will Save Our Planet, Not Guilt
Governments must stop shifting the blame onto us and face reality: corporate regulations and higher taxes are essential to saving our planet.
“How can I save the planet?” or “what can I do to save the environment?” are questions we all have googled at least once. Faced with a catastrophe we now know we cannot avoid, it is natural that we citizens of the world, inhabitants of this pale blue dot, would be concerned and would look for actionable solutions. We all realise that however small our contribution, it matters in the end. We see the danger ahead and want to act to limit its consequences.
Some of us feel like our parents’ and grandparents’ generations did nothing to prevent this while they could; we resent them for their devil-may-care attitude that brought this mess unto us. I’m willing to wager many of us also feel guilty when we read articles and watch the news; when we learn that over the past 50 years, the world animal population has decreased by over 70%. We also feel desperate when we hear that the best we can hope for is to “avoid the worst.” We grew up dreaming of the future; today, it scares us. We need to make the future great again, but we know we can’t, and we suffer a pang of terrible guilt for it.
It is this guilt that pushes us to act.
It is also this guilt that shields the real culprits.
If you do google “how can I save the planet,” the almighty algorithm might take you, as it did me, to an NOAA webpage titled “Protecting Our Planet Starts with You.” On it, you’ll find this handy table outlining ten things you can start doing today to “help protect the Earth”:
I wouldn’t criticise any advice on this list: they are all practical. As a whole, these ten points provide a framework for more conscious and reasonable behaviours, but at the end of the day, it should all be common sense, shouldn't it? “Save water”? “Don’t throw food away”? It isn’t exactly rocket science.
Recent years did demonstrate an inverse correlation between ocean temperatures and the average intelligence of a large part of the world’s population, but still! One needs not be Einstein to understand any of it.
In a perfect world, the list would be one-sentence long: “Don't be an a-hole.” If you require peer-reviewed articles to reach this conclusion, you should feel concerned.
What irks me, however, is how this kind of advice put the entire onus on us. These actions should not be our sole responsibilities as citizens. This kind of lists is nothing but a cop-out from the real issues that our governments fail to tackle, namely corporate regulation and fairer taxation. Whether because of cowardice or complicity, it is their failure that dooms the world in fine, not our behaviours.
Look at the list again. In broad strokes, it tells us to buy the right quantities of the rights and adequately dispose of them. It wants us to educate ourselves and to engage in civic work. It also asks us to make sacrifices. It’s all so obvious; you should feel bad and guilty if you don’t do it. Here, to me, is where the shoe pinches.
When I read that Coca Cola, Pepsi, and Nestlé are the world’s largest plastic polluters, I think of the people who throw their plastic waste in the ocean, and I’m angry at them. Then I realise most of these people probably live in countries with no proper sanitation system and no waste-management infrastructure.
It is challenging to enforce end-user behaviours on a global scale. There are millions of people throwing plastic in the ocean, yet there are only a handful of mega-corporations responsible for the plastic in the first place. Wouldn’t it be easier to regulate and tax these five to ten companies, instead of trying to ask millions to change how they behave? Instead of telling millions of people not to buy new electronic devices every few months, shouldn’t companies be forced to manufacture easy-to-repair products? Couldn’t we regulate planned obsolescence?
I am a firm believer in the idea that capitalism’s unrelenting guilt-trip has dis-empowered us on an existential level. We have been conditioned by decades of well-oiled propaganda and targetted marketing to believe that the system was perfect and that we were not.
When we succeed, individually and as a society, it is proof capitalism works. When we fail, it’s proof we, citizens, haven’t done enough. This reasoning has expanded beyond the economy to all social aspects of our lives, including environmental policy.
Our governments are focused on changing billions of people's behaviours and habits. They are intent on having the middle-class, if it still exists, foot the bill through taxes on consumer goods or fuel tax on airplane tickets. We are told that it is the sum of our individual behaviours that is the cause of the problem. It is all our behaviours we must change. They never consider that, were we given proper alternatives, we would do it.
In the same way that online music piracy died out when Spotify appeared, environmentally-negative behaviours would rescind if we were provided with the right products and services.
Regulating and taxing a few hundred companies' activities would be far more comfortable, faster, and achieve much more than guilt-tripping billions into changing their habits and behaviours at a higher personal cost.