Banning plastic straws and bringing reusable bags for shopping and groceries are campaigns making a splash in the popular consciousness right now, and a step in the right direction for reducing pollution. Individuals recognizing the seriousness of pollution as an issue and how it contributes to overall environmental health is crucial for enacting change that will mitigate the effects of decades long behavior that has proven to be unsustainable. However, it’s imperative for Americans to realize how damaging their individualistic viewpoints can be towards making effective change. As a society, there must be a more conscious effort to zoom out and take in the wider context that our culture exists in. Companies are the greatest contributors to pollution, and unless we as a society hold them accountable for the damage they have done, the change that needs to be made will always be out of reach.
Plastic pollution is a relatively new phenomenon. Since its invention in 1907 and the economic boom post-WWII, plastic has become one of the most common materials a person is likely to encounter at any given point throughout their day. Single use plastics have become one of the largest contributors to ocean pollution since they have been marketed as more sanitary and an overall convenient design that is perfect for short lived but often repeated tasks or cheaper alternatives to materials that are more durable i.e. metal. Behavior around pollution can change, as seen with public campaigns such as cutting 6-pack plastic rings when the public was made aware of marine animals becoming trapped and deformed as a result of this specific type of pollution.
BP (British Petroleum), the company responsible for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, is well aware of how much it contributes to pollution, even before they had to pay millions of dollars to US courts for the oil spill. One of their most interesting contributions to environmental issues, besides the amount of pollution that is created from drilling and processing oil, is the term “carbon footprint.” The concept of a carbon footprint seems helpful for individuals when identifying ways to reduce harmful impact upon the environment. However, as discussed by Mark Kaufman in his “The carbon footprint sham” for Mashable, further analysis as to why this concept is not as helpful as it appears to be on the surface, and why it has been gaining such traction among the public (especially Americans), shows that it shifts blame entirely onto individuals.
This seems logical in Western societies, where the focus on the individual rather than the collective is highlighted, and the obligations a person feels towards its society is much less so than in other societies in which extended kinship relationships are the norm more so than typical nuclear families in Western culture. The creation of a term that recognizes how harmful excessive carbon emissions are and stresses the importance of small actions people are capable of choosing creates the illusion that the little difference in choice for individuals is the reason why we’ve dug ourselves into such a hole instead of recognizing that there are powerful conglomerates spending a lot of time, energy, and money on being able to continue as they have making money and keeping people in power who will ensure they can remain this way. The source of these choices stem ultimately from companies that have taken advantage of a system that lets them run unchecked and their processes unreviewed until significant damage has already been done.
Instead of becoming obsessed with reducing personal carbon emissions down to zero, a change that American individuals should focus on is researching and voting for candidates who make environmental stewardship a priority and will pass legislation that holds companies to greater scrutiny at the congressional, state, and local levels. Additionally, when problems (inevitably) arise from companies trying to take shortcuts and paying fines instead of adhering to stricter regulations, citizens need to join politically active groups that petition the government and file lawsuits against offending companies.
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