Business Opinion

Don't believe fossil fuel lies — we didn't start the fire

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Fossil fuel companies keep the fires burning while shifting the blame onto the consumer for environmental destruction (Screenshot via YouTube)

Oil companies have manipulated consumers with the falsehood that our buying behaviour has made us responsible for the climate crisis, writes Dr Amanda McLeod.

THE NOTION of an individual’s “carbon footprint” was popularised and exploited by BP – British Petroleum – one of the world’s largest emitters. By placing the onus on the individual, such companies were free to go about their business — making obscene profits and f***ing up the planet.

Consumers were manipulated to believe that they were doing enough if they were “aware” of their consumptive behaviour. We could acknowledge our prosperity while, at the same time, be locked into a relationship with the big polluters however much we wanted to reject it.

To a large extent, we accepted the myth. We wanted to believe that we were doing the right thing and acting as enlightened citizens. It almost goes without saying that it should be up to governments to legislate for all, not only for vested interests. Yet, consumerism is based on the notion that the consumer is the one who holds all the cards — consumers have the power (and the time) to influence the market for their own benefit.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

This is not just an economic problem; it is also an ethical one. Most people would not actively and knowingly engage in abhorrent activities. Yet when we invest in a particular company or buy its products, we are tacitly approving its practices regardless of the consequences. This is what we do every day.

The cards are stacked against us as informed consumers. When it comes to buying, there are often no ethical alternatives to the myriad of products that are available. We often have to go without to act ethically at all.

But the notion that we can influence companies to act ethically by our own buying behaviour is a smokescreen. It obscures the primary focus of all companies to make profits. Profit must come first, for shareholders and, so the growth myth goes, for the prosperity of the wider population. For many companies, ethical consequences are a favourable outcome but not a raison d’etre.

Putting the onus on us, as consumers, is not fair. But there is no other way.

But if we are all consumers now, then ethical consumption might be all we have.

Dr Amanda McLeod has a BA (Honours), majoring in history and philosophy and a PhD in consumer history. She writes on politics, economics and Australian life.

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