Climate change: Dispelling the myth of the one-man-army

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When it comes to saving the environment, a one-man-army isn't a logical choice (Image edited by Dan Jensen)

In terms of saving the world from environmental damage, it's time to stop thinking individually and act as a global community, writes Simon Black.

THE PHRASE “litterbug” was created when a tobacco company joined forces with soft drink giants and conned several generations into taking responsibility for the problems billion dollar industries had created. It’s a crock. And we should be angry.

Chances are you’re not Rambo, striding alone and standing against injustice as a one-person army.

Nor are you Dirty Harry, Ellen Ripley or John McClane.

But that’s a good thing. Rambo didn’t want to be Rambo and neither should you.

Despite what popular culture and countless advertising campaigns tell you, the way to solve big problems isn’t by going it alone, taking individual responsibility, standing up straight with your shoulders back and cleaning your room.

The people who tell you it is are conning you, and getting away with a cruel and dirty trick, and it needs to stop.

Strangely enough, it was Sylvester Stallone who first got me thinking about community, individual action and how weird and messed up our ideas of them are.

It was 1999 and I was reading a media story about Sly’s newly released movie Copland. I was 17 and was excited to see the action hero I had worshipped through my youth in a more serious role — he had even gotten fat for it.

I was surprised and intrigued.

In Copland, Stallone plays the sheriff of a suburban New Jersey town populated almost entirely by big city police officers. It weaves a crooked tale of corruption, murder and betrayal — standard Hollywood fare, really.

Most people will remember the movie as “the one where Sly got fat and acted as well as Robert De Niro”, if they remember it at all.

But the thing I remember is a journalist’s description of Stallone’s face as he watched the film’s finale for the first time. It was “pensive” and “glum”, and right after watching it, he “sunk into a chair, a look of defeat on his face”.

His problem? The hero was alone.

“Where's the crowd following me?” Stallone asked director James Mangold. “Where are the people?”

“This is the lone man," Mangold replied. “It's High Noon! The single man!”

And that’s the problem.

You see, Stallone had earlier told the journalist that he wanted Copland to be different.

He didn’t just want to put on weight to look like an everyman, he wanted to actually be an everyman — to show the way an everyman affected change.

In the article, Stallone said:

“To me, the ultimate movies are about the workforce. Everyday labour. Because labour, I think, affects everything. It gets at the core of our existence.”

Previous heroes, played by John Wayne, Kirk Douglas and Steve McQueen, had been “part of a system” and were “hard-working” but ended up “leading an army”, mostly through necessity.

Compare that to Stallone's generation of action heroes, who are lone heroes striding off into the sunset — the “one-man army”.

As Stallone himself put it:

“We're not fighting for America… it's personal. The man, he's on his own. I have to be my own country. I have to be my own citadel. No one's gonna watch my back.”

And that’s the pervasive myth in our popular culture now: the individual, the personal, take responsibility for yourself.

Because no one's gonna watch your back.

And it’s bullshit.

Now don’t get me wrong, personal responsibility is a good thing. I’m not arguing for a lack of individual action. It serves a purpose and is a key part of human satisfaction and happiness.

But it’s not a solve-all.

It’s especially not going to solve the big things, and the groups and people who are telling you it is are conning you.

In Australia, if you want to save the environment you are told to embrace reusable coffee cups, recycle, cut down on your personal use of plastics. But that doesn’t get it done.

Yes, every little bit counts.

But you, as an individual, can’t solve the problem of trash and plastic pollution, mainly because you are not the problem.

It’s a little-known fact that the iconic Keep America Beautiful campaign was founded in the 1950s as a collaboration between tobacco giant Philip Morris and soft drink companies, before later joining with the Ad Council and coining the term “litterbug”.

At the same time, they lobbied hard against legislation that would have made it illegal for drinks to be sold in single-use containers.

The end result of all of this was a stunning piece of sleight-of-hand.

By the time they were done, instead of talking about regulating companies and regulating production – for example, legislating that can and bottle makers had to use refillable containers, which are more environmentally-friendly but far less profitable – we were talking about the individual, their habits and lumping them with the solution.

Their message wasn’t so much Keep America Beautiful, but rather you, the public, keep it beautiful while we keep making billions in profit.

If this makes you angry, then good. Because they’re at it again.

Last week we saw the release of the IPCC report into emissions. Cliff notes: it’s not good and we need to make some big changes urgently.

The Morrison Government’s response has been predictably woeful, albeit in a far more fever-dream hallucinatory way.

But who has to make those changes?

It’s not the individual and it’s not government, but they do play a role in the solution.

It’s big companies again.

In fact, 70 per cent of global emissions come from just 100 companies.

These companies include ExxonMobil, who allegedly knew about climate change 40 years ago and spent millions on a campaign of misinformation, lasting decades.

These are the companies who man the ever-revolving door between mining and energy companies, their lobby groups, and our politicians and their staffers.

You only need to look at our new PM to see this in action: his environment minister was a mining industry lawyer, his energy minister is an anti-wind farm activist and his chief of staff is the former head of a coal-lobbying body.

Cast your eyes farther back and you’ll find many other examples.

And they use this influence to slow, confuse, or otherwise confound any action on curbing emissions. But don’t take my word for it, Malcolm Turnbull’s son has been very active in letting the country know who’s really pulling the strings since his father was toppled by that same lobby.

Tell me again how individual responsibility will fix any of this.

Tell me how individual responsibility would have stopped the rot revealed in the Banking Royal Commission, prevented the Global Financial Crisis, or how it would help address the issues we are currently grappling within aged care, mental health, or the Indigenous community.

It won’t.

But we are encouraged to think of things first and foremost in individual terms by the very groups who will lose out drastically if we were better organised and banded together to affect change.

It was collective organisation that saw the development of Medicare — something individual action would have never achieved. It was collective organisation that achieved revolutions in India, America and toppled dictators across the world.

One of the leaders of the Otpor! movement, which helped to topple Slobodan Milošević, has even pointed explicitly to the way dictators and despots make an effort to isolate the individual and make them feel disconnected from their community.

In his book, Blueprint for Revolution, author and a pro-democracy activist Srđa Popović discusses how the first step for change was often to convince people they are not simply isolated individuals, but do, in fact, have common goals and struggles that are more easily tackled with others.

Companies have learnt that lesson, but rather than using violence, they instead use the attractive and positive myth that individual responsibility is either the first step, or solution, to many of the problems facing the world.

But it isn’t. Collective action is.

Naomi Klein was once asked what was the number one thing someone could do as an individual to help on issues like the environment.

Her answer:

“Stop thinking of yourself as an individual.”

If you remember only one thing, remember that.

Simon Black is the senior media campaigner for Greenpeace Australia Pacific. You can follow Simon on Twitter @mrsimblaa.

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