The most important thing you can do for the planet is to vote for it.
In the early aughts, British Petroleum, one of the largest oil companies in the world, popularized the term “carbon footprint” in a massive PR campaign. BP makes its enormous profits from drilling into the earth to sell carbonaceous fuels, which are the primary cause of climate change. Their strategy was to deflect the responsibility of addressing climate change — despite being one of its main instigators — by putting that onus on individuals. A carbon footprint is a calculator that measures one’s personal impact on the planet.
The campaign was incredibly successful. “Carbon footprint” is now a part of our common lexicon, and it’s used throughout the environmental community to show how we are supposed to cut back, for example, by living in smaller homes, eating less red meat, and traveling less frequently.
Living more sustainably through personal action, as this magazine often encourages, is inherently a good thing. But it can also miss the point. The fossil fuel industry wants you to think that it’s your emissions that are the problem, not theirs. And since 1988, just 100 companies, including BP, have produced 71 percent of all global emissions.
The entire premise of a sustainable carbon footprint is a fantasy. MIT completed a study that showed that a homeless person living in a shelter and eating at a soup kitchen every day still indirectly emitted 8.5 tons of carbon dioxide each year.
“Even a homeless person living in a fossil fuel powered society has an unsustainably high carbon footprint,” Stanford researcher Benjamin Franta told Mashable. “As long as fossil fuels are the basis for the energy system, you could never have a sustainable carbon footprint. You simply can’t do it.”
In other words, it’s the system, not the individual, that is the problem.
So what can we do? Individual actions, like supporting responsible companies (like Avocado!) and reducing our environmental impacts however we can are still important. Reducing water use and planting native species, for example, can have tremendous benefits to your local ecosystem. But the most important sustainability work we can each do — especially amid a year where climate change has made it crystal clear that it’s going to reduce quality of life for all — is to vote and be more civically engaged.
Start with this helpful guide from Slate on how to vote in every state. Then do your research and support politicians who have a plan to address climate change — the League of Conservation Voters has endorsements for every state. (If you’re in California, the Sierra Club has a recommendation for every measure and race in the state, too). Once the election is over, lobby your local elected officials with letters and phone calls. Tell them what’s important to you. It’s their job to listen.
Until we have elected leaders who are willing to address the systemic issues perpetuating climate change and have the courage to support a more sustainable future, nothing will fundamentally change.
See you at the polls.