‘Carbon Footprint’ Was Coined by Big Oil to Blame You for Climate Change

Your carbon footprint doesn't actually matter.
Brad Bergan
A giant gas flare at a natural gas plant.35007 / iStock

In deciding between saving face and saving the world, the appeal of doing both has been too tempting to resist.

Oil companies would love nothing more than for you to dedicate the rest of your life to carrying the weight of reversing climate change through a guilty checklist of climate-conscious living. But it turns out the concept of tracking your "carbon footprint", a trendy way of measuring your personal impact on the environment, is a marketing term coined by an advertising firm on BP's payroll.

Read it twice: blaming yourself and your lifestyle for climate change is an artifact of big oil advertising campaigns designed to shift perception away from the primary role that fossil fuel firms play in ecological calamity, according to a recent Op-Ed in The Guardian by the renowned author Rebecca Solnit.

While the commonsense self-management skills of minimizing how much waste and pollution you create in the world are still crucial, no amount of progressive status-jockeying will reverse the damage that oil companies do every day.

Your 'carbon footprint' doesn't matter

The oil giant British Petroleum (BP) actually hired PR professionals to invent a concept designed to blame individuals, not fossil fuel companies, for climate change. And it was BP that revealed the phrase "carbon footprint", along with a "carbon footprint calculator", in 2004. "British Petroleum, the second largest non-state owned oil company in the world, with 18,700 gas and service stations worldwide, hired the public relations professionals Ogilvy & Mather to promote the slant that climate change is not the fault of an oil giant, but that of individuals," wrote the science reporter Mark Kaufman, in Mashable. "It's here that British Petroleum, or BP, first promoted and soon successfully popularized the term "carbon footprint" in the early aughts. The company unveiled its 'carbon footprint calculator' in 2004 so one could assess how their normal daily life — going to work, buying food, and (gasp) traveling — is largely responsible for heating the globe."

Public relations and marketing, or what today you could call insidious propaganda, is responsible for working public consensus into a place of self-blame, deflecting criticism of fossil fuel firms so they can continue to deny the reality of climate change. And the "main reason to defeat fossil fuel corporations is that their product is destroying the planet," wrote Solnit in The Guardian Op-Ed. She, too, has witnessed people cut through serious discussions about worsening environmental catastrophe just to praise their own consumption habits like it's a modern ritual. Redecorating your consumer behavior so that your brand rinses clean on social media feeds is actually hurting the fight to slow and reverse the effects of climate change, even and especially when you believe private choices can literally save the world. "Say you have a certain amount of time and money with which to make change — call it x, since that is what we mathematicians call things," wrote author and mathematician Bill McKibben in a 2008 column at Orion Magazine.

Most Popular

The fossil fuel industry must change

"The trick is to take that 5 percent of people who really care and make them count for far more than 5 percent," added McKibben. "And the trick to that is democracy." In other words, your private decisions and actions simply aren't enough to meaningfully reverse the damage, which means collective action focused on pushing for changes in policy and law is a far more effective solution. Companies like BP are relying on the false dilemma of doing it their way or the highway to manipulate what steps are deemed legitimate. In this way, instead of endorsing policies that might affect the profit margins of fossil fuel firms, BP has deflected responsibility, and tricked us into blaming only private individuals.

Last year, a flurry of new carbon-tracking apps rose to prominence, designed to assuage your guilt from driving to the store, or taking a bus or train around the city by giving you the option of buying carbon offsets that fund biogas in Indonesia, tree-planting in the U.K., or cookstoves in Mexico. One of these apps, VYVE, is backed by a BP subsidiary dubbed Launchpad, which is a venture capital-like group that finances low-carbon startups aiming to balloon into billion-dollar firms. In other words, the popularity of climate activism in consumer culture has been monetized to the point that it can create billionaires. It shouldn't come as a surprise that fossil fuel firms (and their subsidiaries) have basically lied to us for higher profit margins. But the trick in moving forward is realizing that fossil fuel firms will continue to lie and deflect responsibility where the climate is concerned until they are forced by law to cease the destruction of our planet's habitability. The fossil fuel industry must change its ways, so, as Solnit wrote, we should "[k]eep them on the hook."

message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron