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Greenwashing is Gaslighting
How can you take action if you don’t know what the fuck is going on?
This week I interviewed Jacob Goldberg about how the UN is misleading the public by claiming to be “climate neutral”. Jacob and his colleagues found that the carbon credit projects the UN buys to “offset” its emissions are often low-quality, often harmful, and at least a dozen had been linked to mass protests by affected communities. It was a fascinating conversation, covering the history of carbon credit scams and the active endorsement of a harmful mechanism by major institutions and governments simply because it enables them to look like they’re doing something about climate whilst producing and consuming fossil fuels. It’s a terrible form of greenwashing.
Carbon credits show just how far economic doublethink has infected policy-making: The claim that emissions can somehow be cancelled out by paying to protect a forest or supporting a wind power plant is ludicrous. Those emissions are, by definition, still emitted, contributing to the total emissions in an already choked atmosphere which is warming the world. Any policy which justifies continuing and growing emissions cannot be taken seriously, especially when it relies on existing forests to “cancel out” the carbon dioxide polluted. Existing forests don’t draw down any extra carbon—essentially, a forest-based carbon credit is paying not to deforest an area in the name of commerce. A forest-based carbon credit doesn’t cancel out emissions from industry, but, at best, decreases emissions from deforestation. Although, this is rarely the case, as many forest-based carbon credit projects also suffer deforestation. Any “solution” that doesn’t tackle the wider system of capitalism, extraction, exploitation and consumption only provides capitalists, extractors, exploiters and business opportunities to continue business-as-usual, at the expense of everything. It’s all greenwashing.
So why greenwash instead of take action?
Taking action is harder. It demands deconstructing existing power relations, dismantling our fossil fuel infrastructure, popping the finance balloon, all of which diminishes state power—and personal power. Given our power institutions are run by “elites” who are the only class of people benefiting from how things are, it’s unlikely they will suddenly choose to actively hurt their interests in the name of everyone else’s. They seem to genuinely believe they will innovate their way out of the minor problem of planetary collapse—and that they are the best people for the job. Why give up their resources and power when they’re trying to save the planet? Why, that would be the worst thing to do!
The problem with that thinking is it has been shown that elites get to where they are due to luck, not talent, skill or strategy. Secondly, by the time they reach the upper echelons of society, they display less empathy for others. We are run by a zoo of lucky almost-sociopaths who believe believe they’re better than everyone else. That’s how bad they are at reading data.
It’s unlikely they will ever give up the reins.
What about lower-level decision-makers? What about Antonio Gutteres at the UN who does the rounds every few months blasting those very elites for their inaction? If he gets it, why is the organisation he represents also failing?
Perhaps he, and the well-intentioned at the UN, believe they are an important line of defence, and taking the requisite action of shrinking their activities (the only way to reduce emissions) would endanger the climate mission they spearhead as they tackle government inaction.
What about social entrepreneurs who capitalise on labour but for a greater good? Or councillors who make strategic concessions because they need to stay in the game to make long-term changes? Or the philanthropists who need to make their money first before giving a portion away?
We’re all being gaslit all the time. Some of us are even gaslighting ourselves. And if we continue like this, on a warming planet, something’s going to explode.
Gaslighting is painfully violent. It threatens our relationship with reality, it leaves us feeling stressed and isolated and frightened—but unable to say why exactly. It makes us doubt ourselves, our intuition, our intelligence, our knowledge, our intentions. Above all, it stops us from taking action. How can you take action if you don’t know what the fuck is going on?
Here’s what’s going on.
The climate crisis is a symptom of terrible violence. To make a horrible analogy, it’s like the world is run on child slavery. They’re used everywhere, in almost every industry, and are bred as slaves. People turned a blind eye because, like the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the benefits reaped are just too good to turn down! But the thing is, our economies have gotten so big that now the planet can’t support all these child slaves. Ecosystems are breaking down, food supplies are running short. Alongside that, legions of activists who have long-opposed the child slave trade are now getting more attention to their cause. They warn society will break down if we keep using child slaves, that it’s morally abhorrent, raising the alarm that children are now disappearing from their beds to feed the child slave trade.
Every year, governments gather together to promise to tackle the slave trade. They promise to phase it down, to transition it, to wean the world off it—in the future. What they fail to say is that they are, in fact, the biggest drivers of the child slave industry, with 90% of these children born into state-run breeding farms. The governments agree child slavery needs to be stopped—but they can’t stop it overnight. They blame the demand for child slaves, saying society runs on the trade, that there would be a catastrophe if they pulled the plug on the biggest energy resource available.
But who are the biggest consumers of the child slave trade? Why, that would also be states themselves. They produce 90% of the child slaves and use over half, selling the rest to private business. They can’t stop—yet—because they can’t find another source of such cheap energy. Stopping would mean giving up their wealth. But they need to be seen to do something. So they create a system of child credits where companies, governments and private businesses can offset their child slaves by buying credits which protect other children from being sold into slavery.
They launch this scheme and people start buying the credits, lowering their “net total” of slaves to almost 0. But the thing is, governments and companies are still producing and buying more and more child slaves—and journalists find that many of these “credits” they’re buying to “offset” their slaves often don’t even represent real children. They then find out that many of the children protected by these credits are still sold into the slave trade.
And so it continues to grow, with more and more children put to work to grow the economy and maintain business as usual, with slavery “decoupled” from output. The accountants say everything looks good. It’s only scientists who keep track of the real numbers. They scream their heads off at the immorality, the lies, the danger to the biosphere. Governments have more meetings. They offer more child credits. They produce more child slaves. They tell everyone their net slaves numbers are going down.
Citizens on the streets can see there are more child slaves: they see them building roads and airports and buildings for luxury apartments and luxury stores and mega mansions. But the media say there are less child slaves and the governments say there are less child slaves and that guy at the UN says there are more child slaves but his organisation is also using child slaves so it looks like we’ll just have to accept child slavery and the fact that the biosphere is collapsing?
What do you think?
It’s oil and gas and coal, not children. But the violence is the same, the gaslighting is the same. Greenwashing is gaslighting. And it’s killing us.
© Rachel Donald
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