Ever found yourself taking a picture for Instagram and then deleting it because there’s a sneaky piece of plastic in the background? Or found it difficult to be honest about a slip up in fast fashion use or dairy consumption? I certainly have. I’ve censored or deleted my content on several occasions for fear of potential backlash. Alternatively, I’ve shared the content with a huge disclaimer to say “shock, in a non-circular, capitalist economy, I’m not perfect”.
I’ve come to realise that many of us feel this pressure to acknowledge our imperfections because we are often held to account if we don’t. I have received many messages in the past pointing out my flaws. I like to think these people have done so out of compassion, and are urging me to be better, but I’m not sure they realise quite how hostile an environment “eco-policing” can create. If receiving their messages is making me think twice about posting, surely this is damaging their ultimate cause?
Expecting too much from an individual can be damaging on several levels. It can damage their desire to change and their belief in small, collective actions. It can hold them back from influencing others. It doesn’t account for individual circumstances which make living sustainably more difficult for them, such as poverty or accessibility. And, ultimately, it can be hurtful and leave space for hate and anger. None of which supports the sustainability movement. If anything, they hinder it.
I believe that any change an individual makes to support the planet, be that eating less meat or using less plastic, is positive. It serves as evidence that they know they have a role to play in the climate crisis and this should be encouraged. At the end of the day, we are all parts of a system that makes it nigh on impossible to live 100% sustainably. So, let’s stop demanding perfection.
Who should we hold accountable?
This over-policing of individuals bothers me on more than a personal level. I don’t see the same volume of energy directed towards corporations and political parties who absolutely can and should shoulder more of the responsibility to change.
- We live in a world where 71% of carbon emissions produced since 1988 have come from just 100 companies.
- Developed nations are infested with fast fashion giants whose business models revolve around consumption at rates our planet and its people cannot afford.
- The U.K. is governed by a party who didn’t think it appropriate to send their leader and our potential prime minister to a debate about climate change.
- There are multi-billion-dollar companies in our world right now who: don’t pay tax, use greenwashing to trick their customers, exploit the lowest workers in their chain and pollute and damage the environment in the name of profit.
Yet we have poor individuals, who are already trying to change for the better, getting chastised on social media for using a plastic straw. That’s not right. There is no doubt that both individuals and systems need to change if we want to stabilise our climate. However, it’s important we ask ourselves who should we direct our anger towards: the products of a system or the system itself?
Stop holding individuals to account before corporations
If you’re reading this article and reflecting on your own experience with the social media “eco-police”: I’m sorry. You are a tiny cog in a gargantuan machine and you are doing your best, please don’t give up. However, if you’re reading this and thinking about messages of your own that you’ve sent to individuals: please use this article to help you reflect.
I believe your intentions are good.
I understand the desire to open conversations about sustainability.
I also understand the frustration you might feel at seeing unsustainable actions on your social media feed but your words, however kind they may be, would be so much better directed at the root of the problem.
The mega-polluters of our world have made it clear that they will not change unless forced, so let’s start piling on the pressure. Our climate action needs to be multi-faceted and go beyond social media, but we must always remember that social media is a tiny fraction of a person’s life and not their whole story.