A brief (and frustrating) history of the carbon footprint

  • Published on July 25th, 2020

I’ve long fretted about the personal change/system change debate, worried that the weight was unevenly born by individuals even though I strongly believe the former is a necessary catalyst for the latter. But maybe I’m J.K. Rowling-level wrong. Maybe we can skip the skipping straws and go straight to table-flipping the system. At least, that’s how I feel this week, after learning that yet another term I use frequently is actually BP propaganda, designed to push responsibility for the burning of the planet onto consumers, onto the already overweighted side of personal responsibility. That phrase: carbon footprint.

A Brief (and Frustrating) History of the Carbon Footprint By Sarah Lazarovic

By Sarah Lazarovic
Yes! magazine

“Minimum Viable Planet” is a weeklyish commentary about climateish stuff, and how to keep it together in a world gone mad. This week, on blame-shifting.

I’ve long known that oil was behind messaging to shift carbon emissions from their effing problem to our collective challenge, but the fact that BP literally designed the metric by which we measure our personal emissions is deepwater insidious.

“It’s time to go on a low-carbon diet,” they said.

All that extremely important work done by well-meaning organizations to make people consider the emissions in their daily lives is somehow covered in the slick of nefarious spin. Yes, big polluters and their PR trolls have forced other words into the vernacular, but this one feels, well, personal.

It’s literally my carbon footprint. How dare a shill have made it up and stuck it inside my brain?

A Brief (and Frustrating) History of the Carbon Footprint By Sarah Lazarovic

Perhaps the bigger issue is that the phrase has burrowed deep in our soles. It’s so successful. We’re all constantly and unscientifically toting up our emissions—the thermostat too high, the flights too copious. Somehow we all feel that the crisis is our fault. We feel hot shame and deep guilt when, in full knowledge of the crisis but without much power to stop it, we partake of indulgences such as travel or overconsumption. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t reduce our own emissions and eschew waste (of course we should!). It’s just that this is the father of all guilt trips, actively foisted on us by an industry that has the power to do so much more than we, as individuals, can.

In a sense, the deck was ever stacked. Original sin. We have been told we are weak and A Brief (and Frustrating) History of the Carbon Footprint By Sarah Lazarovicimperfect creatures time and time again. Of course we burn fuel as we fall prey to our desires. Yes, I bought some yellow clogs I did not need.

We’re in this together is the collective Big Oil ethos, now permeated across media and minds. Except we’re not. Fracking firms fail us, and their CEOs get huge payouts. Their calumny is so great that they’ve punted the responsibility onto us and we’ve barely noticed that sly shirking. And now, as the tides turn in every way, from polls that speak to overwhelming public desire for green recovery to studies that show green fiscal stimulus is the most viable way out of this mess, the bailouts continue, largely unchecked.

What’s an average, carbon-farting human to do? Light that burning pile of foisted responsibility and toss it back over the fence. If I sound irate, it’s because I am. Just kidding, I meditate now.


Have you internalized responsibility for it all? What spin have you absorbed, and what do you do to push back against it? Please, tell me about it!


Hope you are safe and healthy. Have a wonderful week,

– Sarah

P.S. If you like this newsletter, share it if you are so inclined. Or heart it. And if you hate it, tell me how to better it. Thank you thank you!

P.P.S. This is my newsletter for the week of July 16, 2020, published in partnership with YES! Media You can sign up to get Minimum Viable Planet newsletter emailed directly to you at https://mvp.substack.com/.

About the Author

Sarah Lazarovic is an award-winning artist, creative director, freelance animator and filmmaker, and journalist, covering news and cultural events in comic form. She is the author of A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy.

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