How a corporate plot hoodwinked the world about the true perpetrators of climate change  

Vincent Nghiem

Staff Writer

     Carpool to school. Bring a reusable tote when you go to the supermarket. And, while you’re at it, drop your plastic straw — use a metal one! We’ve heard it all. These are just some of the many demands we’ve heard in order to become more “climate-conscious” and minimize our “personal carbon footprint.” 

     But the idea of the individual’s impact on climate change is not nearly as crucial as it seems today. In fact, the prevalence of the personal carbon footprint can be traced back not to scientific research but to one of the biggest fossil fuel corporations in the world.

     The concept of the personal carbon footprint was actually popularized starting in 2004 by BP (formerly known as British Petroleum) through a sly and ostensibly environmentally conscious advertising campaign that duped the world into narrowing their efforts in fighting climate change to focus on exclusively their own actions.

     The larger strategy of shifting the blame on environmental issues from the corporation to the consumer, however, began almost three decades before BP launched its campaign. Arguably, it was born with the release of a famous 1971 American television advertisement. The commercial, known as the “Crying Indian” ad, focuses on a stereotypically dressed Native-American man in the midst of washed-up garbage and waste who, as the voiceover describes, has “a deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country.” “People start pollution. People can stop it,” concludes the narration as the Native American dramatically sheds a single tear, lamenting the corruption of the planet. The tagline summarizes the objective of Keep America Beautiful, the nonprofit that created the commercial. And it’s the same nonprofit that was (and continues to be) funded by beverage and packaging megacorporations like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestle, the very companies that rank among the top global plastic polluters and are the literal embodiment of corporate destruction of the environment.

     The advertisement was cunning — and it was successful. It diverted public attention away from the careless corporations who are the actual perpetrators of pollution and onto the public itself. As the advertisement proclaims, “people start pollution,” not corporations; therefore, the blame for pollution fell upon the consumer, allowing those beverage companies to continue to profit without the unwelcome attention of those oh-so-pesky environmentalists. 

     It was this tactic that BP, one of the largest oil companies in the world, so enthusiastically borrowed, arguably to equal, if not greater, success. After collaborating with marketing agency Ogilvy & Mather, BP’s elaborate propaganda campaign was ready to launch: in 2004, BP released its “carbon footprint calculator,” urging people on its website to “find out how your lifestyle choices effect your carbon emissions” and “go on a low-carbon diet.” 

     The calculator’s effect was immediate, garnering 278,000 users in 2004, and the sheer success of BP’s campaign is self-evident. Ever since, the term “personal carbon footprint” has been an unquestioned component of our world’s environmental parlance. 

     We have internalized the idea that climate change is a problem created by our own individual actions and not by corporate exploits. We have lied to ourselves that replacing our plastic straws with ones made of metal holds just as much significance in preventing climate change as actual corporate reforms to cut their pollution do. BP marketed the idea of the personal carbon footprint as a way for the world to become climate-conscious and accept responsibility for climate change, and we embraced it without a second thought.

     The truth is, we are climate-conscious. In fact, for years now, climate awareness has been a concept drilled into the American psyche — especially for us students, for we know all too well that we will be the unfortunate generation that must eventually cope with the burden of surviving on a warming planet plundered by our predecessors. 

     Yet we fail to be conscious of the more horrifying and ultimately more important truth: unless we shift our focus from ourselves and act against them, fossil fuel corporations’ pillaging of the earth will continue to be rewarded with profit — and we will be rewarded with a living hell for a future.

This 1971 advertisement made by the Ad Council for Keep America Beautiful features the iconic image of Iron Eyes Cody, the actor who portrayed the Native American in the “Crying Indian” ad, solemnly shedding a tear, urging Americans to volunteer their services to preserve America’s environment.

Picture credit: HANDOUT.

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