HANDS up. I might not have been the most frequent flight-shamer, just as I’ve not been the most frequent flyer, but certainly I’ve wagged the odd flygskam finger – particularly at wealthy, high-paid individuals, jetting around the world in the name of climate change, Boris Johnson jetting to Cornwall and so on.
That stops here, and not because flight-shaming feels out of keeping in a pandemic world of amber and red list travel, but because I see the shaming of individuals as one of the worst tools we have for producing change, and one of the biggest distractions from the push for systemic change.
Flight-shaming is one of a long list of skams I’m planning on avoiding. They include meat-shaming, car-shaming, plastic bottle or bag shaming and even a whole host of other non-environmental shamings, like pandemic rule-break shaming, or even mask-shaming. This is not because I am no longer worried about the climate crisis, or just how terrifyingly bad it’s going to get. It’s because I am worried – and think for every individual behavioural effort to save the environment we can see a systemic or policy change that might produce better, more rapid change.
One of the things that has caused me to make this vow, is a reading of the early chapters of The New Climate War by the climate scientist Michael E Mann, best known for the creation of the famous “hockey stick” graph of global temperature rises.
As Mann points out, big business, has long had an interest in persuading us that it’s individual behaviour that must change, not the practices or system that are behind their profit. BP, he notes, created the first personal carbon footprint calculator.
Around plastic pollution, we see a similar pattern. Mann describes how in the 1970s in the United States, the iconic “Crying Indian” ad featured a tearful Native American standing over waste in the countryside. The advert, he observes, was “the centrepiece of a massive deflection campaign engineered by the beverage industry, which sought to point the finger at us, rather than corporations, emphasizing individual responsibility over collective action and governmental regulation”.
The Covid era has brought us whole new levels of lifestyle shaming – around wearing masks, not wearing masks, not getting the vaccine, getting the vaccine, going out, staying in, eating out to help out, not eating out to help out. A recent interview I did with vaccine trust expert, Professor Heidi Larson, described how, when it came to persuading people to take the vaccine, shaming didn’t work. “Anything that suggested moral imperative,” she said, “created a backlash because it was too finger-wagging, too judgmental.”
In The New Climate Wars, Mann describes how wedge tactics – attempts to drive wedges between different groups in the climate activism and advocacy movement – have torn the movement apart, and been part of a deliberate strategy by those with a vested interest in keeping the fossil fuel industry going.
I now see versions of these wedge issues everywhere. I see a wedge in the stoked-up divisions around women’s rights and trans rights, a wedge in the Labour Party, in the clash between those who believe they are criticising the state of Israel and those who cry anti-Semitism. And one of the reasons that’s happening is because rather than simply arguing our cases, or even calm criticism, we are succumbing to shame and shaming. I’ve no doubt that there are particular groups that have a vested interest in driving up the division caused by shaming.
It’s not that these issues don’t matter – they do – but we can’t afford to let them tear us apart. Shame is one of the most productive ways of creating division and diluting our ability to work together to create positive change. It’s no wonder those who have a vested interest in creating division have long exploited it. We need to find a means to fight for our causes where this is not part of the toolkit.
Am I shaming the shamers? I do hope not.