By Mei Feifei (22A13A)
What happened on 14 April 2018? Airstrikes took place in Syria. An Oscar-winning director died. And a lawyer set himself on fire.
Four years on, I am ashamed to admit that I had never heard of David Buckel until I started work on this article, even though other cases of self-immolation, such as those of Mohamed Bouazizi or Tibetan monks, stay at the forefront of public consciousness.
Why, then, has David Buckel’s case faded into obscurity, even as the cause he was protesting against—climate change—looms closer?
“Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result… My early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”David Buckel
The Guardian wrote that Buckel “viewed his death in political terms and hoped it would galvanise mass action”. Bouazizi’s self-immolation is credited with sparking the Arab Spring, while the Tibetan monks’ brought international attention to the issue of Chinese domination of Tibet. However, it is not at all clear that Buckel’s death achieved the same (if not any) effect.
One positive change did happen in recent years: the 2016 Paris Agreement contained a pledge to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels and this number was lowered to 1.5℃ in the 2021 Glasgow Climate Pact. Beyond this, climate pessimists claim that there has been no good news regarding climate change at all.
If anything, there has been more bad news than good: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s 2021 report sounded “code red for humanity”, said the United Nations.
Buckel literally died to fossil fuel—the single biggest producer of greenhouse gases—but the cogs of the fossil fuel industry have continued turning without so much a pause.
If a person setting himself on fire cannot change anything, what can? Given this, it is understandable that we fall into some state of despair, a state that climate scientists coin ‘climate anxiety’.
This anxiety is compounded by the fact that climate science cannot tell us this conclusively: are we doomed, or do we still have hope?
If you are not an arch climate ‘doomer’, you probably believe that the latter is true. Indeed, this is why most of us still believe in individual action: turn off the lights when you leave the room, use the fan instead of air-conditioning, take public transport, and so on.
However, even as you try your best to become an environmentally-responsible consumer, chances are you’ve had this nagging thought at the back of your mind: is individual action really useful?
Opinions surrounding this issue are split. On one hand, there are those who argue that individuals have no moral responsibility when it comes to climate change, for the simple reason that “global warming and climate change occur on such a massive scale that [any individual action] makes no difference”.
On the other hand, some claim that individual action has a “knock-on effect”: one person’s actions can influence another’s, and eventually each individual’s contributions will add up to make a difference that is “not insignificant”.
Recent research paints an optimistic picture: if everyone in the United States went vegetarian for one day, that could cut back on 1.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, the equivalent of one tenth of Singaporean households’ electricity use in one year.
Nonetheless, the core of the issue is not really about whether individuals should take up individual action. It is intuitive that some action is better than no action, and individual action is part of the solution. The question is really about which is more important: individual action or corporate action?
Why does this question arise? Well, 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from only a hundred companies. One person turning off her tap once she’s done washing her hands is nothing compared to the fast fashion companies pumping gallons of water into producing one pair of jeans.
Some environmental activists thus argue that the calls to individual action are “distractions” that “shift the blame from the actual causes of climate change to fake ones” — if we do not hold Big Corp accountable, they say, we will never truly address the problem.
This is of course true. A quick look at global greenhouse gas emissions by sector shows us how corporations and industries are mostly responsible for emissions. However, we must keep in mind the fact that consumer demand and industrial production are inextricably tied.
For this reason, climate activists will encourage you to “vote with your wallet”: companies that make the effort to improve their processes and be more environmentally friendly should be rewarded, while those that pollute more should be punished.
Consumer demand is often labelled as a “powerful force”, but the extent to which it can actually incentivise companies to produce more sustainably is questionable. This is as we see more and more cases of successful businesses that seem to have grown only because their consumers were tacit in endorsing their environmentally and socially toxic practices.
Take, for example, the fast fashion monstrosity, SHEIN. As the most mentioned brand on Tiktok, it is often used as a case study of fast fashion—and rampant consumerism—that hurts the planet. SHEIN consumers do not buy because they cannot afford quality clothing; they are drawn to the cheap price tags and insane variety offered by the company, even when it is evident that these advantages come at the cost of the environment.
This goes to show how difficult it can be to change consumer demand. Even in our school, where so many Project Work groups tirelessly advocate against fast fashion year after year, how many of us are still guilty of occasionally taking part in a #SHEINhaul?
In addition, the phenomenon of greenwashing has grown more widespread together with calls for stronger corporate responsibility. Corporate greenwashing occurs when a company markets itself as being environmentally friendly in order to mislead environmentally-conscious consumers into buying their products.
For instance, the oil and gas ‘supermajor’ BP put together a million-dollar advertising campaign on its clean energy in 2019, but it was revealed that emission-heavy oil and gas still make up 96% of its expenditure.
Therefore, while we can establish that individual action is important, and individuals can pressure corporations to improve their accountability through voting with their wallets, there is still a sizeable gap between what is being done and what has to be done.
While certain commentators label advocating for individual action as a “distraction”, it seems to be that the real distraction is the endless debate and rhetoric pitching individual action against corporate action.
The two are not mutually exclusive: we can learn to consume more responsibly and pressure companies to produce more responsibly, and most of the time, this comes hand-in-hand. We should spend less time on denigrating the individual ‘tree huggers’, or scoffing at the activists trying to galvanise mass action, and more time on actually changing our behaviour.
David Buckel’s death symbolises how pressing the issue of climate change is. Above all, his death is a poignant call-to-action that should push us to action, not argument.