Meredith C. Carroll: Shame on the climate shamers

Meredith C. Carroll
Muck Off
Meredith Carroll
Courtesy photo

During the winter I often sleep with the heat on and window open. Bathrooms in my house are stocked with disposable Dixie cups. My family goes through paper towels like we’re auditioning for a Bounty commercial. Despite living adjacent to a free bus route, I prefer driving. I do not have a personal climate action plan.

If I’m a bad person, though, it’s not because of my approach (or lack thereof) to protecting the planet. Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Co., says a fundamental misunderstanding of the climate problem has people thinking that saving the Earth is a “you or me problem,” when it’s actually a global systems problem.

“Feeling bad about a lack of a climate plan is exactly what the fossil fuel industry, which created the system, wants us to do,” he told me last week. “When we focus on ourselves and take the blame, then they’re off the hook. Riding your bike to the store may be an honorable way to live, but it’s not a climate fix.”

It seems, though, for a community full of listeners and even more talkers, doers, spenders and riders, that that message has perhaps gotten lost. If you’ve ever wielded your reusable grocery tote like a merit badge, or gone on a little too long about your composting bin, you may be part of the problem. In fact, Schendler characterizes individual Earth-savings efforts as useful as thoughts and prayers in preventing gun violence. Emma Marris, author of a recent New York Times op-ed piece, “How to stop freaking out and tackle climate change,” agrees.

“Even if we manage to zero-out our own contributions to climate change, it would be practically a full-time job, leaving us little time or energy for pushing for the systemic changes we need,” she wrote. On the other hand, ditching climate shaming is not only the first step toward real innovation, but also “the key to all the rest.”

“Yes, our daily lives are undoubtedly contributing to climate change,” Marris said. “But that’s because the rich and powerful have constructed systems that make it nearly impossible to live lightly on the Earth. Our economic systems require most adults to work, and many of us must commute to work in or to cities intentionally designed to favor the automobile. Unsustainable food, clothes and other goods remain cheaper than sustainable alternatives.”

It’s easy enough to waggle fingers at, say, Aspen’s Christmastime visitors, the existence of the X Games, Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, kids riding to school in cars instead of buses, or second (third and fourth) homeowners for their conspicuous consumption. Except it’s neither righteousness nor morality that is either on trial or at stake.

It turns out the most powerful tool in Aspen’s arsenal against climate change isn’t biodegradable cups or Model Y Teslas, especially when so much large-scale change is arguably needed in such a short amount of time.

“Your business isn’t green if your CEO hasn’t made a public statement about climate action,” Schendler said. Because “if you’re really an environmentalist, you’re in the political system and trying to effect change.”

What you may do personally, including recycling, installing solar panels or going meatless, may feel good, although the actual good it does is essentially irrelevant in the big picture. Focusing on eliminating plastic straws in the restaurant industry, for example, is a failure to understand the scope of the entire energy system problem. Bona fide environmentalists recognize that it’s not about one piece of single-use plastic or one single person, but all the people, whether marching for climate change, boycotting, voting, donating to or volunteering for compelling causes, engaging in marketing and letter-writing campaigns, and meeting with elected officials — basically fostering a revolution much like the civil rights movement.

Marris suggests that knowing what you’re fighting for, and not just what you’re fighting against, is key. Air travel into Aspen won’t stop, but if an abundance of private planes parked at Sardy Field on a holiday weekend turns your stomach, push elected officials harder on policies that frequent fliers will feel — a significant carbon tax would right the climate problem in a hurry, according to Schendler.

What’s definitely not helping, though, is casting aspersions on those whose environmental choices don’t mirror yours. Assuming everyone’s priorities and approach should look alike reeks of privilege and, more importantly, does nothing to slow the melting icebergs. However, focusing outward instead of inward just might.

“Get a six-pack of beer and figure out where your power is,” Schendler said.

More at and on Twitter @MCCarroll.