Earth Day 2022
My generation was raised in the bosom of corporate greenwashing. Every year on Earth Day I remember gathering with my classmates to learn about our role in protecting the environment. We were constantly reminded of the dire need for us to separate our recyclables (and to shame our parents in to doing so), we watched Captain Planet and his multicultural dream squad lovingly reverse the desecration of Mother Earth, and we were well versed in vile nature of the Litterbug.
With Captain Planet sending me into the world yelling, “the power is yours!,” I felt that single handedly my generation could undo the environmental devastation and beginning signs of climate change – even without a blue man with a green mullet summoned by the power of heart. While I still strive to minimize my carbon footprint as much as possible, it’s clear that there are some things we can’t control as individuals. I saw fire come from faucets, I watched cancer attack my aunties, uncles, and their neighbors – victims of environmental racism and the military industrial complex, and I continued to see messages that place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the individual.
The Power is Yours! The Shift from Corporate Culpability to Individual Blame
To commemorate the first anniversary of Earth Day, the organization Keep America Beautiful released its most famous commercial. An orchestra can be heard as a lone man paddles a canoe across the water with towers spewing pollution in the background. The man is in buckskin, wears his hair in two braids, and tops it all off with a feather – with decades of Hollywood training we’re supposed to read the star, Iron Eyes Cody, as Native. As the orchestra swells and our hero docks his canoe a bag of trash soars out of a car window and splashes across his moccasins. The narrator says “Some people have deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country, and some people don’t. People start pollution, people can stop it.” The man turns towards the camera and a single tear runs down his face. The message is clear – the piles of trash the hero has to paddle through, the smog filled air from the cars, and the tear running down his face are the viewer’s responsibility.
This 1971 ad was a hit, and Iron Eyes Cody’s teardrop became the symbol for this new wave of environmentalism and centering the individual in our fight against pollution. Keep America Beautiful was not the Earth saving conglomerate they made themselves out to be, and neither was Iron Eyes Cody – who in reality was a Sicilian actor named Espera Oscar de Corti. Keep America Beautiful was created by the corporations responsible for much of the waste Iron Eyes had to wade through. Instead of taking responsibility and shifting to more sustainable packaging, or uplifting the environmental justice activists in the areas most impacted by their waste, these corporations intentionally shifted the blame to individual Americans.
While Keep America Beautiful was successful for years, today it’s harder to deny corporations’ role in our current climate catastrophe. As we transition out of decades of individualistic litterbug propaganda, it’s time to question what we as companies can do to not just offset decades of degradation, but to hopefully help reverse climate change. In the past few years several tech companies have stepped forward with plans to mitigate environmental harm by becoming carbon neutral, or in some cases carbon negative. While these goals and claims might do some good for the planet, we know greenwashing our products and methods is great advertising. This year a poll of 1,000 Americans explored consumers’ concern of tech’s role in climate change – 66% of those polled reported concern over tech’s contribution to climate change and 61% are worried about the impact this will have on the industry’s reputation.
The Tech Industry and Climate Change: More Integrity Needed
The New Climate Institute tracks companies’ promises towards climate change and compares them to these companies’ real carbon footprint. Looking at the world’s 25 largest companies, none reached a “high integrity rating,” meaning none have fully achieved the goals listed in their sustainability statements. Besides that, the main critique of going green in tech is a focus on “offsetting their emissions through unreliable methods rather than setting specific targets to prevent pollution in the first place.” Addressing our carbon footprint can’t be fixed by reactionary actions like pledging to plant more trees in the rainforests to offset production pollution, we need to find ways to mitigate harm holistically. The most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was the most apocalyptic yet, but also provided solid guidelines that countries and companies alike can adopt to help slow the roll of carbon emissions and climate disaster – ditching fossil fuels and investing in renewable energy made the top of their list. We, large companies especially, need to address who we partner with, what our products are used for, who we fund and are funded by, and how to address pollution before it fills our air and water.
This year at Bocoup we formed a working group on Climate Justice, Consciousness, and Sustainability to better understand where we can do better and how we can help. We hope to partner with other tech companies that are invested in reversing climate change and community leaders because we know we don’t have all the answers. Parts of our Social Justice Framework (more on this soon!) already support sustainability. Out of our mission to center and uplift minoritized voices we do not take contracts that would benefit the police, prison industrial complex, or the military. This value is rooted in fighting for Black lives and centering abolition, and it also has environmental benefits – the United States military is one of the largest polluters in the world; its carbon footprint equals that of 140 nations combined.
Calculating the exact amount of electricity used and the pollution generated by creating and transporting products all count towards measuring companies’ carbon footprint. We need to go one step further and question how our products can be used to further climate change – a commitment to reversing climate change means turning down big contracts with oil and gas companies or creating products for their benefit.
Trust the Experts
We don’t need actors in redface guilting us into hollow and individualized sustainability plans when we can follow actual Indigenous leaders in the fight for all living things. The knowledge valued by governments and nonprofit organizations tends to come from places of privilege, like white men behind desks. Reno Keoni Franklin, chairman emeritus of the Kashia Pomo Tribe says, “Tribal knowledge in land conservation is often used and quoted but rarely matters until a white person says it.” The G7’s goal to conserve 30% of the planet by 2030 does not account for land and water already protected by Indigenous communities – this means that more land could be stolen under the guise of environmentalism. The G7 could meet its 30 by 30 goal by financially supporting Indigenous land stewards and communities and returning stolen land; 80% of the Earth’s current biodiversity is the result of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and Indigenous stewardship.
A more holistic approach to addressing our current climate catastrophe in tech could follow these lines as well. The focus on reducing emissions and fossil fuel consumption are definitely needed – and a more intersectional approach that addresses the root of the issue will lead us to actual sustainability.
Which communities are impacted by the pollution your organization creates, whose land does your office sit on, where can you send your money beyond recognized nonprofits, what voices are being brought to the table as you build and advertise your sustainability initiatives?
Indigenous liberation coalition The Red Nation created The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save Our Earth, a comprehensive and intersectional movement-oriented plan for climate justice. Part III, “Indigenous Action to Save Our Earth” directly addresses the tech industry and our role and responsibility to engage in climate justice:
“With threats like radioactive contamination, wildfires, chemical pollution, and biodiversity loss, we will also need to seek new and alternative technologies, something Native people embrace because we have always been technological innovators, scientists and engineers. But as we know, capitalists have a monopoly on technology, with the majority of the most advanced technology being used for war efforts. Scientists are denied funding for projects that are not considered profitable or that directly disrupt the flow of capital to the already-wealthy. What if technology was created for the benefit of all life on Earth?”
We look forward to learning how we as a company can better our practices to help reverse climate change. If you’d like to help current Indigenous efforts to protect land and water, or want to learn more about land reparations you can follow the links provided below.