Banning cotton buds? Michael Gove, stop trying to make us feel guilty and take real action on climate change instead

Natalie Fiennes

The climate crisis is becoming mainstream. In an astonishing turn, Extinction Rebellion and the school climate strikes led by Swedish student Greta Thunberg cut through the Brexit despair and forced parliament to declare a climate emergency.

Just this week Michael Gove, environment secretary, announced that by 2020 all plastic straws, plastic stirrers and cotton buds would be banned in England, aside for medical purposes. This policy, he declared, would “ensure we leave our environment in a better state for future generations.”

Gove might be implementing a ban on cotton buds, but he’s also deepening the British economy’s dependence on fossil fuels. As environment secretary, he has overseen both the further extraction of shale gas in fracking sites and the expansion of a new runway at Heathrow, which will emit the same quantity of carbon every year as the whole of the Kenyan economy. Banning plastic straws is simply a distraction – to run a set of policies that actually maintain business-as-usual.

More pressure comes from grassroots activists within the Labour Party, who are calling for something like the Green New Deal (GND) – a set of policies popularised by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that sets to transform the economy by simultaneously tackling inequality and climate change. The GND has been called radical because its aim is deeply ambitious: to uproot and overturn all dependency on fossil fuels.

Beyond any ideological distinctions, it is interesting to look at the different responses through a lens of guilt.

Back in April this year, just after Greta delivered her damning speech to British MPs, declaring that “You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to”, Michael Gove announced that the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist was “the voice of our conscience”.

Guilt has long been identified as a defining feature of western culture. In the Biblical tradition, guilty feelings enter into our lives after man is tempted by “knowledge” and eats the forbidden fruit – guilt is the nagging reminder that we have done wrong.

German Jewish critical theorist Theodor Adorno also recognised that guilt was central to the identity of western civilization. He argued that anyone who lived and survived in the post-war, post-Auschwitz world was guilty for participating in the conditions that created so much violence and horror.

On the other hand, German sociologist Max Weber believed that guilt is the cornerstone of the “protestant work ethic” or the “spirit of capitalism”. Guilt drives us to work harder and to produce more. Hard work allows us to be cleansed, temporarily, from guilt and blame before the feelings return and the cycle continues.

These feelings of guilt have also been present in some environmental campaigns in the West. Picture the fundraising calls with devastating images of hapless polar bears sitting on broken ice. Or indeed, the droughts or flooding in countries far away. These kinds of images play on what’s often called liberal guilt – that form of guilt which, according to critical theorist Devorah Baum, describes “those who feel keenly a lack of social, political and economic justice, but are not the ones who suffer the brunt of it.”

Gove’s policies enshrine this kind of individualized, guilt-ridden environmentalism. He has placed the burden and blame into the lap of individuals – if only you hadn’t drunk so many plastic Ribena cartons as a child, maybe the next generation would have a future. Gove’s form of environmentalism makes the solutions seem marketable and simple, where this is far from the truth. Supermarkets are awash with products claiming to “save the planet”.

In the words of journalist George Monbiot, “this kind of pathetic micro-consumerist bollocks just isn’t going to get us anywhere”. Aside from transitioning to a plant-based diet and cutting out air travel, in reality there’s actually very little that individual consumers can do to curtail out-of-control climate chaos.

What’s emerged in the discussions around the GND, however, is a very different understanding of guilt and responsibility. With its emphasis on redistribution and tackling inequality, the GND points the finger at a broken economic system and the class of people who benefit from keeping things the way they are.

Whether it’s on the production side – that 100 companies are responsible for 71 per cent of all climate emissions – or even on the consumption side – that the world’s richest ten per cent consume half of all the world’s emissions whilst the poorest 3.5 billion people account for just a tenth – this is where the most devastating aspect of climate change comes in: those who are truly responsible for causing the crisis are not feeling it.

As the 1.4 million climate strikers around the world are articulating loud and clear, the guilty parties have not been made to confront their guilt nearly enough.