Three types of ‘giving’, from a carbon drawdown perspective
Give, transact, volunteer, deal, barter, donate – we have many ways to ‘do business’ – which measurably reduces the most carbon fastest?
We’re all busy
One thing that makes ineffective climate activists ineffective is wasting a finite, precious resource. In this case, not fossil fuels, but our individual capacity for climate action.
The accelerating scale and intensity of drowning, burning and shrivelling has convinced the vast majority of us that human-induced climate change is a current reality, not a future fantasy. Still, we all have our daily lives to live.
Mouths must be fed, children educated, employers satisfied, debts repaid, steam let off. Managing all these short-term challenges only leaves so many hours a week to focus on the long-term problems that are making everything harder. As the most intractable and complex of all, climate change can drop down our list of social injustices to be fixed.
All of which makes our experience of telling ordinary people what we do, in informal, social situations, so interesting.
‘What do you do?’ is a commonplace question for strangers to ask each other. If you’re curious as to what happens if you answer ‘measurably reduce carbon’, either read on, or even better, try it yourself, and see if you get the same responses we do.
How most people respond is as predictable as it is revealing. In some form or other, they ask how you can ‘afford’ do be a climate activist, and before long they tell you what you’re doing is a ‘luxury’ or a ‘privilege’.
The ‘privilege’ of climate activism
The more you think about it, the weirder, and more insidious, this common response becomes.
Describing efforts to combat climate change as a ‘luxury’ or ‘privilege’ says considerably more about the passive-aggressive guilt of those choosing to point this out, unsoliticted, than it does about those to whom they condescend.
If you agree with the goal of speeding up carbon drawdown, reflexively describing anyone whose chooses to spend time doing precisely that, rather than the opposite, as ‘privileged’, is patronising and presumptuous.
To characterise climate activism as a ‘luxury’ is to imply that ‘only those who can afford to’ be climate activists would choose to do so.
Yet this ‘privilege’ criticism is usually made by those who, objectively, have loads of money. If your first reaction is, unsolicited, to tell people they’re ‘privileged’ to have the ‘luxury’ of climate activism, you betray your own priorities.
It’s a snide remark, not a logical position. It reveals less about the activist being whose efforts are being demeaned, and more about the demeaner, projecting their guilt at their own inactivity onto someone else.
‘Privilege’ paradox 1 – you show me yours
It’s ironic that the more ‘privileged’ someone is, measured by the amount of time/money/resources they could devote to climate activism if they wanted, the more likely they are to give this knee-jerk response.
Try this. Next time someone points out how ‘privileged’ you are to engage in climate action, ask them how much money they’d personally consider ‘enough’ to grant them the ‘privilege’ of being a climate activist.
You’re quite safe to offer to tell them how much you consider ‘enough’ to enable your indulge in such frippery as measurably reducing carbon. They’re very unlikely to take you up on it, as it implies reciprocity.
If you’ve shown them your threshold for climate action, it would be rude for them not to show you theirs.
‘Privilege’ paradox 2 – are poor activists more ‘privileged’?
Painting climate activists as privileged is also objectively untrue.
Around the Global South, and within richer societies, millions of climate activists with hardly any time/money/resources devote whatever spare energy they do have to climate activism.
Indeed, the closer you are to the front line of climate change (i.e. the poorer you are), the more urgent your need to be active. Money protects us from the worst impacts of climate change.
Take a recent example from See Through News. In April 2023, 150-odd students and staff at Mumo’s and Angel’s schools in the Nairobi slum of Mathare collectively spend hundreds, maybe thousands of hours, when they participated in the Global Reporter Intensive Training (GRIT) programme.
The adults running these corrugated-iron, earth-floored schools, struggle daily to feed the children, and keep them safe from the violent demonstrations that take place on their doorstep (children are regularly killed by crossfire).
Does this make them more or less ‘privileged’ than the broadcast professionals who volunteered a few hours to help remotely mentor them from the safety and comfort of their developed world homes?
Does this example make even bringing up the notion of ‘privilege’, when it comes to climate activism, look a bit stupid, petty and irrelevant?
‘Privilege’ paradox 3 – activism as a luxury lifestyle choice
Perhaps the most insidious aspect of the ‘privilege’ response is that it demeans and diminishes the notion of climate activism itself.
To pigeon-hole climate action as a ‘luxury’, is to trivialise it, to imply it’s not as important as….as what? Reducing golf handicaps, cruises and ski trips, or however else people choose to spend their ‘spare’ time?
We point this out neither to flight-shame the Climate Wicked, nor to virtue-signal the Climate Blessed. Both are are unwelcome distractions.
We just want to flag how insidious, toxic and self-defeating this entire ad hominem line of argument is, especially when conducted by people who agree on the science and reality of human-induced climate change.
Which brings us to our three (mis-)givings.
1 – Giving Up
This kind of ‘privilege’ sniping is best avoided because it’s a massive, and dangerous distraction.
‘Giving out’ (British slang for ‘complaining’), sets us on a steep, slippery slope to something even more dangerous – giving up.
The things it, we all have limited reserves of ‘activism’. Gathering it, and concentrating it in one place at one time, is as labour-intensive as gathering bits of timber and wood for a bonfire.
Set fire to it, and those standing close enough might get some temporary benefit, but most of the energy dissipates unproductively into the air.
Spend too long warming your hands around a bonfire, and you risk being hit by the futility of spending all that time collecting all that precious fuel, only to see most of it vanish into smoke and hot air.
Risk that, and you risk inducing despair, another word for ‘giving up’.
Despair is an ideal outcome for the forces of climate inaction, which is why the clever PR folk hired by Big Oil spend so much time and money in inducing it. Despair is even more effective than the other tactics in their playbook – Denial and Distraction leave open the possibility of climate action, Despair doesn’t.
Expending a lot of energy on symbolic things like banning plastic stirrers to ‘raise awareness’, while ignoring massive plastic elephants in the room, may be helping rather than hindering their cause. Big Oil not only doesn’t mind this kind of activism, it often covertly encourages it as a ‘dead cat’ strategy. Throw the plastic stirrer dead cat on the table, and everyone stops talking about the other 99.99999999% of your business.
There are two readings of the phrase ‘giving up’, each appropriate to one of the players in the game.
There’s ‘giving up’ in the sense of ‘sacrificing’. This is what Ineffective Activists ask Unwilling Inactivists to do.
For most Unwilling Inactivists, i.e. most of us, giving up flying, cars, meat etc. is a short-cut to the second sense of giving up – abandoning.
Specifically, selling carbon reduction as a ‘sacrifice’, is a highly ineffective way of inducing anyone to do anything other that abandon all hope of change.
Far from being an inducement to action, in the real world Giving Up/Sacrificing activism is actually an inducement to inaction. Inaction=Business As Usual, which is why Big Oil actively often actively encourages this kind of Ineffective Activism.
The PR shills they hire are more subtle students of human nature. They know that to sell something, attach it to a positive emotion (usually high status or sex appeal). Associate carbon reduction with a negative emotion (sacrifice, loss, forfeit), and Ineffective Activists are doing your job for you.
The more elevated the rhetoric, the more ineffective the activism. Attach ludicrously high goals (Saving the Planet!) to absurdly trivial actions (banning cotton buds) and you may as well take the money from Big Oil – they’d be happy to pay you.
They know this kind of Giving Up messaging will result in less, not more, action.
So much for Giving Up. What about Giving Away?
2 – Giving Away
A grammatical magic trick
Insert the word ‘away’ after ‘give’, and magically transform an act of generosity into a zero-sum transaction, and good people into mugs.
Consider the difference between:
- The head teacher gave her career to improving the lives of her students.
- The bank gave a million dollars to charity.
- The parents gave their weekends to the local swimming club.
- The head teacher gave away her career to improving the lives of her students.
- The bank gave away a million dollars to charity.
- The parents gave away their weekends to the local swimming club.
That one preposition changes the meaning of ‘giving’ profoundly, and for the worse.
‘Giving away’ pollutes the action, making it less valuable and impactful. It turns something valuable into something trivial.
It also demeans the nature of the gift. Something you give away is less valuable than something you give. To give away your life is to sacrifice it needlessly. To give away your fortune is to blow it.
Money Goggle Giveaways
Most corporate approaches to See Through follow the pattern described in Money, It’s a Gaslight. For most, the Money Goggles remain strapped on tight, even after hours of detailed explanation.
Here’s the routine. Corporation A ,or Oganisation B, comes across one of See Through’s public-facing projects, appreciates its carbon-reducing effectiveness/originality/innovation, and wants to somehow adopt or incorporate it into its own activities.
There are different motivations behind these approaches
- Some are driven by Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or Environmental, Social & Governance (ESG) structures
- Some because their businesses are directly related to some aspect of carbon drawdown
- Some because the company or organisation places ‘green’ policies at the heart of its ‘mission’
Whichever it is, these entities approach See Through and request a meeting, and the start of which they state they share See Through’s Goal of measurably reducing carbon, and admire See Through’s zero-budget integrity.
We’ve learned to take such assertions with a pinch of salt, knowing that words are cheap, but action is unambiguous.
We reach this point at the end of the meeting, when – despite having initiated the meeting, these businesses or organisations ask See Through for our ‘ask’.
We invite them to contribute specific goods, services, or other resources in their control to a particular See Through project. We suggest they take their pick from a menu of 5 different methods we’ve drawn up specifically for this purpose. If they still demur, we point them to the underlying economic theory, laid out in another article, Bartering for Carbon Drawdown – It’s a Serious Business.
Here’s the problem. Most ‘business people’, organisation bosses or charity representatives, still reflexively insert the word ‘away’ after ‘give.
- We can’t give away our IP
- You can’t expect us to give away something for nothing
- In the real world, no one gives away resources without a contract
If you’ve been invited to ‘contribute’, and respond not only by replacing ‘contribute’ with ‘give’, but by instinctively adding the word ‘‘away’, you’ve shown just how ingrained the zero-sum money game is in modern society, and why humans are finding it so hard to solve a problem created by money, with money.
It’s a giveaway.
3 – Giving
The solution, of course, is to simply give.
Or if you prefer, ‘donate’.
We’d prefer ‘contribute’.
Whichever word you prefer, the point is that it’s an act of trust, a leap of faith. ‘Simply’ set aside all your justified scepticism, suspicion, and scammer-spider sense, and give something, no strings attached. It’s not all that hard. We do it at home all the time.
Yet in our meetings, much less time is spent discussing how to reduce carbon than on the fact See Through is doing so without directly involving money.
- We spend hours explaining how our global volunteer network has managed to achieve so much without a bank account.
- We go into great detail about why not having a bank account confers such profound integrity in a world where money is valued above all things.
- We demonstrate at length that high-status, wealthy world experts in a wide range of fields, as well as Global South volunteers who struggle to eat every day, are joining See Through all the time, volunteering more of their expertise to our Goal of measurably reducing carbon.
If you can’t trust an organisation with no bank account, we feel entitled to ask by this point, who can you trust?
Some are prepared to take this leap of faith, and they’re the ones See Through works with.
Some even offer considerable resources-in-kind unsolicited. We tell one such story in the podcast AI’s Dirty Secret, or How To Give Away Half a Million Dollars of Supercomputing.
But in truth, in most cases the Money Goggles remain strapped on too tightly for most bosses not to keep inserting the word ‘away’ after give. The fact that such responses are the norm proves how demanding this leap of faith is. Maybe we can only hope to make significant progress once we’re able to demonstrate our sincerity about measurably reducing carbon with action as well as words.
If you’re still struggling with the notion of just ‘giving’, why not see if adding a different preposition or two helps?
Try giving in, and giving back…