Our Singular Focus on Individuals' Actions Has Led Us Astray When it Comes to Climate Change

kylie jenner private jet controversy climate change problematic
credit: @kyliejenner/Instagram

The internet went into a tizzy this week when it discovered that Kylie Jenner had taken her private jet for a 17-minute flight instead of driving like a normal human.

The situation was further exacerbated when she posted a pic of “his and hers” private jets with her beau Travis Scott. The internet immediately flew into a collective rage, dubbing her a “climate criminal” and chastising her for her carelessness while they were busy recycling and drinking out of paper straws.

The Instagram post was certainly tone-deaf, especially in the midst of the horrible heatwave sweeping the globe. And the 17-minute jet ride certainly isn’t cute. Jet planes produce a significant amount of CO2 emissions, despite the small passenger list.

kylie jenner private jet controversy problematic
credit: @kyliejenner/Instagram

Of course, Kylie is far from the only celebrity to take such a short jet ride. The Twitter account @CelebJets keeps track of celebrity private jet flights, listing flight time, fuel used, CO2 admissions, and more. Just the other day, the account tweeted that Steven Spielberg had taken a 24-minute flight on his PJ. The account is full of similar trips by various celebrities such as Oprah, Drake, Blake Shelton, and more (none of whom have received the same level of criticism as Kylie Jenner).

But as cringe-worthy as all these private jet trips are — and as tempting as it is to blame these celebs for their lackadaisical attitudes towards climate change — these flights are barely a blip on the radar when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.

The biggest contributors to climate change — whether it’s CO2 emissions, ocean pollution, or otherwise — are and always have been multi-national corporations.

A 2019 article by The Guardian found that just 20 companies were responsible for more than 1/3 of all greenhouse gas emissions globally. That’s right: a mere 20 companies emit more than 1/3 of the greenhouse gases contributing to climate change IN THE ENTIRE WORLD.

A similar report released in 2021 found that only 20 corporations were responsible for OVER HALF of all single-use plastic waste worldwide.

Additional reports throughout the years have found similar trends in terms of a small proportion of culprits being responsible for a large chunk of the problem.

climate change data plastic waste pollution
credit: @minderoofoundation/Instagtram

And yet, despite this data, the sustainability movement continues to be obsessed with individuals’ actions. The internet loves to police other people, taking the moral high ground whenever they deem fit. Case-in-point: their singular obsession with eradicating all the evil plastic straws of the world (an ableist argument if there ever was one).

Endless Instagram carousel posts tout fact after fact about the tolls that plastic straws have on the ocean. Users love to share heartbreaking videos of straws killing turtles in order to guilt folks into making the switch to paper and metal alternatives.

And while these facts and figures are both horrible and depressing, the really depressing part is just how little plastic straws *actually* contribute to ocean pollution.

Yes, 8.3 million plastic straws stranded on beaches sounds like a lot — because it is a lot. But in reality, plastic straws make up less than 1% of all ocean plastic pollution. (A 2019 article by National Geographic found the actual percentage to be closer to 0.025%). Plastic straws are — and excuse the pun here — merely a drop in the ocean when it comes to plastic waste.

And yet sustainable influencers (yes, that’s a real thing) continue to admonish individuals for using plastic straws rather than go after the large companies that are mostly responsible for the 8 billion tonnes of plastic waste that are added to the planet each year.

biggest contributors to plastic waste
Courtesy BreakFreeFromPlastic.org

The irony of it all is that all this so-called “sustainable living” is inherently intertwined with sustainable consumerism — which, as it’s name implies, still consists of consumption.

Buy this reusable straw! Purchase that sustainable deodorant! Switch to an eco-friendly fashion brand! Consume, consume, consume, buy, buy, buy.

The best part is when big corporations join in on the joke. Last year Dove launched a reusable deodorant kit that swaps plastic for stainless steel and allows you to purchase refillable deodorant sticks. Meanwhile, Dove’s parent company Unilever is consistently named one of the top 10 corporate contributors to plastic waste by Break Free From Plastic’s annual audit.

Coca-Cola, Proctor & Gamble, Nestle, and other big contributors to plastic waste have launched similarly deceptive products aimed at so-called sustainable consumers.

But our obsession with individual choices — whether it’s Kylie Jenner’s or some rando’s on the internet — has basically let corporations off the hook.

We’ve also essentially let ourselves off the hook as well. By using those reusable tote bags for groceries and carrying around our paper straws, we get to pat ourselves on the back. We can say we’ve done something. We’ve made an effort to care about climate change.

Except those efforts don’t exactly add up to much.

Jim Leape, co-director of the Stanford Center For Ocean Solutions, explained it best when discussing the obsession with plastic straws. He said,

“Plastic straws are only a tiny fraction of the problem – less than 1 percent. The risk is that banning straws may confer ‘moral license’ – allowing companies and their customers to feel they have done their part.”

We focus on things like plastic straws because it makes us feel better, not because it actually does anything.

And while public pressure has certainly worked at convincing companies like Starbucks to ban plastic straws, pressure like this can only go so far. As we’ve all seen, public pressure usually only leads to superficial changes and greenwashing. Companies would rather try and trick their consumers than actually change their ways.

What’s really needed is widespread regulations that would force companies to limit their greenhouse emissions and manage their waste. We’ve already seen successes in this area abroad in places like the U.K. and India, as well as in Denmark and Sweden.

Unfortunately, the United States seems to be going in the opposite direction. The latest Supreme Court ruling has all but thwarted the EPA’s attempts at regulating companies’ greenhouse gas emissions.

So sure, you can focus all your anger on Kylie Jenner and her private jet, which only produces a modicum of the CO2 emissions released into the atmosphere yearly. Or, you could finally get angry at corporations destroying the planet, the politicians aiding and abetting them, and the Supreme Court Justices preventing any real change from happening.

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Lena Finkel
Lena Finkel is the Editor and Founder of Femestella. Prior to starting Femestella, she worked at People, InStyle, Tiger Beat, and Sesame Workshop (aka Sesame Street). She loves all things Real Housewives and Vanderpump Rules. When she's not busy binge-watching TV, you can find her hanging out with her tuxedo cat Tom.