Isn’t it annoying when your friends borrow your private jet and rack up a truly obscene amount of carbon emissions? Happens to me all the time.
Last week, a Rolling Stone piece outlined the biggest celebrity private jet users, based on data collected by sustainability marketing firm Yard. At the top of the list, beating out bigwigs like Stephen Spielberg and Oprah as well as the previously flight-shamed Kylie Jenner, was America’s sweetheart herself, Taylor Swift, who has apparently racked up 8,293.54 tonnes of carbon from 170 trips in the first half of 2022 alone. That’s more than 165 times what the average American household emits each year. Swift’s press team quickly went into damage control mode, issuing a statement to Rolling Stone that the singer loans out her jet so much that “to attribute most or all of these trips to her is blatantly incorrect.” Okay!
The whole brouhaha has, at the very least, produced some very good memes. But it’s also an important reminder of the tension we all face at this moment in history, when capitalist systems are clearly failing to solve huge problems—are causing them, in fact—but our individual ability to do anything about it is ludicrously limited.
One of the reasons Swift was such a surprising top rank is because she’s made a career out of relatability. Kylie Jenner’s jet use, while also egregious, is somehow more expected; the Kardashians have become symbols of waste and excess. But Taylor’s carefully crafted image has always been the girl next door, the celebrity who connects intimately with her fans, who is not afraid to write songs about (famous) exes and publicly feel the feelings we’ve all felt in private. Swift’s more recent albums, which have focused on woodsy themes and “cottagecore” vibes, have also helped sell an image of her as an outdoorsy, back-to-nature star—even garnering a whole New York Times op-ed on how the star was “singing us back to nature.” Her carbon emissions are a startling reminder of the huge divide between her life and ours; a sign that the marketing on the eco-friendly celebrity package rarely matches the actual content inside.
Even with that gulf between image and reality, people nevertheless leap to a beloved celebrity’s defense. Some Swifties took to Twitter to argue that Swift was simply too famous to be able to travel like a normal person; that it was the system, not Taylor, that should garner ire for climate change. Making excuses for a multi-millionaire pop star is certainly a choice in the year of our lord 2022, but I see echoes of their argument everywhere these days. I’m no Swiftie, but I think their view is the logical end point of the trap we’re all in at this moment of climate change coupled with late-stage capitalism.
Just this past weekend, I was talking about climate change with a friend who doesn’t spend all day thinking about the slow heat death of our planet. We were chatting about how she was taking a trip out West in a few weeks, and the situation with the drought out there. “It’s hard for me to care about the carbon emissions of taking a plane trip when ExxonMobil is still in business and paying politicians,” she said.
She’s not alone. More and more, I see people rebelling against the idea that everyday choices can fix the situation we’re in. And they’re right: the idea of a carbon footprint was, after all, created by an oil and gas company to offload its own responsibility for the climate crisis. Personal responsibility in our capitalist system means next to nothing when oil companies are logging record profits, when plastic polluters are conspiring against real reforms to our waste systems, when politicians in Washington and across the world drag their feet on real action and give freebies to oil and gas companies.
It’s a tricky thing to talk about. On the one hand, I feel the sense of futility deeply: It’s difficult to care about one’s individual choices when you know how little they matter in the grand scheme of things. Even with all the writing I do each day on the climate crisis, I’m still constantly forgetting my reusable cups and straws at coffee shops; I still take trips on planes. Being a climate person means living out a 24/7 version of the popular Mr. Gotcha comic.
The fixes we need are systemic, not individual—even when it comes to billionaires with outsized carbon footprints. If Taylor Swift suddenly stops flying in her private jet forever, it will make a much bigger impact than if I don’t eat meat for a year… but it’s still an incredibly minute piece of progress, given how quickly we’re catapulting towards crisis. And it makes sense that folks are exhausted, when our culture loves to shift blame onto individuals rather than the corporations and systems with actual power
But wide-scale change doesn’t have something to do with our individual actions, even if it’s mostly a metaphorical one. While individual choices may not matter in terms of actual emissions, if everyone makes the same changes, it could do a world of good. Perhaps the value in ordering a veggie burger or driving an electric car—or actions that have an even bigger carbon impact, like not flying as much—is to demonstrate to others that these choices are available, and should be part of the new world we ‘re building. There’s definite utility in calling out behaviors that late-stage capitalism has conditioned those of us in the West to think as normal, like eating meat with every meal or regularly going on international vacations, while also holding space for corporate and governmental accountability. Surviving the climate crisis is going to require a serious rethinking in how we treat the world and use its natural resources, as well as how we order our society. The question of whether billionaires should exist at all in a world whose climate has been altered by income inequality is a very legitimate one.
And Taylor Swift is a good example of the danger of sliding scale expectations. If we use the blanket excuse that no individual is responsible for their actions, ever, because of capitalism, we arrive at the endpoint of excusing billionaires for taking private jets on 10-minute trips. Given that 1% of the world’s population is responsible for 50% of its airline emissions, banning private jets would be a great idea. But there’s also the uncomfortable fact that US air passengers accounted for an egregiously outsize chunk of global airline emissions, with emissions larger than the next 10 countries on the list combined. People in the US may not all be Taylor Swift-sized polluters, but we are doing real damage with some of our habits.
We’re all trapped in the same shitty system, but that doesn’t mean our individual choices mean absolutely nothing. If a collective shaming system could be enough to stop celebrities from wrecking the planet, I’m for it. And if Taylor’s everygirl status can serve as a good reminder that some actions we may think of as normal are surprisingly damaging, I’m all for that, too.