Our climate is changing, possibly irreversibly. When asked in polls, most everyone understands this. We even know how to stop it and yet in our day-to-day public interactions, very few people seem to be willing to talk about any of this.

I’ve developed a theory to explain this, and I’ve termed it Carbon Fragility, an environmental correlate to the phenomenon known as white fragility.  In white fragility, white people build defense mechanisms to avoid directly confronting their implicit role in upholding white supremacy.  In carbon fragility, people build defense mechanisms that help them to avoid thinking about the environmental damage that they implicitly take part in every day through their carbon footprint.

Just as in white fragility, the way carbon fragility manifests can take many forms, from frozen silence to outbursts of rage. And also just like with white fragility, the fragility response is perhaps the most dangerous roadblock to changing harmful behavior. But fortunately, thanks to the incredible work done by social justice advocates toward unpacking and answering how white fragility can be overcome, I think this framing could help us approach a way forward for changing minds about our role in reducing environmental harm.

Personal Experience

The inspiration for carbon fragility came from my personal experience trying to communicate to others how I’ve changed my lifestyle to be more environmentally conscientious.  I’m currently on a bicycle tour around the United States, and during this trip I’ve met and talked with many many people who are interested in my travels.  During these conversations, I’ve noticed a very specific pattern.  If I only talk about the adventure or the cost effectiveness of bike touring, I get great engagement from the people I’m talking to, and we can have a several minute conversation about bike touring.

But if at any point I mention that part of the reason to bike tour is because it is better for the planet, or that cycling is important because it has a lower carbon footprint than driving, the conversation immediately ends.  In every case, the person I’ve been talking to has frozen up, changed the subject, and switched their body language to move on.  At first, I thought it was my messaging so I worked on saying this in the most positive way I could with absolutely no hint that I’m blaming them for their behavior.  I’ve gone out of my way to make sure they know it’s just my personal choice.

But no matter what, the reaction is the same.  People just find it incredibly uncomfortable to think about the implication that driving cars is a social ill.

In another manifestation of carbon fragility, I’ve experienced bursts of irrational outrage from white men in pickup trucks blasting black fumes of diesel exhaust out of their truck onto me as I bicycle (aka rolling coal). This rage seems completely out of place, and the only reason for doing this seems to be simply because we are bicycles and we have a solar panel visible on our trailer.  We’re often not even in the road.

Both of these extreme reactions to simple behavior changes reminded me of the reactions I observed during the antiracism discussions I had during 2020, between incoherent rage, accusations of reverse racism, or simple silence from family members.

Fragility and Harm

Although there are clear parallels between defensiveness in the context of white supremacy and defensiveness in the context of environmental harm, I also recognize the serious differences between the two.  First off, the implication that someone is racist is already universally acknowledged as wrong, while many people still don’t necessarily consider carbon pollution to be a real problem.  Also the harm of white supremacy is direct and observable by its victims while carbon pollution’s harm is easy to dismiss because it is so diffuse.

However, I personally believe that the harm from carbon emissions are actually real and every person either contributes to the problem or contributes to the solution.  In this way there are still parallels to the harm done via racism and the harm done via carbon pollution, with the victims being the future generations, especially those in developing countries.  Indeed, many people have already elaborated on the idea that environmental and social justice activism are inextricably linked.

In short, I believe that people are beginning to instinctively acknowledge the harm from carbon pollution even if they can still intellectually downplay it. And I believe it is this instinctive understanding of the harm that is causing them to manifest these characteristics of fragility. In that way, we actually have an advantage in that we can leverage our already considerable understanding of how to effectively deal with white fragility in our approach to carbon fragility.

A Way Forward

From my brief time engaging in antiracism work, it has become clear that no amount of shaming from a stranger can change people’s minds.  The only thing that works is building a personal connection with the issue. And from those connections you can motivate people to investigate the problem for themselves.  If someone can reach the point where someone recognizes that they are personally a part of the problem and  they are able to pursue the solution on their own terms, then it becomes possible to address the behavior.

So how to move forward on breaking down carbon fragility?

The first step is educate people sympathetic to the cause that the behavior change works the same way as antiracism work. A huge and difficult part of this step is recognizing that even if you consider yourself “an environmentalist” you probably still cause considerable harm through your own lifestyle. In other words, the most important first step is recognizing that even if I consider myself “one of the good ones,” I still have a lot of work to do to understand all the ways that I am still part of the system that is a problem. The second is outreach at a personal level to family and friends to let them know about the issue and how WE ARE ALL a part of this system and that we can only change it together. It’s important to have already ackowledged my own own shortcomings at this stage so that I can build empathy and let others know that I am doing the work for myself, making mistakes and muddling through it. And finally, the third step is to provide resources that can make it easier for friends to do internal work to recognize their place in this system. Everyone contributes to varying degrees and unless we are anti-carbon pollution we are pro-carbon pollution.

I’ve only just begun thinking about this process and its implications. As always, I’m very curious how others feel about this idea, where you find strengths to the argument and weaknesses.  In my limited research I wasn’t able to find a good summary of this idea, but if you believe there is already an existing term that describes this behavior, please reach out. Or if you think you’ve observed carbon fragility and find the concept useful, drop me a line on Twitter or TikTok.