The Role of Individual Responsibility within the Transition to Environmental Sustainability
We Latest Yorkers live in a city that’s on a gradual transition toward environmental sustainability, but we’re a good distance from the place we want to find yourself. A circular economy where there isn’t a waste and where all material outputs turn into inputs is well beyond our technological and organizational capability today. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take into consideration the best way to get from here to there. Much of the work in constructing environmental sustainability requires the event of systems that enable us to live our lives as we wish while damaging the planet as little as possible. Large-scale institutions are needed to administer sewage treatment and drinking water, to develop renewable energy and construct a contemporary energy grid. Government policy is required to make sure the conservation of forests, oceans, and biodiversity. Pandemic avoidance requires global, national and native systems of public health. Climate change mitigation and adaptation also require collective motion. What then can individuals do?
As individuals, we make selections about our own activities and inevitably, they involve selections about resource consumption. I see little value in criticizing individuals who fly on airplanes to travel to global climate conferences. (I assume you do remember airplanes and conferences, don’t you?) But I see great value in considering the importance of your attendance on the conference and asking if the trip is an indulgence or when you could have a vital opportunity to learn and teach. This yr has taught us the best way to attend events virtually. There’s little query that live presence at an event enables a style of communication that may’t be achieved virtually. Again and again, you’ll judge that the financial and environmental cost of the trip is way outweighed by the advantages. Those are the times you must travel. My argument here is that it’s the thought process, the evaluation of environmental costs and advantages, that’s at the center of a person’s responsibility for environmental sustainability. Individuals are liable for fascinated about their impact on the environment and, when possible, minimize the damage they do to the planet.
Everyone must activate the lights at night, start the shower within the morning, activate the air con and possibly drive somewhere on Mother’s Day. I might never argue that you must hand over these types of consumption. As a substitute, I think we must always all concentrate to the resources we use and the impact it has. We’re liable for that thought process and the related evaluation of how we, as individuals, might accomplish the identical ends with less environmentally damaging means.
Some say that the fixation on individual responsibility is a distraction from the more essential task of compelling government and major institutions to implement systemic change. This angle was forcefully argued in 2019 in The Guardian by Professor Anders Levermann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. In accordance with Professor Levermann:
“Personal sacrifice alone can’t be the answer to tackling the climate crisis. There’s no other area wherein the person is held so liable for what’s going improper. And it’s true: people drive an excessive amount of, eat an excessive amount of meat, and fly too often. But reaching zero emissions requires very fundamental changes. Individual sacrifice alone won’t bring us to zero. It will possibly be achieved only by real structural change; by a latest industrial revolution. Searching for solutions to the climate crisis in individual responsibilities and actions risks obstructing this. It suggests that every one we’ve to do is pull ourselves together over the subsequent 30 years and save energy, walk, skip holidays abroad, and easily ‘do without.’ But these demands for individual motion paralyse people, thereby stopping the large-scale change we so urgently need.”
Perhaps, but I don’t see it that way. I consider individual responsibility and the thought process and value shift that stimulates individual motion as the muse of the social learning process required for effective collective motion. In other words, individual change and collective system-level change are interconnected. The very fact is that on a planet of nearly 8 billion people, it is just too late for lots of us to get back to the land and live as one with nature. There’s too lots of us and never enough nature. There’s an absolute limit to our ability as individuals to cut back our impact on the planet. Subsequently, system-level change is completely needed. But system change requires individuals to grasp the necessity for change together with a well-understood definition of the issue. The cognitive dissonance of identifying an issue but never acting on it’s difficult to live with. Should you see a poor child on the road begging for food, you may provide that child with food and money while continuing to support public policy that addresses the kid poverty issue on the systems level. In reality, the emotional impact of that child’s face may provide the drive that leads you to fight harder for the policy that may prevent that child from needing to beg. We learn by example, and vivid experiences and cases can result in transformative systemic change.
While I consider individual and collective responsibility connected, without collective systems and infrastructure supporting environmental sustainability, there are distinct limits to what individual motion can achieve. That’s the reason I see no value in shaming individuals for consuming fossil fuels, eating meat, or buying a toddler a Mylar birthday balloon. I think an attitude of ethical superiority is especially destructive in any effort to construct the political support needed for systemic change.
As my mentor, the late Professor Lester Milbrath, often argued, the one method to save the planet is thru social learning that may enable us to “learn our method to a sustainable society.” He made this argument in his pathbreaking work: Envisioning a Sustainable Society: Learning Our Way Out. In Milbrath’s view, the important thing was to grasp environmental perceptions and values and to construct on those values and perceptions to alter each individual behavior and the institutions their politics generated. To Milbrath, the human effort to dominate nature had worked too well, and a latest approach was needed. As he observed in Envisioning a Sustainable Society:
“Learning the best way to reason together about values is crucial to saving our species. As a society we’ve to learn higher the best way to learn, I call it social learning; it’s the dynamic for change that may lead us to a latest sort of society that won’t destroy itself from its own excess.”
My view is that one method to pursue social learning is learning by doing — in other words by encouraging the person behaviors we’d each take to cut back our environmental impact. Those behaviors remind us to think concerning the planet’s wellbeing together with our own. They reinforce and remind us and as they turn into habit, they impact our values and our shared understanding of how the world works.
There’s, subsequently, no tradeoff between individual and collective responsibility for safeguarding the environment unless we insist on creating one. Moreover, in a world of maximum levels of income inequality, wealthy individuals who have given up eating meat have the resources to eat alternative sources of nourishment. They don’t occupy the moral high ground criticizing an impoverished parent proudly serving meat to their hungry child. In our complex world, we must always mistrust easy answers and as a substitute work hard to grasp the numerous cultures, values and perceptions that may contribute to the transition to an environmentally sustainable global economy. The trail to environmental sustainability is long and winding and would require many years of listening and learning from one another.