The Air We Breathe

The Environment and Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 6 of 7)

The polar caps are melting. Extreme weather events occur with greater frequency. Air quality has reached abysmal levels in major urban areas worldwide. Global consumption vastly outstrips the replenishment of natural resources. Many individuals respond to these realities with denial, cynicism, and a sense of futility. Rather than defining terms and demonstrating premises, this post will take these facts as givens; those seeking to contest them had best look elsewhere.

As urgently as any current crisis and with great clarity, the state of the environment demonstrates both the at times collective nature of guilt and the shared nature of human responsibility. In fact, to a greater extent than other issues explored thus far in this series, the environment illustrates with particular clarity a general principle governing guilt and responsibility: distribution is uneven. While guilt and responsibility may transcend individuals, some individuals are implicated more directly and fully than others.


Clean Up Your Parents’ Mess and Your Own… Or Doom Your Grandchildren

The ever-unfolding global environmental crisis is your problem, not someone else’s. It was not originally yours, but it is yours now, and if you fail to deal with it, it will be even worse for those who come after. You have inherited a dark legacy of the misuse resources, including behaviors which you yourself may have learned to emulate.

An individualistic solution, toward which some seem inclined, might leave one feeling superior, driving the right kind of car to the right kind of grocery store to put the right kind of groceries in the right kind of shopping bags, thinking, “The world around me may be going to Hell in a hand basket, environmentally speaking, but at least my hands are clean.” This is not enough.

Nothing less than the transformation of society will do. We must look backward, seeking to understand what went wrong in the past, even as we push forward, seeking to define a better future.


We Share Guilt… But Some Are More Guilty Than Others

Virtually every living consumer has contributed to the problem. It is thus appropriate to think of guilt for the problem as having a collective dimension. But it is also helpful to think of that guilt as being distributed unevenly.

Those who have done more damage in terms of quantity bear more blame, especially when they have done so actively and knowingly. An active polluter who was ignorant of the effects of their actions is less guilty than one who was not. Likewise, the individual consumer bears less blame than governments and corporations who have contributed to the problem on a grand scale.

And yet the consumption of consumers keeps corporations in business. The voting of voters (and non-voting of eligible citizens) keeps politicians in office. However insignificant any of us might feel as individuals, we together as citizens—of our particular countries and of the world—run the risk of underestimating ourselves and our potential together.


We Share the Responsibility… But Some Are More Responsible Than Others

In moving forward, we citizens of the world have a duty to inform ourselves. Ignorance is neither bliss nor excusable, especially not with the wealth of accessible information around us. We must redefine our world holistically. Only by transforming our world economically, socially, politically, and culturally, can we have hope that effective and lasting environmental solutions will be forthcoming.

You have a duty to inform yourself and to inform those around you. If you have been afforded the privileges of education and leisure time, which many in the world lack, you are accountable for how you use those riches.

One purchase. One vote. One phone call. One grain of sand. One drop of water. Wind and water need only time to grind mountains into beaches. Let us not underestimate the power of any one of us, lest we underestimate the power of us all.

That said, time is not on our side. Erosion has eons. Our time may be running out.

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