The Problem With…Responsibility

problem responsibility (Custom)

I haven’t been feeling too happy recently. With a busy break, many comings and goings, perhaps a little too much alcohol and nothing like a routine I put my grumpiness in late December down to essentially that; but then I snapped and uncoiled like a watch spring. After some soul-searching I realised the real reason for my, what was essentially depression, could be traced back to a very low-key news report I stumbled across on the BBC:

A new analysis of temperature records indicates that the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet is warming nearly twice as fast as previously thought.

US researchers say they found the first evidence of warming during the southern hemisphere’s summer months.

They are worried that the increased melting of ice as a result of warmer temperatures could contribute to sea-level rise.

For the first time in probably two years, a piece of news about what I know is a spiralling disaster of global proportions hit me hard. Up to 23rd December 2012 I had managed to put everything on this scale aside as just one more symptom of civilization, to be filed as evidence with no point getting any more upset or angry.

It felt like falling with a table positioned right under my chin!

After initial thoughts of despair I assumed I had managed to put the report aside like everything else, until the spring came loose. Perhaps that was just the catalyst: there just wasn’t room enough for another piece of awful news and all along I had been taking on a burden that eventually had to give.

I’m better now, I think, thanks in no small part to my deeply understanding wife; but I have a feeling I’m not the only one who has, is or will feel this way, which is why I am writing this essay.

There are perhaps two ways of looking at the issue of, what we might call “The Serious Environmentalist’s Burden”. First, is it really your fault and if so, what can you do about such a horrible truth? Second, to what extent is it your responsibility to do something in response? Clearly the two are connected, so please accept the division with a pinch of salt – I’m still trying to make sense of this.

Is It Your Fault?


Ok, it’s not quite as simple as that, but if you are an active participant in any major aspect of industrial civilization then you have to take responsibility for what civilization does. What does being an “active participant” mean? It’s actually very difficult not to be an active participant if you live in any place considered to be civilized: simply using electricity or waste disposal systems provided by the industrial system makes you an active participant, albeit maybe through necessity. Certainly being employed by any business that is motivated by profit makes you “active”, as does promulgating information civilization depends upon to keep people part of the system. Even as a user of industrial products (and definitely if you accept the moniker “consumer”) you are playing a part in the continuation of civilization, even if this use of, say, a computer, is part of a larger effort to bring down the system.

So, yes, it’s your fault.

The tar sands fields in Canada – yep, that’s your fault. The systematic removal of tropical rainforests – again, your fault. You are responsible for the mass die-off of oceanic ecosystems, the increases in storm intensity across the globe due to Civilized Global Warming, the damming of huge river systems and subsequent flooding of habitats, the poisoning of soils, seas and air wherever products are manufactured or disposed of. Even the outrageously accelerated heating of polar regions, both north and south…you did that.

You simply cannot get away from blame unless you no longer participate in industrial civilization in any way at all.

* * *

This burden is devastating, at least if you care about the future of humanity and the wider environment. How can anyone deal with that kind of blame? You have to, because it’s not going to go away for a very long time yet. Hiding away and trying to pretend you are isolated from all this mess is denying your participation in civilization: you type one character on the keyboard, watch one second of television, buy one apple from a supermarket, travel one metre in a car, send your child to school for just one day…you are taking part in a system that thrives on destruction.

It hurts. You want to swat it away; pretend your day-to-day life is so much more benign than everyone else’s; that you are doing good, not harm. Well, you can carry on believing that, but it’s still not going away, so you might as well accept it and, at least for a while, feel utterly terrible for what you have done.

But rather like accepting you are going to die one day, accepting that such catastrophic damage and change is your fault is also a cathartic experience. How can you claim to have any compassion for your fellow human being if you don’t see what you are doing is wrong? How can you make connections with the real world if you don’t also feel the pain from what has been wrought upon the web of life? Guilt, if left to fester, will eat into your soul and make you incapable of anything other than doom and depression; but guilt, if understood and channelled can be a remarkable force for good.

The Serious Environmentalist’s Burden, for want of a better term, helps motivate people to make things better – not on a superficial level, as though by flicking a switch off you have done enough, but at a deep, visceral level that must leave scars; constant reminders of our responsibility to make amends. And it is to responsibility we must now travel.

Is It Your Responsibility?


But it’s not as simple as that. Actually, it’s not simple at all and I do not have anything like the mental faculties to work out how much responsibility even I have to bear. By “responsibility” I do not mean guilt or blame – we have gone beyond the initial acceptance of something being yours or my fault – instead we are addressing what we do with that acceptance of blame; and that is where the real hurt begins.

For the years I have worked in this area I have tried not to merely assuage any guilt I have for being a participant in civilized society, but to use that knowledge of blame as a catalyst for making things as best as I can. Of course, if it was simply down to guilt that people are motivated to do something, then it would be a pretty negative state of affairs. There are so many other motivations such as love, the search for happiness, the altruistic sense that something should be done because it could be. I don’t see these things as responsibility – they are instead what drive ordinary human beings to do ordinary things as part of their ordinary lives in, and this is critical, the absence of any external force.

The claim that we do “good” things because we are civilized is not only an anachronism, it is also nonsense. We do these things because we are human beings, social animals if you like, and we care, so we do these things. Civilization doesn’t come into it, and neither does guilt.

Where guilt does come into it is when change is necessary because of what we have played a part in wreaking upon the Earth. Responsibility stems from this; in effect it is a measure of how much change we have to individually make happen.

* * *

There’s absolutely no point trying to divvy up the responsibility between every civilized person. For one thing, where would you start in working out how much someone is to blame for all the mess? For another, and this is key, do you really think most people give a shit what happens to the global ecology? Of course not – you are among just a few people who care enough such that you feel that burden. One view could be that, given most people don’t give a shit, then why should we give a shit about their portion of the burden?

The more rational view would be that, given we are one of few, our responsibility to create change is considerable. Essentially, that responsibility should occupy as much of our time, effort and emotional space as anyone could reasonably give to anything as important as preventing the loss of the great majority of the living world. Yes, it’s a huge responsibility, but that makes your role ever so important – you are important, you have so much to give because you are among the few people who have the mental capacity and wherewithal to take this on. How else did you manage to break free of the civilized mindset?

That’s why I do what I do.

But we still need a break; time to forget the burden, or at least push it to the back of our minds. For a start, such a burden can alienate you from the people around you, even those you most care about; it can stop you doing the ordinary things that are important for physical and mental well-being; it can make you depressed and make you a difficult person to be with. You also lose perspective – so focussed as you might have become on one or two particular things, it takes a bit of mental space to realise maybe you need to have a rethink; perhaps your time would be better spent doing something else for a while.

If you are feeling like it’s all getting too much (sometimes it takes another person to make you aware of this) then stop. Take some time off to recharge, get a bit of perspective and simply enjoy things for a while. Then when you feel ready, get back to being a very special and important person.

Just don’t let it go to your head.

Originally published at

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