Boat navigating the river

This blog explores the meaning of the term environmental responsibility. Unfortunately, the term is usually used to suggest a lack of environmental responsibility. In my blog about blaming, I mentioned how easy it is to absolve ourselves of responsibility for our behavior by blaming others. In that blog I also explained how environmental impact could be reduced without making anybody wrong. What would environmental responsibility mean in such a positive and constructive context?

To explore this, I invite you to make a distinction between healthy responsibility and unhealthy responsibility. Healthy responsibility is about fixing what you have broken (such as when you carelessly crashed your car) whereas unhealthy responsibility is about taking responsibility for something that you haven’t broken (like blaming yourself for being the sole survivor of an accident). Healthy environmental responsibility is about the efficient use of resources. Setting yourself or others unrealistic environmental targets is a form of unhealthy environmental responsibility. See my earlier blogs and specifically the one about Rousseau. Both types of environmental responsibility follow from a genuine desire to reduce our environmental impact but unrealistic expectations such as those associated with modern environmentalism lead to disproportionate feelings of responsibility. This can be a motivator but is more likely to immobilize. Like the dilemma between taking time for yourself and being there for your family. Healthy environmental responsibility is about effective action, such as fact-based energy conservation.

Responsibility is about norms and values and about the ability to act in accordance with those norms and values. Environmental responsibility is about right and wrong environmental behavior. When discussing healthy environmental responsibility, the challenge is to develop a set of workable environmental management standards. There are universal ideas and ideals such as sustainable development, the precautionary principle and corporate social responsibility, and they do specify a general direction (less impact is better), but they are selective and fail to specify where the limits of acceptability lie. What requires protection and what level of protection is necessary? Without clear limits, everything is acceptable and nothing is acceptable. Progress towards standards that that have not been developed is not measurable; a bit like being unhappy about the death-toll on roads without introducing a speed limit.

Healthy environmental responsibility is therefore mainly about the ability to act in the presence of flawed standards and in the absence of agreed limits.

I will discuss this further under the headings of personal responsibility, responsibility for others and contextual changes. My ability to respond is limited to my circle of influence. Within that circle I am responsible for my own behavior, but I also need to interact with others and consider the context of my behavior.

Personal responsibility

Healthy personal responsibility is about owning my part and keeping my word. I won’t be claiming that I am 10 feet tall or that I can see through walls. Nor am I claiming that my cooking is sustainable just because I own an electric hob.

Blaming others is another indicator of unhealthy responsibility; as is accepting responsibility for damage that I haven’t caused. I owe it to my response-ability to be objective with myself when I experience unhealthy responsibility and make sure that my decisions are based on objective data and rational thinking. To stay with the example of a car accident: make sure that you are responsible for the accident before you see the cause of the accident in you getting into your car that morning.

Most environmental issues are cumulative issues; i.e. pollution that has only become an issue because so many small sources add up to a significant problem. Think of river and air pollution. You would be correct if you argued that your personal emissions would not result in a problem by itself. We would be wrong to conclude that we are therefore not required to contribute to a solution of the larger problem, or be satisfied with a smaller share. It is a sign of unhealthy environmental responsibility to emphasize that our individual contributions are small. This is also sometimes referred to as the tragedy of the commons. See embedded TED Talk by Naoko Ishii below.

Our choices are a reflection of the priorities in our individual lives. How do I choose to spend my energy, time and money? The protection of the environment is important, but so is the safety of my family. Within my sphere of influence, I will need to balance the often conflicting objectives. Unhealthy environmental responsibility considers environmental protection in isolation; unable to prioritize other objectives over environmental protection.

Both types of environmental responsibility follow from a genuine desire to reduce our environmental impact.

Unrealistic expectations lead to disproportionate feelings of responsibility.

Responsibility for others

Responsibility for others refers to the need to find a way together. I am not the only member of society or sole inhabitant of this planet. Other people have the same rights as me. And humans share the planet with other animals and plants with similar rights. We need the resources that the environment provides for our survival and the environment requires our protection.

That interdependence not only requires me to justify my behavior to others and requires me to cooperate with others, but also requires me to exercise respect and be reasonable.

The complexity of global social and environmental problems may be overwhelming and working together may seem to add an undesirable layer of complexity. I don’t see myself as a people-person, but I have learned that being in control is an overrated ideal. Minority points of view and individual concerns have greater potential for improvement than admiringly following a strong leader who has no ideas. It is better to articulate a vision of what is wanted than to impose a dogmatic solution. By supporting each other fewer people will give up. Managing people to bring out their best is more effective than telling them what to do and enrolling and maintaining each other in the shared vision is better than going out there and dramatically fixing the problem all by myself.

Societies regulate individual behavior by written and unwritten rules. If you work for a company, there are plenty of environmental regulations. If you are an ordinary citizen, there is a law against littering, but that is about it. Consumer pollution is mainly controlled by regulating the manufacturing of products and by taxation. This division of responsibility is embedded into our collective unconscious. This is pragmatic but inefficient. The principle of consumer innocence is too simplistic. It also leaves consumers with unhealthy feelings of unmet responsibility that maintain the vicious circle of the status quo.

Contextual changes

Most organizational problems arise not out of lack of individual responsibility or lack of cooperation, but because the context has been misinterpreted. Economists never see it coming, but wishful thinking is usually the reason behind stock market crashes.

The concept of environmental responsibility is tainted by our cultural history. Its meaning is skewed away from the larger development agenda and individual responsibility. Nature contains beautiful landscapes and abundant wildlife, but also drought, decay and death. People seem keen to protect the first, but not so keen to accept the latter. Human nature is both protective and destructive. Again we aim to retain the positive and eradicate the negative. Harmony is what we seem to want, but nature is what we got. Going back to pre-industrial times doesn’t change human nature.

Environmental protection is not the only item on the human development agenda. We need to learn to talk about environmental responsibility within that larger framework of responsibility. Attending to other societal priorities such as health-care, education and the supply of food and energy is not an indication of a lack of environmental responsibility, but the implementation of a different aspect of responsibility. An environment-only agenda doesn’t get people around the table. It only works when we pursue all priorities in parallel.

The abundant use of fossil fuels has resulted in significant emissions of CO2 and threatens to destabilize the climate. At the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris an agreement was signed to limit global warming to well below 2°C; challenging the very foundation of our fossil fuel based economy. The denial of global warming is generally considered unhealthy, but the popular optimism about alternative technologies is perhaps more so.

Without clear limits, everything is acceptable and nothing is acceptable.

The difference between healthy environmental responsibility and unhealthy environmental responsibility is more than an abstract moral distinction. On a philosophical level, it is the difference between reality and romanticism. On the motivational level, it is the difference between personal power and impossibility. On a psychological level, it is the difference between compassion and feeling ashamed. If we act on these differences, we will discover our deeper values and see ways to improve the situation at least a little bit.

Lao Tzu

If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.