I was delighted to discover that plans had been made at the G7 summit to phase out fossil fuels by the end of the century. Oliver Burkeman’s article on the Guardian Website, “We’re all climate change deniers at heart”, brought home a lot of personal truths about my relationship with nature. It also raised concerned about how much responsibility “I” (or, “We”) should personally take onboard for causing environmental damage.
There seems to be an environmental blame game going on here that forces some of us to become climate change deniers. Very few of members of advanced societies are willing to take onboard the civil responsibility for walking further (rather than driving) to purchase organic ingredients, or digging deeper into our pockets to support local producers, or turning taps off in between brushing our teeth and washing our faces, or approaching politicians or supermarkets with demands for more environmentally friendly produce. Quite simply because someone else, somewhere else, is doing more damage to the environment than us. Climate-change, and all environmental issues, are mixed up in this general, ecological or environmental contandrum. Call it “Nature” if you will.
Environmental sociologist Raymond Murphy (1994) raises the issue of environmental accountability. On the one hand, more accounts (as in calculations or metrics) are being taken about environmental resources, waste outputs and environmental destruction by those in higher positions of power (experts, researchers, academics). On the other hand, accountability for environmental destruction is being distributed out. This accountability for environmental degradation is dispersed between developed nations and “undeveloped” nations (or, “under-developed” nations), multinational corporations and local businesses, urban and rural communities, celebrities and non-celibrities, and so on. How accountable are you for environmental degradation?
The term and concept of “collective actions”, or the ‘slow workings of complex impersonal systems’ that Burkeman refers to , denotes a disproportionate assignment or blame, in so far as some collective actions cause more damage than others.
– Let’s just make it clear that what are often refereed to as “undeveloped” nations are often the most advanced and developed nations in terms of environmental and ecological sustainability. –
I think the most import and fascinating issue is that of the distribution of environmental accountability between individual consumers, or “Us”, and multinational corporations, or the ‘industrial elite’. While environmental damage can be considered the result of “collective action”, some should be held more accountable than others; some have profited financially more than others; some have accumulated more power than others. The exploitation of nature has always been an integral part of wealth and power accumulation.
Why should I feel accountable for environmental destruction by not separating my plastics from my food waste? Especially when there is a huge cloud of industrial pollution hovering over cities in Latin America or China, or bombs being dropped in Bagdad? What personal responsibilities should “we”, as members of advanced nations, take onboard in light of the environmental degradation caused in the international trade of agrochemicals? What personal sense of responsibility should I feel in light of the ecological footprint that the launching of a remote sensing, satellite into outer space? Why should I cycle out of town to visit the farmer’s market – and pay extra for the produce – when the supermarkets in my city profit more from selling mass-produced, non-organic food?
Each of us seems to shift the blame from one source to another. Either our next door neighbours is using their hosepipe during a summer’s drought and hosepipe ban, which tempts us into using our own; or, we are constantly in an uproar about how weapons of mass destruction – damaging to human populations and to natural environments – are being deployed around the world without our democratic consent.
– Fu*k it then, I will use water my garden, why care if no one else cares?
Q: Why should I fly less or have less children if Jeremy Clarkson and collogues get paid to test-drive supercars to their absolute limits?
These political or military elites, the ruling classes or company owners, also have a much different worldview than your average citizen of the global economy. The environmental damage viewed from above – from satellites and drones – paints a much different picture of the earth than the general public can observe stuck in a traffic jam on the way to work. We need these elites to gather scientific information about climate change, implement economic goals or policies, inform citizens about dangers, stand up and make changes. It is beyond the capacity of the average consumer to inspect each product in their shopping basket as to determine its environmental footprint. We need to trust the future in the hands of trust-worthy, uncorrupt, leaders.
We can theorise collective action and accumulative results, but quite clearly some have more power and wealth to action social change, social or economic reformation than others. The G7 goal to phase out fossil fuels by the end of the century matters because the ideas of the experts and ruling elite are being put into action. These ideas can bring about a more fundamental change than any one, everyday individual can achieve on their own. This is not to abdicate each individual of industrial society from their environmental responsibility, but hopeful this move (followed by lots of other movements) will lead advanced nations into the right direction, at least.
In this light, our “moral licensing” will be much more valid if we believe that our actions are legitimate to those of a greater society, and the ruling ideas of the time. This is a step towards changing the environmentally unfriendly narrative, or metanarrative, of our current epoch. However, we need to get the accountability balance right, between agency (what we individuals can personally do) and structure (what the politicians, scientific experts, corporate and military elites) can do.
Murphy R. (1994) Rationality & Nature: A Sociological Inquiry into a Changing Relationship, Oxford: Westview Press.