Collective and Individual Responsibility

When talking about the climate crisis, we often want to assign blame to someone, and demand that they change in some way to reach a solution. However, who we blame tends to fall into one of two camps. One camp wants to blame the individual: We are each responsible for our own carbon footprint, and the solution must be found in each individual making the right choices. The other camp, says, hold on a minute, placing all the responsibility on the individual ignores the systemic challenges facing some people preventing them from taking action, and it lets companies off easy even though they are the biggest polluters. Instead of individual action, we should pass laws to enact systemic changes to limit pollution. These two modes of solution, thus stand in opposition to each other.

Individual action for the climate crisis is often framed through your carbon footprint, and actions you can do to minimize your carbon footprint, but it’s worth taking a step back and see how carbon footprint came to be. The carbon footprint is derived from the larger concept of ecological footprints which was first developed by William Rees in 1992, but was popularized by oil and gas company BP which ran large marketing campaigns in the mid 2000s.

But why would an oil company advertise carbon footprint? Isn’t that against their interests? Yes it is against their interests to have their footprint inspected. However, they conveniently only advertised individual people’s carbon footprint - not their own. So they managed to shift the conversation to be entirely focused on the individual people’s actions away from the larger contributors like BP themselves. Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes describes in Merchants of Doubt how this is a part of a larger intentional strategies used by companies to ignore inconvenient science.

This is a perfect example of how not to do individual responsibility. It does not solve the problem shifting the blame onto others. Especially when the others contribute only a fraction of what you do, and you do nothing yourself to solve the problem.

But even in the case you’re are taking individual actions yourself, it will still have only a small minuscule almost invisible effect on the global problem. Proponents of individual action would say that it’s the responsibility of everyone to do their part, and anyone who does not do their part should be shunned, and made to feel guilty. People have different difficulties that make it harder or easier for them to take individual action.

For example, I'm very lucky i just don't like animal products. I find them icky. That makes it so much easier for me to be vegan compared to someone who feels like they couldn't live without meat. Moreover, I don't have any illnesses that prevent me from eating plant-based. And I'm in a position where I can afford, and it's practically possible even convenient for me to buy plant based foods. Not everyone has these luxuries.

Moreover, it's not productive to villainize people who don’t live up to the ideal even when you do. It's not going to help them change their mind. People are more likely to become defensive and won't be open to change. However, people will be more open to change if they're met with support and compassion. If we recognize their unique structural barriers that prevent them from taking actions, we can then take steps to address the structural barriers. Boiling their animal product consumption down to a failure of willpower ignores the very real structural issues that prevent people from doing what they want. This is the position of the people calling for collective action.

But taking no individual action, and putting blame exclusively on collective structure waiting for it to change doesn’t sit right with me either. It seems to postpone the solution, and can easily be weaponized to postpone the solution indefinitely, or be susceptible to greenwashing where you have the appearance of change without really changing anything. So while more productive than individual action alone, systemic change cannot stand by itself either.

Towards an integrated view of collective and individual responsibility

The Hegelian dialectic suggests that when confronted with two opposing ideas: a thesis and antithesis, the way to move beyond the struggle is through synthesis; a unification of the ideas. We can see individual and collective actions as two parts of the a dialectic. And we can see political action as a unification or synthesis of the two.

We need both individual and collective political action to make real change. As we have seen either by themselves are insufficient. Furthermore, there is a feedback mechanism between individual and collective action which makes it easier to do the other.

For example, if you start eating plant-based, the people around you are also more likely to eat more plant based, and the people around them then also become more likely to eat plant based as well. So your individual actions stretch further than just you. Eventually if enough people start individually eating plant-based and influence the people around them to be more accepting (passively or actively), then it also becomes easier to pass legislation making eating meat more difficult. The same if you sell your car, buy electric, if you avoid going on vacation by plane, and so on.

On the other hand, collective political action also influences individual choices and can make it easier for individuals to take individual action. If you subsidize electric cars, then it becomes cheaper and therefore easier to buy electric cars. And if you subsidize coal and oil, so they become cheaper than solar and wind, which many governments do including the US, it becomes easier for companies to use coal and oil for energy, and therefore easier for individuals to buy from companies that use coal and oil for energy. Collective political action tends to have a bigger effects than individual action, but also more difficult for the individual to implement.

Individual and collective actions then becomes two ways towards a solution bottom up and top down neither is sufficient on their own, but through Hegel's dialectic, together, they can achieve real change.

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