Climate Change – The Individual’s Problem? (2/2)

Euan Robb (1st year History and Politics),

Guest Writer

Humans have many faults. They are often vain, indolent and self-centred. One might suggest that humanity needs to change its nature before it can confront a collective challenge like global warming. But that is not the case.

In the previous article, I discussed the possible necessity of switching from our current individualist, neoliberal social paradigm to one emphasising the community. I concluded that sticking with our current paradigm is the best course of action. The most significant problems of the individualist paradigm still need to be addressed, however – especially the question of how to get individuals to act in environmentally friendly ways.

The dilemma is that, realistically, individuals can do little to alter society’s cumulative impact on the environment when acting alone; with this view, they may not bother taking any action whatsoever. If other individuals across the globe persist in their environmentally unfriendly actions, why should one sacrifice one’s limited time and/or money to try and protect the environment?

The answer to this question is quite simple: duty. A duty imposed on the individual not by society but by nature. Existing generations do not own the Earth; they merely hold it in trust for future generations. Thus, just as they assumed control of a habitable world, so it must be bequeathed in a similar state. Society already acknowledges that parents have a duty of care towards their children and this responsibility is merely an addendum to that. Parents need not only support the growth of their children, but also ensure that they inherit a habitable planet. Consequently, it is every individual’s duty to act sustainably. This duty cannot, therefore, be abrogated by claiming that others are not fulfilling it.

Furthermore, individuals need not grasp the bigger picture (something unlikely, unless for personal benefit), for everyone must simply fulfil their own individual duty for the sake of one’s children and further progeny and the environment will improve.

This duty is grounded in empirical reality. Environmental damage is easily demonstrated to people today, facilitating a simple explanation of why individuals need fulfil their obligation to preserve the planet. Were this obligation merely an abstract one, I would doubt its efficacy; but the environment is patently suffering because of human agency. And, as changes to material conditions are the most effective incentives for individual action, demonstrating how environmental damage negatively impacts individuals – and the the world at large – should induce one to fulfil one’s duty.

It is far easier to emphasise the duty of the individual, I think, than to construct a society based on the community. A duty of care for the sake of posterity is a simple idea. But can one truly comprehend a communal/world society? If humans have, throughout history, proven their skill at one thing, it is in finding differences between different people and cultures. From religion to language to statehood, humans have consistently divided and fought each other. It seems unlikely then, that humanity could ever construct a society that focuses on the community without encountering insurmountable problems. How are the individuals of today going to form a communal society with people they have never met – people with unfamiliar cultures and conflicting ideas?

Indeed, would humanity and the environment even benefit from a societal paradigm focusing on the community?

No.

Humanity thrives on competition. Some of humanity’s greatest achievements were born out of conflict. The earliest computers arose from the cryptographical demands of the Second World War, whilst the Cold War struggle for prestige pushed humanity to the Moon. Currently, the looming conflict between the US and China looks set to thrust AI programming to the fore. If humanity can be manoeuvred into a position in which we compete to fulfil our duty to the planet, I am certain human ingenuity will ensure a successful outcome – provided it is not too late.

After all, is society itself not just a competition of individuals? On aggregate, do not all members of society seek to increase their social standing relative to the others? I write this article (and I suspect many read it) at university. Why do students attend university? Is it not in the hope of accessing higher paying jobs and achieving higher statuses than those who don’t attend? This is not necessarily something people are conscious of, but that doesn’t make it incorrect.

This idea of society as a competition is not a new one. Indeed, it has roots about as far back as roots go: the Homeric tradition. The poems of Homer describe a society in which individuals attempt to achieve the state of ‘arete,’ or personal excellence, including personal courage, beauty, strength and so forth. Crucially, this state could only be achieved by demonstrating that one’s own virtues surpass those of the rest of society. Of importance was not the attainment of arete itself, but rather, society’s recognition of it. The greatest reward was the acknowledgement of higher personal qualities by one’s fellow men.

Now, you may be wondering, quite rightly: ‘what has this to do with climate change?’ To begin with, I would question the extent to which our society has transformed since the days of Homer. Modern individuals may not see arete in the attempts to sack the City of Troy or outwit the Cyclops; but it is perhaps manifest today in our efforts to keep up with the latest trends, to own the fastest cars or maintain the greatest presence on social media. The status desired by the modern individual entails all sorts of products – flashy, inefficient consumer goods that are manufactured by polluting companies and come with a high price tag for the environment.

This would suggest the necessity of shifting not the societal paradigm but, rather, what individuals value. If perceptions can be changed to view environmentally friendly actions as the peak of arete, we could potentially solve our environmental problems within the current generations.

This method would also eradicate any notion of environmentalism as either an elitist niche or the domain of self-righteous zealots – something it could be interpreted as today, given the relatively high prices of environmentally friendly goods and services. If environmental consciousness were to become the norm, then there would be demand across the social spectrum for goods and services conforming to such a worldview (for all would pursue the environmentalist lifestyle). This uniform demand would ensure an increase in supply (for supply will always follow the market), guaranteeing the availability of environmentally friendly goods and services targeted at all social strata. Thus, environmentally friendly action would be rendered the domain of all members of society, from the noblest of patrician families to the lowest, dirtiest, most bedraggled member of the capite censi!

As for how to communicate to individuals their duty of care regarding the planet, this is where the ‘boots on the ground’ campaigning comes in. People need to be shown what they can and must do if we are to preserve the planet, which requires that the message be broadcast. Changing our collective perceptions and values will be more difficult than this, but the solution is ultimately the same. If those in the front lead by example and adopt environmentally friendly lifestyles, society can be shifted to value these choices as much it values flashy smartphones or snazzy clothes today.

In these two articles, I hope I have conveyed a fundamental sense of duty and the need to change the type of individual that people strive to be – not the societal paradigm. After all, humans are capable of anything, from putting a man on the Moon to the atrocities of the Holocaust. If we can ensure our current society turns its full attention towards environmental issues, I know they can be solved handily.

Header Image: Photo by kellepics on Pixabay

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