Quick thoughts on taking responsibility

Yesterday, as I was getting into my car, I saw a crumpled paper napkin on the ground. I didn’t remember dropping it, but I knew that I had taken one a few weeks ago when my soup exploded on me at the office. It could have fallen out of my lunch bag to the floor of my car and been swept out by the hem of my duster. Likelihood: about 5%. So I picked it up and threw it away.

And then I got to thinking. How sad is it that I’m only willing to take responsibility for what might have been my fault? How many times have I walked by litter without picking it up because I knew I wasn’t the one who dropped it? How many times have I had a receipt blow out of my hands or something fall out of my purse without realizing it? And by extension, how much of our current mess came about because we were only willing to be responsible for what we knew came from our own, individual actions?

The real problem with this mindset is that we are so disconnected from cause and effect that we are responsible for lots of things that we aren’t ever aware of. Without ever taking an axe to a tree, if I buy something with palm oil in it, I’m responsible for rainforest destruction. Without ever spraying a harmful chemical into the air, I’m responsible for land and water pollution, bee colony collapse, and loss of biodiversity when I buy non-organic produce. The connections are deliberately obscured from consumer vision, but they’re there, and I’m slowly becoming aware of more of them.

It’s taken me this long to see how much my actions affect the planet and the people around me, and I don’t have the full picture. Not even close. I may never know all the things my lifestyle has to answer for, and will probably  never be able to take full responsibility for the damage I’ve already caused.

Time to get over the limited liability approach. Even if I wasn’t responsible for the tissue, I’m responsible for plenty of other things I can’t address. And, of course, picking it up was simply the right thing to do. That matters, too.

I feel like this is the beginning of a much bigger post on individual and collective responsibility, but it’s Friday, and I’m stopping here. What are your thoughts on responsibility and environmentalism?


18 responses to this post.

  1. Jennifer,

    This is OUTSTANDING. You’ve hit the nail on the head it connecting every little thing we do — every element of our being and exitence — with the bigger picture. Collective use; collective consumption; collective impact; collective responsibility; and most importantly the collective end this is all leading to.

    For me, it goes back to fostering our ability to see the interconnectedness — the interbeing — of everything; of all that lives and is present on this beautiful gift known as the Earth. Allowing mindfulness to guide our consumpsion, both big and small.

    Don’t dwell on yesterday — you can’t change it. Take this new awareness and put that stake in the ground. Drive forward and bring as many people with you.



    • I think this post is gently meandering towards the idea of interconnection. 🙂 Thanks for pointing that out. I’m going to think about that some more. I never liked the ‘no man is an island’ thing and have always been fiercely protective of my individuality. I’m starting to see that that might be a problem.


  2. Okay, I admit I’m terrible with litter. I totally fall for the ‘I didn’t make the trash, I don’t have to pick it up’ mentality. I’ve started to question this a whole lot more lately, and feel that yes, it is my responsibility. In fact, because all of live in this place, it’s our collective responsibility to keep it clean. Clean neighborhoods only stay clean b/c of well-staffed public street cleaners. Dirty neighborhoods don’t get that luxury.

    Reading this, I think it’s time to start picking up litter. Maybe if more people picked up litter in the public eye, it would seem more like a norm, rather than an act left for certain people.


    • I hope that would be the case. Remember the peer pressure study? Make we can create some peer pressure to either pick up trash and/or not litter in the first place.


  3. You are not alone Jennifer-I try to pick up trash when I see it too. I agree with Bill, many of us don’t see the interconnectedness of everything and it is thus impossible to see how our small, simple actions truly do effect everyone and everything. Picking up that crumpled napkin was the right thing to do. I think I am going to have to invest in some heavy duty gloves for this job-there are lots of disgusting pieces of garbage out there that need to be picked up.


    • My friend, who got me started on the litter thing, just carries hand sanitizer (no triclosan!) and a plastic bag for trash. She’s a horse person, so I guess she’s more OK with dirt than I am. I am working on getting over it, but gloves would definitely be a helpful intermediate step!


  4. Thank you!!! For me, you’re “preaching to the choir,” but I always welcome that. 🙂 I have been doing a lot of walking around my neighborhood of late, and have gotten into the habit of picking up almost any bit of trash or litter that I come across. One of the big rewards, aside from a less trashy (ha-ha!) neighborhood is that I am occasionally thanked by passersby who see me intitiating the pick-up of someone else’s litter. I hope that some people will take up the same practice.


    • Good for you, Donn! Why am I not surprised you’re way ahead of me? I’ll see if picking up trash has the same effect on my neighbors.


  5. Great post, and something I have been coming to terms with for a while now. I am trying to take responsibility, trying to make a difference, and encourage others to do so… but how much am I really doing? How many good changes have I made, how many good things have I done, and good decisions have I made… but yet, so many things I just turn a blind eye too? How many things do I just think, ‘someone else’s problem’, or I am willing to go this far, but that’s far enough, can’t take the extra steps, sorry.

    Ah, it’s a balancing act, isn’t it!! Looking forward to reading more on this topic..


    • Definitely a balancing act! I think one part of the equation is taking more responsibility without being overcome by guilt, which it is all too easy to do. As individuals, we can’t singlehandedly save the world, but nor have we singlehandedly destroyed it.

      Small steps are good. I realize that, while I don’t really like change and am often slow to embrace it, once I have made a change, I stop thinking about it and am free to attempt new changes.


  6. Excellent post – thank you. It really got me thinking. I tend to preach the ‘not my responsibility’ thing, but I realise I’m only taking responsibility for those things I know I directly influence (like the waste I accumulate at home). My daughter is great – she goes out with a bag and picks up litter. Her motivation is that she cares about animals and can’t bear the thought of one getting hurt by litter. Perhaps as we take baby steps, focusing on our motivation can help. For someone else we worked with, her motivation for calling us in for help with reducing waste was her faith – she didn’t want to screw up God’s creation any more. I’ve recently been watching some Deepak Chopra videos and it’s ALL about this interconnectedness – as we do to others, we do to ourselves. As we do to the environment we do to ourselves too I guess. The trees are our lungs, if we chop them all down we can’t breathe. The rivers are our circulation, if we block them and stop them flowing we get a clot. I think we get the picture, but holding this in a mindful way as we go about the mundane steps of our lives is a challenge for sure …


    • I’m reading a book by a biologist that touches on the remarkable interconnections of our world that make life possible, and he comments that from afar, it looks more like an artifact than an accident. I am not religious, but I am starting to see the planet as almost an organism in itself whose health we are seriously affecting. (I guess I should give James Lovelock’s Gaia theory another shot!)

      There are so many reasons to care about the Earth, and different ones speak to different people. I think that’s one thing on our side.


  7. This link between taking responsibility and cause and effect is profound. I can see why it’s easier for people to not wake up and take a look. There are so many ramifications for our actions. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on this topic.


    • Thank you, Sandra. I have an avoidant personality, so I can definitely sympathize with fellow slitherer-outers. It’s never fun to take a good, hard look at the effect our actions have had. Especially in the US, where we’re guaranteed the right of ‘the pursuit of happiness’ — that seems like a fundamentally self-centered quest that doesn’t really take into account other beings on the planet. Hmm…my mind is still chewing on that idea.


  8. Excellent post. Sometimes I pick up litter on the bus because I don’t expect that the sanitation workers for public transit will bother to, say, recycle the plastic water bottles they find! But more importantly, I give back more than I take because I have no control over what others choose to do. What I mean is, I can’t decide to NOT act by convincing myself somebody else will. That’s simply a cop-out. I pick up litter because I’m a citizen not of this city or country, but of this planet. The earth is my home, and I want to care for it – it’s in my best interests! 🙂


    • Kevin takes home chopstick wrappers and recycles them. My parents rolled their eyes when we all went out to lunch yesterday. I think you’re both on to something, though. We can’t make other people act in a certain way; we can only control our own actions, and if that means taking more responsibility than appears to be ours, so be it.


  9. […] thinking about litter today because I read a post by Jennifer Mo of Not Easy To Be Green. She shattered my weak excuses for leaving litter on the […]


  10. If I see some litter, I will pick it up! Too bad that most of the litter you see around town is single use convenience items like paper coffee cups and plastic spoons and crumpled up wrappers!

    It is true – our connection to the impact of our actions is so fuzzy. I was wondering the other day what the piece of land would look like that grew all the food just for me, or what all the gasoline would look like that I burned in a year, or what a pile of coal would look like if it was piled up in my yard, representing the coal burned for the electricity I used in one year. How big would the pile be? As big as my house? I have no idea. But if I saw these things, if we all did, what an impact that would make!

    As for Gaia theory, I read Tim Flannery’s interpretation of it only – that the collective intelligence of humans is like the Earth’s brain, and we currently are at the stage of an infant, unaware and unable to care for ourselves. If we manage to mature up just enough to save ourselves, we will pave the way for an even brighter future, as we realize our full potential. Now there is a nice thought!


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