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?