Collective responsibility and being ‘wisely selfish’

This post is the unlikely intersection of three very different things: Thin Mints (chocolate mint Girl Scout cookies around which cults have been formed), the American Constitution, and the half-baked thoughts on picking up litter and individual vs. collective responsibility that I wrote about weeks ago.

It started with the Girl Scout cookies. For a long time, I’ve known that palm oil was an environmental villain. I started watching out for it, but continued to make certain exceptions, including: Trader Joe’s French truffles, Meiji chocolate mushrooms, Nutella, and Thin Mints. (Chocolate is the common denominator.)  This week I finally drew the line and swore off buying anything with palm oil. Acting out of ignorance is one thing. Knowing the facts and continuing to support deforestation, even in a small, two-boxes-a-year way, is another.

For me, environmentalism is a sort of syncretism: simultaneously believing that my actions matter and realizing that the problems — and their solutions — are much bigger than one person. I can’t remember why I started thinking about the Constitution and our inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, but once I did, I started wondering where this attitude fit in with what we were doing to the environment. See, the pursuit of happiness sounds like a private dash after a personal unicorn, a right to pursue happiness without considering the cost to anyone or anything else. There is nothing in our individual-centric culture to encourage thinking of our welfare as intimately connected with that of other beings. And when happiness started to be about the acquisition of stuff, things really started to go downhill. We are now a nation of people who feel entitled to do whatever we think will bring us individual happiness (even if it won’t) and deny even the possibility that, in doing so, we are damaging the world we live on. It’s almost unpatriotic not to be a mindless consumer.

As a loner who understands cats better than she does people, I’m an unlikely advocate for moving towards a more collective view of both happiness and responsibility.  But I’m starting to see that prioritizing individuality is profoundly damaging to the planet, both in causing harm and impeding solutions.

In my earlier post, I suggested that responsibility for the planet’s wellbeing should be seen as collective. Our individual actions and their consequences are so deeply interconnected that there is no way we can identify, much less fix, every aspect of our impact.  The more time we spend arguing about who is responsible for what, why your kids are more damaging to the planet than my cat (guilty!), or disclaiming responsibility for problems that we are not overtly involved in, the less we can see that the problem involves all of us and can really only be addressed on the same scale. Bandaid solutions just won’t cut it.

Some people promote green by making it about immediate personal benefit: save money, reduce the toxins in your blood, keep your kids safe, etc. And those reasons are fine to start with, because taking care of ourselves and the people we’re closest to has always been instinctive. But ultimately, I think a real shift will occur when (if) we learn how to be, as the Dalai Lama put it, ‘wisely selfish.’ I believe he meant that putting others first is ultimately taking care of yourself, but I’m going to interpret it a bit more, well, selfishly. For me, being ‘wisely selfish’ means doing what makes me happy within my realization that I am a part of a much bigger world in which all of my actions add to, or subtract from, the wellbeing of the system. It’s in my own interest to protect it. After all, a dead planet is not conducive to individual happiness.

What are your thoughts on taking collective responsibility? Is it even worthwhile to try to change attitudes from the inside, or should we be targeting corporations and governments instead? 


14 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks for the link! I think we need to begin within, how can we ask corporations and goverments to do something we are not. What we see in them we have within. You spot it you got it type of thing. Great post!


    • Thanks for stopping by, Tess! I wasn’t sure whether to link to you or to Sandra’s blog. I’ve linked to hers in the past, so I picked yours. 🙂 I love the idea of a massive inner revolution, but I’m not sure it’s very likely to happen in the timeframe we need it to. Although consumers and citizens certainly have power, I’m also not sure that simply living by example is enough. Corporations and the governments they play such a large role in are not people; they don’t act for the same reasons we do, they can’t be reasoned with by the same things that sway us. Man, it’s such a big problem that starting anywhere — individual revolutions, petitioning the government, boycotting corporations — is better than doing nothing.


  2. The environment is like the homeless person sitting on the street. Some look away, not wanting to see the reality. Big business talks about solving the problem but would prefer that the person not sit in front of their building. Government officials have big plans as long as that person doesn’t change their lifestyle or expect too much. As individuals, we need to change our mindset, not look away, and do what’s right instead of what makes us happy, comfortable or makes life convenient. Once that happens, we can become a collective whole, putting programs into place that actually help rather than just look good. We, both as individuals and the collective whole, need to encourage big business and government to care as well. We do that by affecting them where it counts … their bottom line. We make a statement with what we purchase and what we don’t purchase … by our vote … by the people we join with to make a difference. It’s a huge task and won’t happen soon. But it starts with us … looking at that homeless person with honesty and true concern.


    • That’s a great simile. I never thought of it in those terms before, but I can see how some of our tendency to deny the situation can come from a deep discomfort and underlying guilt about it all. I actually think guilt can be a reasonable place to start making some changes! I can trace a lot of the changes I’ve made in my lifestyle to no longer wanting to feel guilty.

      I agree that we can make a powerful statement as consumers, but we sure need to step it up. I don’t think big corporations are going to make significant changes until it’s clear that their current practices are not going to be remotely profitable, and that means getting a majority of people on board with making responsible decisions.


  3. Sometimes I wonder whether more people would take responsibility if their actions affected the planet in a more visible way, but I’m not sure that would help. If we were roommates in a big house, and it got really dirty and started falling apart, the usual dynamics might develop: those who are lazy and selfish wait for those who are responsible and proactive to clean and fix all of the problems. Or am I being too cynical?


    • I don’t think you’re being too cynical … unfortunately, I think that is exactly the way it works. As for the affects being more visible … the unfortunate thing is that by the time it affects people in a real visible way, it may be too late. I had an oceanography professor who said that the earth will survive … but we won’t. In my mind, that means that we either make the choice now to fix things or the choice will be taken out of our hands … and that won’t be pretty or comfortable.


    • Nope, I think that getting everyone to make responsible, thoughtful choices is something of a pipe dream. (But a good one!) But I do think that there are a lot of people who would be responsible and proactive if they could be nudged into thinking on a more collective scale, and maybe enough of us would be able to make a difference.


  4. Hey Jennifer,

    Interesting I just had a discussion with my bf Aaron about how to get large-scale change to happen. The above comments are also really great. Aaron is much more a cynic than me, and only believes in taking care of himself and being responsible for the environment in terms of himself. It’s much too daunting for him to think about ‘converting’ others, as he feels there has been too much damage, and there is too much power above keeping things the same. He also doesn’t believe that the majority of people will change, evidenced by the apathetic faces every time one steps outside.

    For me personally, it sounds really daunting to try and create an inner revolution for people. Talented bloggers were able help me awaken and grow, but I don’t know that I could do that for others.

    One thing I envision is a business revolution – where wholehearted entrepreneurs get up and start businesses that embrace the Triple Bottom Line. There also needs to be a threshold number of these that are successful, in order to carry the weight needed to weaken corporations as they are today.

    Another thing is the Move to Amend, which was talked about by the latest Story of Stuff video:

    Adding an amendment to the Constitution, saying corporations are not the same as people, and are not allowed the same rights as people. This would do a WHOLE LOT to help us move forward. So many of our biggest issues today, including environmental damage, can be traced back to deregulation of industry manufacturing. Monsanto’s development of pesticides, herbicides, GMO seeds, can all be traced back to deregulation and campaign finance reform..

    Honestly, I think we need it all. Target consumers, target politicians, and create better businesses. Which is why we need each and every person that can speak out to do so.


    • Lynn, I like your vision of a business revolution where we move from profit-driven mega-corporations to small entrepreneurial start-ups. I’ve been musing about this, too, and would love to create a social enterprise that tackles an environmental issue but also creates meaningful and fairly waged jobs for the members of my community. Easier said than done, though!


      • Andrea, That sounds sweet! I’ve been thinking about this too, and have never really thought of myself as the entrepreneur type before. But now that I’ve learned a lot more about it I’m more comfortable with the idea and am looking to start a small online business. I’m using it as a launchpad to learn about entrepreneurship and what it really takes. It’s definitely easier said than done! Start small, connect with others that are interested in doing this or who have been successful with it, and work your way up via small pieces.


    • Hi Lynn,
      I am so far from being a business person — I don’t have a practical or money oriented bone in my body. But I support small businesses and would love to see major corporations realize that they can’t go on with business as usual. I’m not familiar with the Triple Bottom Line. I’ll have to go take a look! It sounds like you’re starting a new venture. I’d love to hear more about it.

      Kevin and I watched the new Story of Stuff video, and Kevin (who is rarely enthusiastic about anything) thought it was terrific. I don’t think the government or corporations are capable of inner revolutions, so I’m all for pushing them to make changes that will safeguard us from over-powerful companies. I’ve often thought that there really isn’t a wrong way to push environmentalism (except, of course, by making it a shopping experience). We need lots of different people working in lots of different areas, pushing different buttons.


  5. Oh man. You touch on so many issues in this post – where is a girl to begin?

    The term “mindless consumerism” pretty much sums up our society. In fact, our entire economy is predicated on consumption as its primary driver (more than 70% of GDP, actually). In short, for Americans, stuff = “happiness” (or so we think).

    I attended a lecture the other night by a very accomplished author and journalist; an expert on Latin America. She talked about the effects of consumerism’s spread in the Latin world. Specifically, she cited this obsession with “stuff” as one of the major contributors to the pervasiveness of “narcocultura” (or drug culture) in Mexico. Very interesting, and very sad. She said, “Mexico exports drugs to the U.S., and imports consumer culture.”

    As far as collective responsibility… it seems the only way for real change to take place. I honestly believe that if people received an accurate and unbiased education about our impact, our choices, and our place on this planet, the vast majority would make more mindful choices.

    How do we start doing that? Leading by example? I think we have to believe that our individual actions matter in the grander scheme of the whole. Or, we could just say, “fuck it – the world is going to hell anyway,” and consume our way to the grave. I think I prefer the former.


  6. It’s odd the way everything connects, isn’t it? I never knew that about the drug culture in Mexico, but I’m not very surprised that our excessive consumerism has a much larger impact than we thought it did.

    I used to think that what was primarily missing was awareness, and that with awareness would come rational, thoughtful choices…but now I look at things like cigarettes, which have huge, graphic warnings in the UK, and am not so sure. Even knowing the consequences, we often make poor choices. Why? Some of it has to do with peer pressure, some of it with addiction, but I think what it comes down to is that humans can’t be relied upon to behave rationally. I see that in myself, too. I know the specifics of how much impact my car has, yet I’m not ready to give it up. Awareness has to be combined with something to make it into a persuasive factor. But what? That’s the million dollar question.


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