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Rethinking Responsibly

By Archives February 26, 2008

“Who should have the greatest responsibility for reducing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions: governments, industries or individuals?” asked the Canada West 2007 annual student essay contest.
My objection to the question as posed is that it constitutes a red herring. Any approach along the lines of “either-or” to such a complex worldwide phenomena as greenhouse gas emission is simplistic, and likely to yield equally simplistic solutions.
I believe the key word is not “who,” but “responsibility.” Instead of passively choosing one of the options given – governments, industries or individuals – I propose to tackle the real issue: the present conception of responsibility may very well be in need of revision.
Responsibility tends to be aligned almost exclusively with a “doer.” We turn to villains or heroes who are expected to resolve the problem on behalf of society. We also tend to conceive of responsibility as something quantifiable: we ask “who should have the greatest responsibility,” as if the term was a commodity.
As responsibility becomes quantifiable, it also becomes a game of elitism – “with great power comes great responsibilities,” says the cliché.
While the government introduces new legislation (that its successor will probably overturn), corporations are likely to respond only with profitable solutions.
Selling hybrid vehicles as a means to diminish greenhouse gas emissions is a good example of a focus on production, which prevents us from seeing the larger picture. We end up focusing on the hybrids instead of thinking about alternatives to driving.
Responsibility can and should be shared. It should be in relation to each individual actor’s potential: a small player’s responsibility is different from that of governments or corporations. To say that any single player should have the “greater responsibility” is to compare apples and oranges.
What’s needed is to rethink our roles as individual consumers. Before production, even before supply and demand, there should be a moral consumer who is responsible for his/her own actions.