The blame game

When it comes to global issues such as climate change and Covid, being a responsible citizen is important, but is it enough? Helen Hubert questions whether we’re focusing our attention in the right places...

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IT’S all your fault.

The looming climate crisis. The ongoing pandemic. All of it.

If only you showed a bit more personal responsibility, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

Not just you, obviously. I’m to blame too. We all are.

It most definitely has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with government, either locally or globally.

I mean, why should those in power have to implement carbon targets and force companies, and other countries, to go green? Surely it’s up to us as individuals to make environmentally friendly choices and decrease our individual carbon footprints – to walk or cycle everywhere, to avoid the scourge that is single-use plastic, to relentlessly reduce, reuse and recycle, and to keep in mind the impact on the planet of every single thing we do, regardless of whatever other problems we might be struggling with too.

If we continue to insist on going on far-flung holidays, heating our homes, eating meat and buying any of the plethora of cheap, pre-packaged, palm oil-laden goods available at the supermarket – and even, heaven forbid, using a plastic bag to carry them home – then we might as well just set fire to Earth. The catastrophic global warming and mass extinction of species our planet is facing is clearly all our fault.

But, you might ask, what about the global fossil fuel companies which ignored and covered up the science of climate change for decades, all the while continuing with their unabated exploitation of the world’s oil, gas and coal reserves, thereby driving the crisis?

Nice try. If it wasn’t for our sky-high energy and production demands, they wouldn’t have had to do that. It’s all about the free market (government subsidies aside, of course).

The same goes for poor old China. It might be the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, but that’s only because it’s busily manufacturing the goods that we keep buying.

We should all hang our heads in shame.

Guernsey’s rising Covid cases are also our fault. Granted, it was those in charge who decided to throw our borders wide open, removed all restrictions and basically left it up to each of us to decide what precautions to take, if any – but they can’t be blamed for any consequences.

It’s all about personal responsibility, you see. We are all free to choose to get vaccinations, do lateral flow tests, socially distance, wear masks and wash our hands until they’re raw.

OK, so a lot of us might not want to do that stuff. Surely it’s not for government to dictate what we should do? We’re all grown-ups, after all.

Apart from the children, that is. But it’s their fault too. Why should they need clear rules about wearing masks at school? If they were responsible, they’d wear them anyway, even if no one told them to, and even if it meant they were teased and taunted by their peers. And if sitting shoulder to shoulder in class, panting over each other in PE, and hugging their friends at break time means that Covid runs riot through the schools, on their own heads be it.

I am, of course, flirting with facetiousness here.

While we can all play a part in striving for the greater good, even the most ardent activist, the most conscientious of citizens, has no hope of their individual actions averting climate change or putting a stop to the pandemic.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. I’m not advocating for simply giving up. But the reality is that, as individuals, our power only comes as part of a collective.

This misguided focus on personal responsibility is what makes huge global problems such as climate change seem almost impossible to solve. It also allows us to excuse societal issues such as poverty, homelessness and addiction, since struggling individuals are seen as responsible for their own situation. And it gives us an excuse to oppose rules and reforms designed to benefit us, such as food regulation, health and safety legislation and universal health care, since it is seen as going against ‘freedom of choice’.

But worst of all, it enables those who do have the power to make a difference to dodge their duties.

A perfect example of this is the concept of the ‘carbon footprint’, which was dreamed up almost two decades ago by an advertising agency working for oil company BP to deflect the blame for climate change away from the fossil fuel industry and onto individuals. It created a carbon footprint calculator, so people could assess how their everyday actions might negatively impact the planet. This idea continues to prevail today.

Similarly, anti-litter campaigns can be traced back to the 1950s in America, when laws were being proposed to ban throwaway bottles. The highly profitable packaging industry joined forces with big brands such as Coca-Cola to form a massive media campaign called Keep America Beautiful, which successfully diverted the conversation away from being about production to instead focus on individual behaviours. As a result, anti-littering ordinances were introduced but no restrictions were ever placed on the packaging itself.

But all of this is treating the symptom, not the cause. If the big global corporations continue to churn out more and more unnecessary waste, all of which has to end up somewhere, and refuse to cut back on their carbon emissions, the small actions of individuals will achieve very little.

The only way individual actions can make a difference is when everyone is doing the same thing – not so much personal responsibility as collective responsibility.

But how can we persuade billions of diverse, free-thinking people to follow the same actions?

It can start from the bottom, from the people themselves, in the form of a revolution, but it has to end at the highest levels, with dramatic policy action and law changes.

COP26 was the perfect opportunity for global governments to join forces to avert the climate crisis, but few experts believe that the resulting flimsy pledges go anywhere near far enough.

As for the pandemic, if we could turn back time to the early days of the outbreak and persuade every country affected to work together to control the virus with a simultaneous short, sharp lockdown, followed by universal rules about travel, hygiene and mask wearing while they worked on creating vaccines, just think of all the lives that might have been saved.

‘Strong recommendations’ and constantly changing mixed messages are rarely sufficient when the stakes are so high.

People need clarity and consistency. That was what made Guernsey’s initial response to the Covid-19 outbreak so successful in comparison with other places. We all knew what we had to do, and why, so we got on with it, whether we liked it or not.

Unfortunately, as Horace Camp eloquently pointed out in his column on Friday, world leaders don’t appear to be taking the current threats seriously enough. If they did, they’d be doing something about it.

As all Spider Man fans know, ‘With great power comes great responsibility’. It’s about time those with the power showed it.

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