Responsibility — Eeesh!!!


For their paper, “Beyond individual behaviour change: the role of power, knowledge and strategy in tackling climate change,” Kenis and Mathijs interviewed twelve “young environmentally concerned citizens” in an attempt to learn the knowledge, motivation and frustrations that informed their strategies for addressing climate change. I was intrigued by their findings.

Many respondents expressed a sense of powerlessness. They felt that individual action seemed negligible when compared to the magnitude of the problem. They also pointed to a lack of both “strategic vision” and “credible vision.” “Strategy scepticism” was also labeled as a common theme.

Although all the respondents were engaged in individual action, none of them thought it was an effective strategy. Their reasons were of an ethical nature. They felt they were “doing the right thing.” “Maybe I do it in order to have a positive conscience or to earn my place in heaven. I would feel badly if I were to carry on as I used to, but that doesn’t mean that I think that I am making a real contribution” (p. 51).

Many respondents were critical toward people who tried to convince others to change their behaviour. There was also a lack of coherence between the responses of many respondents. For example, respondents would identify the structural organisation of society as the underlying cause of climate change, but then identify individual behaviour change as the primary solution to the problem. Some of the responses were even contradictory. For example, the respondent might explain that he or she didn’t think it was wise to adopt an “us against them” mentality, when referring to corporations, but later the respondent would be highly critical of the practices of a particular corporation.

I’ve outlined these findings, so that anyone reading my blog has a broad perspective of the article I’m citing, but I wish to focus on one area that I found particularly compelling: the role of individual behaviour change and the respondents’ perception of its effectiveness.

Most of the respondents didn’t believe their individual action had any positive impact on the problem; rather they felt an inability to “exert power.” In essence they felt their individual efforts were ineffective, yet they were all involved in individual behaviour change. While not all respondents were engaged in collective action, the common consensus was that collective action was more effective. In fact, it seemed to me that the article displayed an implicit bias toward “collective action.”

Embedded within the text seemed the underlying message, we need to move beyond individual action. And I’m not disagreeing. I believe we should be using a combined approach. I believe we NEED a combined approach. So I’m concerned with the negative connotations surrounding individual action.

When stating their reasons for individual action, the respondents’ responses had an almost apologetic undertone: “It sounds maybe very pathetic, but I also want to be able to say at the end of my life, look, I have done my bit for this world, and I didn’t only talk, I also tried to reduce my ecological footprint” (p. 56). This attitude seems to reflect a very Western perspective.

Instead of framing our individual actions with contrition and our reasons for those actions with shame, why can’t we — as a society and a species — begin to frame our actions in terms of community, responsibility and obligation? There is another term that I would like to list here, but I don’t think it exists. The term I wish to use refers to a larger community: the community of the Earth.

We are all part of this larger community, this larger ecosystem, yet we lack the terminology that reflects this. And this in itself may be part of a larger issue, a larger issue that we must resolve if we wish to shift paradigms and come to see ourselves as not only part of the “problem,” but also as part of the “solution.” How can we deepen our connection to the Earth when our language — at least the English language — doesn’t even recognize that the connection exists?




One Comment on “Responsibility — Eeesh!!!

  1. Great points – I believe that individual action is necessary to help stimulate a global action. Of course, with developing countries trying to catch up to the developed, it makes it sort of difficult to initiate a global action, but perhaps an alternate solution could be thought up.


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