How About Some “Personal Responsibility” Where it Counts

The other day as I was walking home I saw a woman using a garden hose to wash her entire sidewalk, driveway, porch, and water her lawn and trees. This is California, in year four of a severe water shortage that may well mark the return to thousands of years of arid climate. There is one year of water remaining for 38-million people. Yet she was spraying water everywhere, running it into the sewers to be wasted. Further along my way there was a restaurant blithely washing the sidewalk. A few days later it was a guy washing his house, and this was after the governor announced new emergency rationing.

On that same day I saw an older man approach a city trash bin with a large bag of papers, all of which were recyclable, all of which he dumped.

I often see people leaving stores with several cases of water shipped in from Fiji or New Zealand, in plastic bottles that may well become part of the great swirling gyres of plastic trash in our oceans, millions of tons of it. This plastic accumulates in huge drift piles on the shore. At sea it constantly breaks down into smaller pieces. Sea birds find small pieces of colorful plastic and feed it to their chicks, all of whom die of starvation. Fish, sea mammals, birds, turtles, even dolphins, sharks, and whales, are frequently entrapped by nylon nets and ropes, six-pack holders, fishline, and other stuff. It is not just carelessly disposed trash. It is clear danger.

trash surf

Photo from Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

We Americans are among the least responsible people on the planet. We drive huge testosterone chariots that are advertised as suitable for roaring around in fragile environments. In spite of the fairly good records of cities like San Francisco, our overall rate of recycling is dismal, as is our efficiency. We are distressingly irresponsible. We seem to feel we can’t be bothered with caring about anything beyond our nose.

The Japanese may be the people we should emulate. In the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami citizens turned in thousands of found wallets to the police. The police devoted many thousands of hours trying to return them to their owners, or to the owner’s family. Such things are not unusual in Japanese culture. Anyplace in Japan, if you lose practically anything it will most likely be returned, either by a neighbor or by a police officer. This is personal responsibility. Responsibility not just for one’s own selfish fortune, but for the wellbeing of the people around us.

We Americans
are among the
least responsible people
on the planet.

“Personal responsibility” is the mantra of Republican conservatives, but what they mean by the mantra is not caring about other people, the animals, or the environment we all depend on for life, for the world in which we all live. For them, every man is a self-sufficient island, sharing no responsibilities beyond themselves and their male-dominated, totally independent family—which of course is not at all independent. The sole purpose of this mantra is to contrast themselves with those they assume are always irresponsible. Their belief has only a tenuous relationship with real responsibility, and even less with reality.

They feel no personal responsibility to assist the less fortunate in any way, because they believe other persons’ problems can only be their own damn fault for being so irresponsible. Really, it’s just an excuse for racism, since the people they believe are always irresponsible are Those Others.

They believe other persons’ problems
can only be their own damn fault.

At the same time, they are being irresponsible themselves, by failing to recognize their duty to others, for how things are, and by failing to even notice the ever worsening condition of the planet. The planet is not infinite. It simply cannot absorb all of our desecration. Look at that picture above again.

It is imperative that each of us assume personal responsibility for the wellbeing of our fellow Earthlings, and for the state of the planet. There is nothing else we could do that is anywhere near as important.

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