Published: Friday, August 26, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, October 5, 2011 17:10
During a talk at Colorado College last spring, author and speaker Tim Wise recounted the story of a time he came home to find that one of his housemates had made gumbo for dinner.
Tired and not altogether hungry, Wise went straight to bed without eating any of it. The next morning, he came to find that the leftover gumbo was still in a pot on the stove. Since he hadn't eaten any of it, he did not feel like it should be his job to throw it away.
After several days, it was still there, with the smell of gumbo growing fouler and Wise feeling more like it was someone else's job to deal with it.
When the smell had become completely overpowering, it dawned on him: Regardless of who had made the mess, he was going to have to clean it up if he wanted to stop living in the stench.
Wise tells this story to show that there is a distinction between guilt and responsibility in the context of understanding and confronting institutionalized white privilege. "Guilt," he claims, "is what you feel for what you've done. Responsibility is what you take because of the kind of person you are."
But that distinction can just as well be applied in the context of strategizing for sustainability, for our feelings of guilt in the face of unsustainability are merely a distraction from our responsibility to confront the systems of power that constrain our ability to live sustainably.
The environmental movement tends to operate within a paradigm of individual strategies for sustainability, which alienates many people. The story goes that if enough of us would do our part, the planet could be healed. It follows that if I do not do my part, then I am no less to blame for this culture's unsustainability than the next person.
But author and environmental activist Derrick Jensen argues that if we as individuals feel guilty about the destruction of the biosphere, it is because "we've been victims of a campaign of systematic misdirection. Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption for organized political resistance."
Of course, there is no political authority to resist if the problem is simply an aggregate of our individual actions.
One course of action might be less polluting, but as long as that course of action is woven into an unsustainable framework, the action remains unsustainable.
If Jensen is right about all of this, then guilt should not even be on the table as a legitimate response to the unsustainability of this culture. For if the framework in which we find ourselves is such that most courses of action open to us are unsustainable, what is there for any of us to feel guilty about?
But this hardly absolves us of our responsibility to address this culture's unsustainability. Rather, it redirects our responsibility beyond mere consideration of our options as consumers – bike or car, paper or plastic – and toward confrontation with the cultural, political, and economic frameworks themselves.
Of course, confronting unsustainability at that scale is a far more daunting task than confronting it at the individual scale. But surprisingly, it begins with two very simple tasks. The first is to ask the question, "If the cultural, political, and economic frameworks in which I find myself are such that most courses of action open to me are unsustainable, what do I do next?" The second is to find other people who are asking the same question. For those of us seeking a livable planet, this is our responsibility.