Far to the West, where the sun kisses the earth, lived the titan Atlas. Among the titans he was renowned and revered for his strength, and among the gods he was equally feared for it. When the titans rose up against the gods, it was Atlas who led them into battle and for ten years wrestled with the strongest of them for control of the heavens. When the titans were defeated and banished to the underworld, Zeus reserved his most severe punishment for Atlas: He would stay on the earth, but he would henceforth have to bear the weight of the heavens on his shoulders.
Today, you and I increasingly find ourselves as the bearers of our collective and civilizational burdens. We recycle our waste to combat environmental pollution, reduce our meat consumption not only because the doctor says so but because we have been told how many liters of water are required to produce a pound of steak, and try vainly to offset some of our ballooning carbon footprint (and thus to calm our conscience) by donating to reforestation projects. As ethically conscious consumers, we are the vanguard in the fight against exploitation and child labor; as diligent voters, we are the last line of defense against the tide of reactionary populists that has seen their poll numbers rise across Europe in recent years; as lifelong learners we are building up our own insurance policy against economic redundancy and unemployment. Today’s ethics of responsibility is deeply individualized.
“The fight for a better world has been replaced by the quest for self-optimization”, writes the Polish author Milosz Matuschek in a recent essay for the Swiss newspaper “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”. At the same time, the responsibility for a better tomorrow is increasingly pushed from nation-states and other collective entities onto the individual. In a culture that is often predicated on the twin paradigms of consumption and personal achievement, individuals are squarely positioned as the primary agents of personal and social change. It’s a highly introspective view of change: The betterment of self and society is not primarily seen as rooted in our cultural and political environment but in our psyche and our habits. Instead of demanding responsibility and justice from politicians and business leaders, we are remarkably willing to conceive of responsibility as something that is best enacted through individual action.
Lack of meaningful enforcement mechanisms
This hasn’t always been the case. Take the United States in the 1950s: Increasing consumption of luxury goods left behind an ever-growing mountain of plastic waste that upset the eyes and nose when left unattended. To tackle the so-called “waste problem”, state legislators in Vermont passed a law that placed severe limits on the use of single-use plastic packaging. They were well-intentioned, but were not prepared for the pushback they received from the powerful food lobby. Industry representatives were afraid that the law would open the floodgates of further regulation and vigorously opposed it. “Why should plastic wrappings be prohibited”, lobby groups asked, “if garbage can easily be recycled by consumers?” In other words, the solution to the waste problem did not have to come from a reduction in overall packaging but could be reached through the education of consumers, who would know how to recycle their waste and would no longer drop it out of the windows of their cars and onto the highway. Since 1953, the industry-funded organization “Keep America Beautiful” has made it its mission to spread the gospel of consumer recycling. Today, household recycling is one of the most widespread responses to the environmental externalities of mass consumption.
The personalization of responsibility also hints at another trend: Attempts to create political solutions to collective challenges like climate change and global economic justice have frequently dissipated. International agreements have been watered down or ignored by governments that are well aware of the lack of meaningful enforcement mechanisms. In the wake of broken promises and dispelled hopes, we have resigned ourselves to the necessity of individualized solutions. As long as there is no room in international free trade agreements for the protection of fair working conditions, our best bet seems to be a private boycott against clothes from Bangladesh or (if we are truly committed) against iPhones manufactured in China. As long as austerity politics and unemployment deepen the rift between Europe’s haves and have-nots, we have to step up to the voting booth to stem the tide of populism that has arisen in the wake of a crisis whose origins lie far beyond our realm of personal influence. Responsibility is rarely internationalized, but quickly personalized.
Countless little acts of kindness and justice
But as Bert Brecht knew, “a demanding challenge is best approached lightly.” None of us have to shoulder the weight of the world and the heavens, as Atlas did, because as much as the world can be changed through countless little acts of kindness and justice, some challenges we face today require a different kind of responsibility. Insofar as they are systemic – i.e. produced by the abstract and aggregate forces of consumerism, neoliberalism, or capitalism –, they require systemic solutions that exist not only on a different scale but are of a different kind than the solutions we can offer as individuals. To push this burden onto individuals is a sign of irresponsibility, not an ethical response.
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