Perhaps the most crippling shortcoming of our increasingly dysfunctional paradigm is its failure to take full Responsibility for the actions of our communal selves. Typically, we claim the part we like and turn our backs on the rest. The result is a long trail of large scale wreckage in our rear view mirror, which we ignore rather than account for. That lack of reckoning in turn makes it next to impossible to pursue any significant change in our collective footprint or the behavior that generates it. And without such a change, we will enter the coming planetary contractions adrift and broadside to the flow of events. Meaningful ownership of the impact of our actions and the damage they do has to be the starting point for any civilization that intends to survive and prosper as our climate loses its moorings. Taking responsibility is the foundation of transformation.
And it has at least four aspects:
1. Identifying and examining the realities.
It is impossible to behave responsibly without taking a clear look at all of what is going on and facing up to it. Avoidance and Denial are the height of irresponsibility. Our depredations against the planet are perhaps the poster children for this unconsciousness. We close our eyes to the deterioration we don’t want to believe is happening, even though it is out in plain sight awaiting examination. And we end up treating it as though it doesn’t exist or has no connection to ourselves. As a consequence, holding the perpetrators accountable is problematic and ameliorating the damage is never even figured into the financial cost of the behavior that generates it. War is another classic example of the irresponsibility of self enforced ignorance. Our armies produce enormous reservoirs of pain, disruption, destruction, and anger, which we rarely address or even recognize in war’s aftermath. Yet when we decide to fight, those leftovers define the outcome as much as the combat itself. You can’t be responsible and then close your eyes, look the other way, or just ignore, even if reality is frightening, disillusioning, or offensive.
2. Acknowledging our role in those realities.
Part of Responsibility is self examination. Once we have identified the true extent of the footprints we leave behind, we need to admit to ourselves that they are indeed ours. This requires recognizing the legion of connections that grow out of our participation in society, shedding our insulation, and appreciating the ways we all contribute to collective behavior, even if we aren’t the ones who set it in motion. Responsibility requires taking society and its byproducts personally and accepting that ownership of the consequences is part of our individual and collective identity. Indeed, as social beings, we are inseparable from what we are collectively doing or have done, even when we don’t acknowledge as much. Acknowledgement allows us to explore that identity, adjust the way we act, and, of course, take Responsibility for ourselves.
3. Attending to the consequences.
While the first two steps towards Responsibility will no doubt involve significant changes for most of us, this is the step that will bring drastic revisions to our customary activity. It means that we can no longer define our behavior by just the path from intention to objective, but by all the collateral damage along the way as well. And addressing and rectifying those “side effects” are inseparable from the action itself. So genuine prosperity is only reached when we have accounted for the process of getting there, or military success when all the wounds are healed and destruction rebuilt. We are judged according to the widest panorama of our engagement. One immediate impact of this approach will be a new set of calculations in advance of anything we do, as we assess just what resources will be required to do it. Everything becomes a bigger deal than we heretofore assumed whenever we hold ourselves responsible for its entirety and not just its most narrow expected outcome. Everything becomes slower when we no longer limit ourselves to trampling the world under foot making things happen and hold ourselves responsible for everything we step on.
4. Committing to the process.
And, finally, Responsibility has to be consciously incorporated in our social fabric as well as our individual perspective. This will allow us to identify and avoid some consequences in advance, rather than always trying to make good on damage already done. Responsibility works best as a social staple rather than a moralistic luxury. We will not do well without it.
With it, however, we will be far better equipped for our future. Responsibility allows us to avoid mistakes we wouldn’t otherwise be able to, anticipate issues that would otherwise catch us by surprise, and be clear about what we are up to in ways that would otherwise be obscured. It will also ground our communal selves in the necessity of taking care of each other and not abandoning the species to billions of separate fates.
Unsure whether any of this makes sense at ground level, I decided to try out my ideas about Responsibility on Faoud and Maha, two refugees from Iraq. I’ve known them since they first arrived. They lost everything in the war and occupation of their homeland and, thanks to the efforts of an American charity, are now trying to start all over here after months in a Jordanian transport camp. We talked in generalities for a while, then I asked how they felt as the beneficiaries of some Americans’ sense of Responsibility for what had happened to them.
Faoud looked at the floor for a while before answering.
“We don’t want to seem ungrateful,” he finally said. “After all we would have been lost without American generosity and sense of responsibility. Coming here may have saved our lives.”
He paused again.
“But,” he finally continued, “Americans are also the reason our lives were at risk. What are we doing here? Wouldn’t it have been more responsible to have left us be in the first place?”
Faoud’s response is, of course, key: The most productive Responsibility is always exercised ahead of time.