When the recent UN IPCC report came out stating that humans have about twelve years to keep temperatures from exceeding 1.5C and intensifying natural disasters, it found itself in mainstream media. With its strong but clear call to action, the familiar debate of who is responsible for environmental crises between the individual and corporations circled back to the forefront of general conversation. Should the focus be on Nestle’s use of palm oil in Kit Kats and Forever 21’s use of sweatshops? Or should it be on our fifteen-minute-long showers and use of plastic boba straws? This debate operates on an either/or situation centered around laying sole responsibility on the appropriate party but both individuals and collectives are responsible and we need to move forward with this in mind. Our thinking of personal responsibility in global challenges becomes complete when we see it as the other side of our joint activities. We replace our clothes instead of repairing them which fuels fast fashion. We choose plastic containers over reusable water bottles and lunch containers which end up in landfills. We criminalize and isolate the poor when we respond to their demands with suspicion which props up systems of apprehensive means-testing for welfare services. Responsibility for all of us means that we will always be directly connected to the state of the world around us, for better or worse, and we need to own that.
We are highly interdependent on each other despite what we like to believe about the way our modern world works today. A product of our globalized society is that what we do or don’t do affects those around us both near and far. A subtle theme from Black Panther is the question of international interaction and foreign aid as Wakanda thrives on its powerful natural resources but is hesitant to help struggling nations and peoples. We are familiar and comfortable around the idea of helping people across borders and country lines in times of crisis and even expect it. Yet, it is hard to conceptualize that my water use while living in America is somehow linked to the drought affecting my grandmother’s farms in Nigeria, or that our actions may contribute to the dwindling resources in the Sahara Desert which make it a tense environment ripe for extremism. Seeing as we cannot clearly draw these type of direct connections even though they exist, responsibility needs to be thought of less in terms of blame or retribution for what has happened in the past and more in terms of doing what is in our power now.
Personal responsibility should be forward-looking. We should see ourselves as being responsible for what we do now and how that affects our future; being responsible should be in present and future tense. Being personally responsible means being aware that we are responsible for what our physical and political communities produce. We live in social systems that are based on putting down those more vulnerable in order to lift up the privileged. We also live under governments that do not acknowledge the worldwide reality of the growing wealth gap or the increasing climate change. By being part of these communities, the responsibility is ours to act in ways that go against the grain. Individuals are able to embrace the inconvenience that comes with carpooling more as well as support public measures which work to counter the fact that tax rates on the highest incomes have dropped. We can shift our lifestyles to be less focused on consuming in attempts to fill the void created by a lack of hope, security, and purpose as well as aid efforts to institutionalize programs that destigmatize mental health needs and pursue equality for groups that are more vulnerable to mental health issues. Thinking and acting on our individual responsibility in a way that is both current and forward-looking means that we do what in our power and control today in addition to contributing to something greater than ourselves for tomorrow. We have to personalize the urgency presented to us by news like the wider-than-ever wealth gap and the IPCC report. It means we recognize that our actions and decisions play out against the backdrop of global challenges.