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Ask not what you can do

| Tuesday, September 1, 2020

This summer, while driving across the country for work, my friend and I stopped at a rest stop in Oklahoma. If it weren’t for us and the rest stop employee in our masks, you probably wouldn’t have known there was a pandemic going on. Walking into the small, cramped bathroom, I heard a (maskless) woman whisper to her friend, “are we supposed to have masks on?”

Her friend responded, “I don’t think so — you have to in Oklahoma City, but not here.”

I was fascinated by this. My friend and I weren’t wearing masks because of any official mask mandate — we were wearing them because it could help stop the spread of COVID. These women in the bathroom didn’t have any malintent, though — they weren’t criticizing us, or mask wearing in general — they just didn’t see any reason to wear a mask, since no government entity had officially told them to.

This event highlighted the real nuance required in having a conversation about institutional versus individual responsibility during a pandemic. Is this starting to sound familiar yet?

Don’t worry — as much as I’d love to write a column about who bears responsibility for the recent outbreak on campus, most of my thoughts have already been beautifully articulated by other columnists. Instead, I want to talk about individual responsibility more generally, and how focusing on individual actions instead of institutional choices often lets those institutions that bear most responsibility off the hook.

Since we’ve all been talking about nothing but COVID for the last six months, I’ll use a different issue as a case study for this discussion: climate change.

The environmental movement has long been struggling to find the best way to make the urgent adjustments needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change. On an institutional level, they’ve worked with governments to limit corporate carbon emissions, and on an individual level, they’ve implemented social campaigns to encourage people to act more sustainably. 

Both of these tactics are certainly necessary, but recently the latter has overtaken the cultural conversation. Discourse about using plastic straws, eating meat and consuming fast fashion have overwhelmed conversations about the culpability of corporations in rising carbon emissions. While campaigns for institutional change still exist (e.g. the Green New Deal), the heavy emphasis on individual responsibility in the social sphere limits the efficacy of those campaigns, and makes it harder for the necessary change to happen. There’s a few reasons why this is true.

First of all, holding individuals alone accountable usually cannot solve massive social problems, especially when those social problems have structural foundations. This issue is painfully clear with climate change. When the world froze back in March, it led to the largest ever annual fall in carbon emissions: a greater drop than in any previous period of war or economic crisis. While that kind of dip in carbon emissions is theoretically a huge win for environmentalists, a study from just a few weeks ago found that the effects of the lockdown will be “negligible” on warming rates. To see an actual impact on the climate crisis, governments would have to focus their recoveries on shifting to a green economy. Even the biggest adjustment of individual actions in history wasn’t enough to make a dent in global warming.

Additionally, individual responsibility campaigns tend to target those in vulnerable populations whose actions are the results of systems they can’t change. Another key sustainability campaign in recent years has been the crusade against “fast fashion” — a type of clothes manufacturing that makes cheap, disposable clothing. Aside from the abhorrent labor practices many of these businesses employ, fast fashion produces 10% of the world’s carbon emissions and is the second-largest consumer of water. Instead of targeting the companies who profit off fast fashion, many have chosen to shame people who consume fast fashion as complicit in the destruction of the environment. This is, frankly, pretty classist, since fast fashion is one of the only sources of clothing for low-income people all around the world. These companies are fully aware of the harm they’re causing, and they exploit a population whose options are limited because they know society will target the consumers instead of them.

This brings us to the third and, perhaps, most important issue with focusing on individual actions over institutions. Diverting attention away from systems and structures that are largely responsible for social ills also deflects responsibility from them. Most people have probably heard the stunning statistic that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of the world’s carbon emissions. Additionally, most of us have probably heard of the concept of a carbon footprint, essentially a way to measure each individual’s impact on overall carbon emissions. While the concept was invented by ecologists in the ‘90s, it was popularized and boosted by a 2005 campaign from BP Oil — and no, BP did not create a marketing campaign about carbon footprints out of the goodness of their hearts. Those 100 companies know that campaigns that focus on individual responsibility actively draw attention away from their own actions that cause far more harm to the environment.

At this point, it’s important to say that I don’t think individual responsibility campaigns are bad, and absolutely think we all have a role in reducing the effects of social problems like climate change, or a global pandemic. The point of this column is simply to point out that the effects of individual actions are extremely limited in a world dictated by structures and systems, and that we have to be careful not to let institutions off the hook when holding individuals accountable. 

This holds true for climate change, and it holds true for the COVID-19 pandemic here on campus. Next time you talk about holding individuals responsible, just make sure to take a step back and consider who you’re implicitly absolving of responsibility — usually, it’s an institution with far more control over that situation than any individual.

Ellie Konfrst is a junior majoring in political science, with minors in the Hesburgh Program for Public Service and civil & human rights. Originally from Des Moines, Iowa, she’s excited that people will finally be forced to listen to all of her extremely good takes. She can be reached at [email protected] or @elliekonfrst13 on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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