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The West is learning about Collective Responsibility

By Matthew Mitchell

We are starting to realise that all the little decisions we make about what to do, or what not to do really matter. We are learning that throwing our plastic bag (or our used coffee cups, or our cigarette buts) into the street, does matter – because collectively all this rubbish is having an impact on our environment and especially our wildlife. We are learning that things we once thought of as insignificant are in fact significant and often have far reaching effects. In Australia we have learned that longer showers affect our water supplies, that our small individual actions are impacting our water storages as well as the flow down our rivers, and consequently the water available for farming and other purposes. What an awakening! Who would he guessed that city dwellers, so removed from nature and so supplied with apparent excesses of everything from water to electricity to coffee (and a wide variety of palm oil products) would start to become aware of the plight of coffee growers (and of deforestation) in distant lands, and to change their habits based on this knowledge!

We are coming to realise that there is such a thing as collective responsibility – that we cannot disassociate ourselves from the society we live in and its impacts locally and globally. It is becoming increasingly difficult for Westerners to say about foreign wars that they personally have nothing to with them. All a protaganist must do is ask, well do you drive a car? Then you use oil and in one way or another are contributing to problems in the Middle East. Do you use a computer, mobile phone or iPad – then how can you say that you and your actions play no part in the conflicts in Africa over the scarce resources used to make these devices? Do you buy manufactured goods from China? Does your country sell them the coal used to power those factories? Then how can you say that Chinese pollution is not – even if in only some tiny way – your fault? One challenged by such a statement may retort: “I have no choice but to drive a car, that is how most Westerners live” or “I have no choice but to buy Chinese goods, as these goods are not produced here”. But they used to be – why are they not made here now?

This raises the second thing we are learning – consequences accumulate not only over space but over time. The purchasing choices of recent decades, and the constant search to save a little here and there has had far-reaching effects. Our choices have supported companies that seek to produce things as cheaply as possible, and punished those that paid good wages and provided good conditions, thus we as a nation have shed industries, and jobs, that it seems will never be regained. And now many of us really have no choice but to buy the cheapest, as our job market shrinks and the pressures we bought to bear on overseas countries are now brought to bear on us? And it is mostly the younger generation who struggle to find work and who are paying exorbitant prices for things that were – until fairly recently – relatively affordable eg: housing and basic utilities.

So – slightly older Australians might say – this is not my doing, others allowed this offshoring of our industry, others allowed the highly profitable (for packaging companies) disposable plastic bottle industry to supplant the previous, much more sustainable, refundable bottle system (remember the glass bottles, which you would get 20c for if you returned – back when 20c was the cost of playing an arcade video game?) But it was our doing – collectively. Who else can be held responsible for the paths our society has taken? Who? People in other countries? Which such people had such control over us? Our tiny elite – our 1%? Do 1% of people really have so much sway over the other 99%? Are we really that powerless? Or is the truth that the 99% – or least a large proportion of them – were in some way complicit? Is it true that evil men only succeed where good men stay silent? So where were the good men? Where were the 99% of good men, and women, who could have stood up and stopped any of these things – if they really wanted to? Or were the 99% happy to go along and allow, for example, the introduction of negative gearing? To not stand up against something so obviously unjust and unfair? Perhaps it didn’t seem important, just like many of these things; the growing use of plastics, the growing dependence on cars, and the subsequent relative degradation of public transport infrastructure. So what we are now learnomg is that these small things do matter – and in the long run they matter a lot! So what is to be done now? It is clear that now we must change our old indolent ways – we must start to stand-up for what is right, big things of course, but also we must take responsibility for our small decisions too. Why buy a disposable coffee-cup (another piece of land-fill, if it doesn’t end up in the bay)? Why buy $1 milk when you know farmers are struggling, for goodness sake we can nearly all afford to pay a fair price for milk!

So I suggest we all do take personal responsibility for the collective actions of our society – we are part of it, and we cannot disassociate ourselves from it or its effects. We cannot say that homelessness, unemployment, unprofitable farming etc, are not our fault – because in some way these things are only the way they are because we allow them to be. Deep down we know this – the next step is to honestly acknowledge it. White Australians know that collectively they carry the responsibility to amend past mis-deeds. We know it matters for a white Australian Prime Minister to apologise to the Indigenous people of this land. It is effectively a collective apology. Some may deny they have any responsibility for the past and for the on-going situation of Aborigines in this country – but they do. As long as we do not have a treaty with the Aborigines we are letting them down. Who else’s responsibility is it to fix past wrongs? Is it just the job of a few politicians? Or some social welfare workers? Or is the responsibility of everyone of us to ensure that everyone else in our country is treated justly; treated fairly; treated humanely? Again the question arises – if it is not up to you – then who is it up to? The person next to you? Why them and not you? Thus we must start to take responsibility for our actions – including our past mistakes. We must have sufficient humility to do this, and also sufficient selflessness to not worry about how our own personal situation may be detrimentally effected by doing the right thing – that is if we want to live in the country where the right thing is done. Because if we do not, then we keep going right on ignoring all problems we are collectively creating by putting our heads in the sand, seeking the cheapest bargains where-ever we can, and allowing ourselves to be more and more driven to the level of animals by the selfish, individualistic, competitive nightmare we are currently experiencing.

So let all Australians – new to the country or old – take responsibility for the lack of a treaty with the decendants of the original inhabitants of this land. And let the older Australians apologise to the younger generations for the mess they have left them to deal with. Then let us hope that the Indigenous and the young can forgive and then we can all get on with fixing this mess, recreating a truly human, civilised, society in which both people and planet are cared for. The alternative is now obvious – it leads to oblivion of all that is good, leaving a bunch of increasingly selfish people fighting over the decaying scraps of a dying planet.



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  1. Phil

    You argue a sound case Matthew and thank you for the jolt. It’s so true.

  2. Douglas Pye

    Well put Matthew, thank you for the valid points that become lost in the ‘ busyness’ of modern society ! – (much of which is contrived, but that’s another story!)

    In Australia the ” she’ll be right mate” syndrome has certainly taken it’s toll, and the swim back ( against the msm rip ) to firm ground will require some effort ….. articles such as yours deserve better exposure !

    I am reminded of Mahatma Ghandi’s famous words … ” BE the change you wish to see in the World ” …..

  3. Backyard Bob

    I’m a little torn by this article because I appreciate some of its sentiments and agree they have some measure of application, but I’m always concerned by collective judgements of guilt and causation. Not all Germans were responsible for WW11 let alone the mass killing of Jews. Likewise, not everyone can stop the changes that rich and powerful industrialists bring to the world.

    I did not approve or partake in the change from glass to plastic receptacles. It was foist upon me. I can avoid it where possible, but realistically my choices in that are limited, as with many other matters.

    Population remains the key. It’s not what humans do but the scale on which they do it that is the actual problem. If we’re not going to fix that issue by mass exterminating conservatives, then we’re stuck with it.

    Each generation may have its claims to legitimate complaint, but it must always balance that against that to which it must legitimately show deference and gratitude (at least you have electricity). I’m not much interested in the moral snobbery of youth, although like most of us I was once fully possessed of it.

    I’m a transhumanist much more than any sort of neo-luddite, even though I’m sympathetic to some of the arguments of the latter. I want to make “work” redundant for all – other than those who wish to engage such a thing (yes, it’s all dependent on how the term is defined).

    This essay more or less speaks to how I see the whole “work” concept:

    Do you use a computer, mobile phone or iPad – then how can you say that you and your actions play no part in the conflicts in Africa over the scarce resources used to make these devices?

    Because I have no power over the “conflicts” involved and my use of such resources is not explicitly related to any causal necessity for such conflict. If you want to entirely dislocate yourself from the reality of some sort of “connection” to harm and conflict then I suggest you leave the internet and go bush. Now, before the shadow of hypocrisy catches up with you.

  4. johnlward010

    Thomas Jefferson wrote, “And what country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to the facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
    Thomas Jefferson, November 13, 1787, letter to William S. Smith.

  5. johnlward010

    Cook stole from One Tribe when he named ‘Possession Island’ somewhere near Torres Strait he declared Terra Nullius.
    Later the tribal lands were overcome, one by one, across Australia as the newcomers arrived in the tribal lands.
    From my understanding, each tribe had clearly defined boundaries with a definite culture, the rule of law, and spiritual beliefs mostly described as similar to all tribes; or in our language, they each had the characteristics of a state.
    The last tribe was met by the white man around 1960 in the Tanami Desert in Northwest SA / SW NT.
    By my reasoning, I say the Aboriginal peoples If they were ‘One State’ could have the mass to defeat the “invasion”, the Map of the tribes, the numerous languages were spoken, meant certain defeat by more rapacious human greed exuded from the bowels of Europe, armed with superior weapons.
    One Treaty is not, appropriate to agree. We are obliged to honour each tribe by seeking a separate treaty with each ‘state’ and provide them with Compensation and recognise their concerns, starting with assistance to those who still hold the language, laws and culture, to record these very ancient languages as part of Australia’s vast history. Then perhaps, we may understand how far we have to go, before all Australians can claim we are becoming reconciled with each other.

  6. gee

    good on you and good luck. After a very long time trying, i finally gave up on people. For their sake, i hope you don’t

  7. Matthew Mitchell

    Thanks Gee. I have not given up yet.

    Backyard Bob, I understand your being torn entirely – and the “shadow of hypocrisy” is a valid concern – of course me included. I have seriously considered going bush, but then I can help no-one and can only watch passively until the tide catches up with me, taking me down with the rest. Also by doing that, I am only helping myself escape (both hypocrisy and the modern madness). Better I feel to stay and engage with the fight using the tools of times. I have no problem using the empire’s tools against the empire (so to speak), whether it be facebook or whatever, particularly if the use of those tools is to correct the system. There is no doubt these tools are powerful and – like print for example – not necessarily something one would ever want to dispense with. But the power of the press brought, in part, the power of MSM and its distortions. Thus keeping technology and financial and social systems in their proper scope and balance is the task that faces us all and that in turn requires on-going vigilance on the behalf of everyone, because as power corrupts it is seems it is only the powerless that can keep power in check.


  8. Matthew Mitchell

    Backyard Bob,

    I was thinking also a bit more about your concerns. They are good points to raise, but I think you will find what I am proposing is not so unfair as you may fear.

    In relation to:

    “but I’m always concerned by collective judgements of guilt and causation.”

    I absolutely agree with your concerns here, but I think you are not quite understanding what I am saying. Collective responsibility means we all take responsibility for what we are able to do, and in relation to this what we do (or do not do). Let me use your example of plastic bottles and your claim that they were foisted on you. Actually, as I recall they did not come in all of a sudden, they co-existed with the glass bottles for quite some time (I used to work evenings as a lad stocking shelves at a local milk-bar – right during the period of this transition, so I recall it fairly well – the sort of thing that is no longer allowed for children under 16 to do anymore. But let us leave that law and its possible effects on the work-ethic and engagement of today’s young adults to one side).

    So the plastic bottles gradually gained more shelf space and eventually the refundable glass ones were entirely displaced. So what is your ‘culpability’ in this? – if you are to think in terms of judgement? I would suggest that you can only be held accoutable for your contribution. Did you disagree with the idea of plastic bottles but buy them over glass ones sometimes? Did you avoid buying them, but notice that they were still gaining popularity – then did you try and express your concerns and educate your fellow citizens of these concerns? (eg: writing the press, or ministers, letter dropping or amny other possibilities). If not, then you are only culpable for this. Note, when we talk about judgement in this context, there is no ‘external’ judge of the law – the guilt is your own, and only you can know it and thus only you can judge yourself.

    Let us take another example of negative gearing. One might have contributed to this problem by knowing it was wrong but not saying anything when their friends were talking or boasting about how they are making profits from buying and letting property. Under collective responsibility, it would be your responsibility to say for example: “if you are buying property not to help people find places to rent, but purely for your own profit, then that is seeking unearned income at your renter’s expense. There have been revolutions to get rid of such systems in which many people have died, and a lot of people consider this morally wrong and reprehensible”. By saying this, you will be discouraging others from this practice (if they have any sense of shame) as well as educating them, and perhaps even your profiteering/rentier friend may change his practices.

    This is collective responsibiltiy – the power comes from the collective – like a union – with each person palying only a small and tiny part, in what is collectively very powerful. The alternative is what I will call the “Obama syndrome” – the hope that some great man or woman will come along and fix all the worlds ills. We know that such thinking sits in the realm of mythical fantasy. No single mortal leader can change us and all our behaviours (and nor really would we probably want such a thing to be possible) – no we must collectively, and individually take control of ourselves and our own behavour and through that our social ills will start to heal. Thus the importance of the seemingly insignificant. In my opinion.


  9. Charlotte Jones

    I like your blog, Matt. Thanks for sharing, I know I am guilty, like knowing for many years (at least for 15 years) still using aluminum wrapping paper even though it is so bad for our earth environment. I use it very seldom, I should not ever using it again. God help me to be strict with myself!!



  10. Matthew Mitchell

    I guess a related sentiment was expressed some time back by Berrigan:

    “But what of the price of peace? I think of the good, decent, peace-loving people I have known by the thousands and I wonder. How many of them are so afflicted with the wasting disease of normalcy, that even as they declare for peace, their hands reach out with an instinctive spasm in the direction of their comforts, their home, their security, their income, their future, their plans, that 5 year plan of studies, that 10 year plan of professional status, that 20 year plan of family growth and unity, that 50 year plan of decent life, an honorable natural demise. Of course, Let us have peace, we cry. But at the same time, Let us have normalcy, let us lose nothing, let our lives stand intact. Let us know neither prison nor ill-repute nor disruption of ties. And because we must encompass this and protect that, and because at all costs our hopes must march on schedule. And because it is unheard of that in the name of peace a sword should fall. Disjointing that fine and cunning web that our lives have woven. Because it is unheard of that good men and women should suffer injustice or families be sundered or good repute be lost. Because of this we cry peace and cry peace and there is no peace. There is no peace because there are no peacemakers. There are no makers of peace because the making of peace is as least as costly as the making of war, at least as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace, and prison, and death in its wake.”


  11. Athena

    Thank you for an excellent article, Matthew. Most of us have embraced cheap and nasty imported goods to the detriment of local industries. I recall when Australian made clothing was disappearing, a few people I knew would hunt for the local product but most people rushed to buy the cheap imports. Now we’re told that since clothing is extremely cheap, we turn over our wardrobes much more rapidly, thus sending lots of clothing that is still wearable to landfill and causing more harm to the environment with all the dyes, etc used in its manufacture. Not to mention the seamstresses are paid a pittance.

    At the start of the year I attended a cooking class and while we were eating the meal most of the conversation focused on a soon to open Aldi store in our area. Everyone except me couldn’t wait to go there and buy something. When I asked about the quality of the goods sold, the working conditions of the producers of those goods, the environmental impact of producing cheap goods that last barely longer than their warranty period and the remuneration and working conditions of Aldi’s own staff, no one cared. So long as they got to buy something cheap, they didn’t care about the consequences anywhere else and most of these people were working in what are probably well paid jobs. Some of them definitely are. I expect as election time draws closer these same people will criticise the government for not creating enough jobs locally, or for destroying local jobs and industries, when they are part of the same problem.

  12. Matthew Mitchell

    Yes, thanks Athena. The attitudes you describe are fairly standard now I am afraid, and I confess that I find fighting this ‘world-view’ and these behaviours within myself extremely difficult – all our lives we have been subjected to advertising etc, that emphasises the instant gratification of getting something, and also – most powerfully, the importance of ‘a bargain price’. Of course, such bargain prices are a race to the bottom for everyone. The problem is in part reductionist thinking (as you describe – not considering effects) and also the fact the effects (at the least the direct effects) are now displaced so far away – in other nations – out of mind out of sight. The narrow myopic thinking is so prevalent today, and it indicates a massive failure of our education system. The race-to-the-bottom logic stuck me most obviously with a Chinese student I was teaching – he pointed out to me how much Australians were paying for t-shirts (he found some on the internet for $8 or something like that) and he was keen to say that he thought that with his business partner in China, that he could produce them for 50c less. But I suggested to him that he hadn’t considered how his competitors would respond to this – surely they would seek to match his lower price, making his apparent advantage disappear, and no doubt at the expense of placing more pressure on his suppliers and workers – who I suspect would be paid less for what they do. I strongly believe this is actually what is happening with our education system here – as funding is reduced for Higher Ed, TAFE etc, the difference is being absorbed by the teaching and administration staff who are working far-harder, and longer hours so that the level of service is actually not effected as much as it should be. If everyone in these industries was to work to rule (40 hours a week and 9.00 – 5.00) then I am sure there would be a massive outcry as the effects on students etc would fully felt.

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