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.