by Barry Edelson
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The Collective Illusion

When everyone is responsible,
no one is responsible




Two small packages of cookies were delivered to the house a few days ago. They were in a cardboard box about 10 inches square, squeezed in place by no fewer than 15 crumpled sheets of packing paper, each the size of a page from a tabloid newspaper. "How wasteful," we cannot help but wince, as we try to imagine the immense scale on which such wastefulness overspreads the planet every hour of every day. We recoil at our own complicity in the unrelenting despoiling of our world, and vow to do better. We will certainly re-use or recycle the box and the paper, but how much difference will that actually make to the health of the environment? We know that, even at our conscientious best, only a small fraction of recyclable material is actually diverted from the landfill or incinerator. Better yet, we could buy all of our cookies, and much else besides, at the local market, rather than ordering them on line, though these, too, would be sold in some kind of disposable packaging. These particular cookies are not available in stores, but they are a luxury and we could, admittedly, do without them altogether.

And for this sacrifice of a few cookies, could we save the planet, even in theory? Not on our own, obviously, but if a million, or a billion, made a similar decision today and every other day, would the detrimental effects from the manufacture of a vast catalog of mostly unnecessary and fundamentally worthless consumer products be sufficiently reduced to bring life on Earth back from the brink of catastrophe? Or would the positive effects of making, buying, shipping and disposing of less stuff be so overwhelmed by the ongoing onslaught of coal mining, oil drilling, mineral extraction and all of the other destructive practices they entail and which ensue from their use, that the collective self-denial of some cookies would be pitifully inadequate or just plain ridiculous?

If we did indeed mobilize in our billions to make and buy and ship and dispose of much less stuff, it would indeed have a measurable and perhaps even decisive effect on the pace of destruction of our air, land and water. But such a mobilization would require changes so profound and widespread in social organization, economics, governmental administration, politics and human behavior itself that it is nearly impossible to imagine how it could actually be achievable.




There are innumerable examples, both trivial and profound, in which collective responsibility and the individual will are shown to be irreconcilable. In all cases, the phenomenon is identical: the collective demands fealty to a shared ideology or mission, while at the same time absolving the individual of accountability. In this psychological respect, a violent mob and a somnolent bureaucracy function much in the same way: by providing both a sense of belonging and freedom from personal liability.

Consider the dog. As you stand in a cold rain for the thousandth time (perhaps literally) while your faithful companion painstakingly sniffs out the perfect location to relieve itself, you may find yourself wondering where these lovable but peculiar creatures came from in the first place. They are not natural animals, having been bred for countless generations to become the irresistible housemates they are today. But, notwithstanding the development of particular breeds over the last few hundred years, the origin of the dog as we know it is a matter of scientific conjecture. We can surmise the general outlines of the story: wolves stayed close to human encampments, probably because the trash of our ancestors offered a ready source of food, and gradually endeared themselves to their hosts. Individual wolves of a less aggressive nature were naturally more agreeable to live with and therefore favored, so that over the span of generations a more docile version of the wolf emerged — natural selection in action. As these wolf-dogs proved to be useful to humans as protectors, hunters and shepherds, not to mention amusing and just enjoyable to have around, intentional breeding took over from random nature to make dogs with specific, desirable traits: faster, stronger, prettier, more companionable, and so on. Contemporary experiments have replicated this effect by selectively breeding wolves or foxes with the least threatening demeanor. In a matter of decades, researchers produced a gentle animal that is largely indistinguishable from the modern dog.

But as we contemplate our family pet, with its odd amalgam of slobbering affection, inexplicable behaviors, in-bred health problems and utter dependence, who exactly is responsible for dogs being what they are? While they plainly have distinct personalities, all dogs, despite their wide variations in size, shape, coat and color, are instantly recognizable as the creatures we know and love. With the exception of the minority of dogs that are deliberately (and cruelly) raised to be attack dogs, the vast majority are entirely familiar and approachable. If you extend a friendly hand to a friend's dog, or even a strange dog in the street, you are more than likely to get a friendly response that is predictably, for lack of a better term, dog-like.

And yet, though each of us is responsible for the care of our own canines, and plays a role in the perpetuation of the species merely by adopting them, the constitution of the dog cannot be attributed to any single person, living or dead. The evolutionary emergence of the dog probably occurred tens of thousands of years ago, at least, and possibly in many different places. Clearly humans are responsible for the dog's existence, but which humans? The dog is perhaps an aspect of our own species' social nature, as we pass down not only knowledge and skills but also domesticated animals and plants from one generation to the next. A series of unrelated decisions made over millennia gave your dog hip dysplasia, skin allergies, a loud bark, an insatiable appetite and numerous other characteristics, for good or ill, that the individual dog lover is powerless to change. This is what a dog is, and if you want to live with one, you must take the whole package. You may choose a breed whose appearance, health and personality are relatively more pleasing to you, but, let's be honest: for the most part, a dog is a dog is a dog. Among the thousands you could choose from every day of the year at shelters the world over, it is nearly a dead certainty that you will bond instantly and irrationally with the one you happen to pick, and that your randomly selected dog will return your affection with an equally powerful and inseparable attachment. And the reason for this is because of the unbroken chain of human-dog fondness going back many thousands of years, and because humans made dogs this way on purpose, even though none of us, and no one else in particular, seems to have had anything to do with it.




If there is no answer to the simple question of the dog, how will we find the will to confront the existential challenges that stare us in the face?

The planet burns. But who lit the fire? It is equally absurd to say that no one is individually responsible for climate change as it to say that every one of us is responsible. Neither proposition offers a description of the situation nor a prescription for avoiding catastrophe. Blaming the fossil fuel industry and its political enablers is not only a tactical mistake, as it merely engenders hostility and a stubborn refusal even to acknowledge the crisis; but moreover it is practically meaningless. We may suppose that coal, oil and gas executives are a cabal of evil monsters who are actively plotting to destroy the Earth and at the same time accuse them of caring only about profits — but where is the profit in destroying their customers? Greed is indeed part of the problem, and the short-term perspective that is hard-wired into the competitive structure of capitalism carries a momentum all its own. Individual companies can only survive by taking the biggest share they can of available revenue, and doing it today. You may fault some corporate CEO or craven politician for burying their heads in the sand and refusing to recognize an existential threat to humanity, but they are no more or less creatures of the current system than you are.

Whether or not we humans suddenly become an entire race of Greta Thunbergs and eschew all use of fossil fuels — for traveling, heating and cooling our buildings, growing our food, purifying our water, manufacturing and moving anything and everything in the world — we face some really bad choices. The paradox is that if we make those choices only as individuals, they are almost as useless as doing nothing. But so far our attempts to produce collective action — and these attempts have been serious and long-standing — have so far amounted not even to half measures. We need to acknowledge that even if opposition to action on climate change magically melted away, and there was a universal acceptance by the whole of humankind that bold action must be taken immediately, the task is still massive and mind-numbingly complicated. We would still wake up tomorrow morning with a continent-sized drift of discarded plastic in the Pacific Ocean, a row of nuclear reactors on the coast of Japan slowly leaking radiation into the sea, thousands of mounds of toxic slag the size of football stadiums leaching into groundwater, hundreds of fires burning out of control in boreal forests, animal species going extinct from widespread loss of habitat, and mountains of household garbage from the billions of useless things we buy accumulating by the megaton every second of every day.

What advice do you have for the poor worker in a poor country where there is no safe local source of drinking water (to use one example among many), and who drinks daily from plastic water bottles made from petroleum which wash up in filthy profusion on a beach in yet another poor country thousands of miles away where the people did not benefit from them in any way nor had anything whatsoever to do with their manufacture? Are they to voluntarily die of thirst? Is their city or country spontaneously going to find the funds to build a nationwide fresh water infrastructure where none currently exists?

Is such an improvement possible? Yes. Will it happen?

Economics and politics will never stop being subject to human psychology, and a consensus on the need to do something is far from an agreement on what to do. The inexorable drive for economic development is the ultimate progenitor of all our climate-destroying pollution, and we cannot simply pull the brakes on this rapidly moving train without causing massive disruption, poverty, pain and indeed death. Let us pay heed to those who envision a different, cleaner, and safer world; but first let us understand that the world is the way it is for the same reason the dog is the way it is: because of millions of uncoordinated decisions made by millions of individuals widely scattered in time and place. The collective is a consequence, not a cause, of the human condition. All of us are in some way responsible, but none of us individually can do much if anything to change the world.

It is too much to suppose that there is no way out of the current mess, for surely there is, in theory. However, solutions come with their own cost: mining lithium for rechargeable batteries, for example, or cleaning the air, land and water that we have already poisoned, are not exactly green activities. More to the point, the collective will is as much an illusion as individual choice. By all means, put out your recycling bins, but don't forget about the tons of burnt fuel and noxious waste that went into making all that stuff in the first place. "They" made it, but "we" bought it.

July 29, 2023
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All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.