Bad Excuses For Hurting the Earth

On college campuses across the country, and increasingly among the general population as well, people express outrage and anger over our government's attitudes towards the environment. We rail against big business for its unethical and ecologically damaging practices. Yet, as we try to hold to account the larger-scale institutions that ought to be doing better, we should ask ourselves: are we as individuals doing our share to make things better?

There are varying degrees of action any one of us can take towards the cause of environmental sustainability. Most people may not be willing or able to actively work to improve the larger institutions around us, but we can all examine our own patterns of consumption and waste and attempt to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Recycling provides a particularly valuable context for examining the question of personal accountability, since it requires the least effort among the three options.

The MIT campus boasted a recycling rate of 35 percent (by weight) in 2005, a campus record. Although the trend of increased recycling is a positive one, the amount recycled is still pitifully low in comparison to what we could be doing. Aside from organic matter, almost everything we throw out can be recycled at MIT. Yet day after day trash bins overflow with paper and plastic bottles while the recycling bins right next to them remain unfilled.

Many people claim ignorance of what is recyclable, while others do not accept the underlying premise that recycling provides any substantial benefit. Ignorance on this topic is a choice at MIT — it takes only a two-minute search on the internet to find that all paper (not contaminated with food), aluminum cans, glass bottles, and all plastics are recyclable on campus. Similarly, any honest attempt to learn the facts about recycling will quickly show that, though there are some exceptions, on the whole it results in tremendous savings of energy and raw materials.

The most common excuses shift responsibility from the individual and to the institution. It is true that the institution has its flaws. For example, not everything placed in recycling bins ends up being recycled. But even an imperfect system is valuable ­— the cost in convenience of recycling at MIT is infinitesimal, and whatever portion of the recycling is actually processed still provides a net benefit. It is also true that the incremental effect of an individual's actions cannot make up for the inaction of a large organization. But this does not change the fact that the individual's actions still do some good. Furthermore, collective action by individuals can have tremendous impact, such as shifting entire markets towards more sustainable production methods through their purchasing decisions.

Passing the buck to institutions outside of our immediate control is a common strategy to avoid dealing with important societal responsibilities. It is the same form of reasoning that allows people to justify not participating in the political process, even as they desperately wish for change. Our political system has clear flaws, and people often lament the limited impact of their single voice. Yet, just as is the case for recycling, failing to participate only serves to break the system further and make things worse. Most people accept this reasoning, yet still choose not to act. What could motivate such behavior?

Accepting personal responsibility requires us to more deeply accept the difficult truth of the situation being addressed. It is a fact that our way of life is destructive to our environment; this situation can be overwhelming and its solutions are not obvious. Convincing ourselves that we can't do anything about it lets us absolve ourselves of guilt. But by choosing this easy way out, or worse still by following an emotional sense of futility, we act in a way that is at best irresponsible and at worst destructive and cowardly.

We must also keep in mind, when assessing the role of governments or corporations, that they are ultimately composed of individuals. If a person is unwilling to ask the important questions of her own actions, is it reasonable to expect her to ask those same questions as a leader of a large institution?

Individuals have the opportunity to address environmental degradation far beyond recycling. We live in one of the most wasteful societies ever, and the larger problem is that every one of us consumes far more than what we need, and we waste even more than we consume. Do you really need your foil-wrapped burrito from Anna's to be put into a paper bag? Or to get five extra napkins only to throw them out unused? Is there any downside to printing double-sided? Does leaving your bedroom light on let you see any better while you sit in your living room? Simply by asking these sorts of questions, an individual can significantly reduce his negative impact on the environment.

We all implicitly place a certain personal value, in terms of time, effort, money, and convenience, on how much we care about any given issue. We are only capable of doing so much, and likely willing to do less. One person may dedicate himself entirely to a cause while another may only be willing to sacrifice the bare minimum. Wherever you fall in this spectrum, the moral imperative we all face is to make such value judgments consciously, and not fall into the trap of assuming that there is nothing we can do. This is our responsibility, both as individuals and as members of society.

Barun Singh is an opinion editor for The Tech. He welcomes comments and responses to this article on his web site at http://barunsingh.com or to letters@the-tech.mit.edu.