Rio+20: What about individual responsibility?

Our next shortlisted entry comes from another MEng Civil Engineering student, Luke Barnwell (School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences). Luke’s entry examines the disconnect between global issues and our own personal actions and choices and asks what can be done to increase our sense of personal responsibility for the impact of our actions.

Luke’s entry, which finished 5th overall in the competition, was praised by the judges using some very emotive and compelling examples to back up his report and for arguing his case with clarity and passion.  His entry made all of the judges reflect on the degree to which they are conscious (or not) of the impact of their actions, and for that reason this was felt to be a particularly effective entry.

Congratulations on coming 5th in what was a very tough competition, Luke – we hope you’re really proud of yourself!

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What about individual responsibility?

On the 20-22nd of June, a variety of issues will be discussed at the Rio Earth Summit 2012.  The earth summit aims to bring together representatives from around the world to tackle some of the global issues facing the world such as Sustainability, International Development and the Environment.

In order to prepare for these events, we have had a series of discussions in Newcastle with the aim of highlighting the key issues which need to be taken forward to Rio and suggesting what kind of solutions can be found for some of these problems.

In our discussions we have focused on sustainability.  We have looked at how we pay for it, do we need to be rich to be sustainable and how do we provide sustainable living for everybody.  The subject of sustainability is broad and within it we have discussed many issues such as aid, the environment, inequality and what it means to be green.

Despite the wide range of topics, many similar issues and conflicts have come up in our discussions.  It often felt as though different start points would lead to the same arguments and ideas.

I see this as a positive thing. I don’t feel that our discussions got stuck or over simplified.  Instead, I think that many of the problems and issues which concern us have very similar causes.  One of the most inspiring things, in my mind, which has come out of our discussions has been the idea that a few simple solutions could go a long way towards reducing many big problems.

Many of the things which concern us about the state of the world; poverty, inequality and a degrading environment can be helped by a few simple changes in policy or attitude.  Approaches such as international co-operation, shared technology, good governance and corporate responsibility can go a long way towards making the world a healthier and fairer place to live.

During the course of our discussions, I have heard views from a broad range of different people.  We have discussed many issues and looked at their causes and people’s thoughts on their solutions.  Each person has different views and opinions but there was often agreement on many, and often most of the points which were raised.

I wonder if what is needed in a lot of cases may simply be more communication.  I think if people communicated more and there were more discussions like those recorded on our table tops then many seemingly insurmountable problems may not seem so difficult.  I feel as though people agree on where they want to go but find it difficult to communicate or to agree on how to get there and that often prevents us from moving forwards.

Over the past few weeks, during our discussions, one thing which has caused me to think quite deeply has been the different opinions on the responsibility of individual people.

There are two natural approaches to big global problems.  Firstly, the communal responsibility approach.  This approach leads to the view that aid is purely a government responsibility, green technology needs to be pushed by big business and government regulation and that sustainable development can only be achieved by large organisations and groups of people.

The second approach is a more emotive, personal one, the individual approach.  This is the view that individual behaviour is the root cause of wider problems and that we need to address our own decision making to solve them.

It is easy to pass our personal responsibilities off, for example, people often cannot afford to buy fair trade products over cheaper ones.  They are too busy, preoccupied or lacking in choice to assess the wider consequences of what they consume.

It may or may not be true that choice is there if we look for it.  Either way, it is difficult in today’s world to make the responsible choices all the time.  This was highlighted many times during the symposium when people admitted to buying and consuming products which they disagreed with on a wider level.  Another example is the boom which anti-capitalist protesters, camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral were to the local Starbucks during the recent Occupy London protests.

Is there a reason why we disassociate our choices from the wider effect which they have?

We don’t tend to connect our own choices, behaviours and lifestyles with the wider environmental and social problems which concern us.  This seems to be true even if the externality effects our own health or well-being.  Maybe there is a connection with the first approach to viewing such issues.

Maybe we pass the blame on too much to governments and organisations.  It is very tempting to think that this is fair, that we have communal responsibility but I think there is a flaw in this logic.  Governments can only take our choices, actions and examples as the real indicators of how we want to live our lives and what our wider values are.

If we don’t care about human and environmental exploitation when we make consumer choices then we cannot blame our society, government and those around us for not acting.

These conflicts have an obvious mirror in political discourse but I am beginning to feel that they are more immediate.  That they illuminate tensions within our society and our own sense of personal morality.

To conclude, one of the most important things which can be gained from open discussions such as the ones at the Rio Symposium is for us to look at our own behaviour as well as that of others.  We will all have to work together to solve many of the Earth’s problems but if we discuss these problems openly, we may find that they are not as insurmountable as they seem.

Luke Barnwell, MEng Civil Engineering

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