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Individual Responsibility Is a Trick Question

SUSTAINABILITY FORUM on What Individuals Can Do

By Josh Lasky | September 23, 2011

CREDIT: William Murphy (CC).

Rather than focus on a single personal action to promote sustainability, I offer a concept which can advise personal decision-making, and thus, have a profound influence on our individual and collective environmental impact. The concept is something we learn early in life, and then unfortunately begin to forget as we grow older. I'm talking about sharing. Sharing is a fundamental human virtue. Whether in action, word, or thought, sharing allows us to confront challenges and enjoy rewards together. Within the scope of sustainability, sharing provides immense opportunity.

For example, sharing is a guiding principle of sustainable transportation. Public transit allows you to share the bus or subway with others for a low fare. Car sharing provides a cost-efficient alternative to ownership. Bike sharing provides a convenient and hassle-free way to get around on two wheels. Car pooling and ride sharing connect empty seats with people that need rides.

The benefits to the environment and our quality of life are immense: reduced greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants, less traffic and parking congestion, and improved public health. Moreover, investments in alternative transportation infrastructure (say, a new bike path, as opposed to highway expansion) go further in terms of job creation per dollar spent.

Sharing isn't just for hippies and communists. Collective action provides economies of scale in purchasing. Sharing a house drastically reduces cost of living, and sharing ownership of that house provides access for more people (and potentially people with lower incomes) to develop equity.

The obstacles we face are too great for any one person, and the responsibility to address them must be shared.

Sharing doesn't just have a place in formal contexts. You don't always need a membership to access a shared asset, or to share something of your own. Sharing is about service and civility. Think about giving your leftovers to someone who might be hungry or sharing directions with someone who looks lost. On a very basic level, it should be noted that the most special experiences we have in life tend not to be ones we experience alone, but rather those we share with others.

So, in a way, the question of the most important thing an individual can do is something of a trick question; whatever it is that we choose to do individually must also be done collectively and in a shared manner if real change is to occur.

Biodiversity loss, rising energy demand, deforestation, depleting natural resources, and climate change are shared threats to our common future. The obstacles we face are too great for any one person, and the responsibility to address them must be shared.

Ultimately, we need to keep in mind that despite the myriad challenges, we have the wonderful opportunity of sharing in the reward together—a balanced, sustainable, healthy, and prosperous world.


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