Paul Andersen: Taking personal responsibility to heart |

Paul Andersen: Taking personal responsibility to heart

I’ve been getting messages that individual efforts on climate change are quixotic, that direct action might even be harming the cause.

People I respect are cautioning that personal action is close to meaningless. The focus, they advise, should be on political leverage for big system solutions rather than scolds over mundane matters like monster homes and private jets.

This leaves me feeling like a bit player in a human drama on a global stage. To be or not to be personally responsible? That is the question.

Do I become one of Martin Luther King’s “white moderates” who disavowed civil rights marchers for not patiently waiting for the slow pendulum of social change to swing in the direction of racial justice?

Do I join ranks with the complacent who shelter in their comfort zones and deny personal responsibility as a waste of time and effort? Do I take faith in big system solutions that will curtail carbon before crucial tipping points?

Now that the midvalley recycling center has closed, do I simply toss my trash into the landfill? Do I sell off my solar panels and turn up the thermostat? Do I trade in my old compact 50-mpg car for an SUV? Do I drive instead of riding the bus? Do I ignore my consumer choices?

In sum, do I live blissfully disconnected, without conscience or accountability to future generations, then haplessly confess to my grandchildren that I did nothing about their future?

One critic says I should temper my moral umbrage and take comfort that a bill recently introduced to the House (HR 763) will obviate the need to “rely on individuals to act against their economic interests.”

All along I’ve believed that economic interests should be tempered by ethics. Now I’m told to pin my hopes on systemic changes via legislation passed through a bipartisan miracle that will somehow make benign those entrenched economic interests. I’m told not to worry about my carbon footprint or use ink pointing fingers at those who don’t seem to care.

One critic says that my meager strivings for cutting carbon are not only insignificant; they give license to huge systemic polluters to continue on as usual.

Save a grocery bag and enable the plastics industry to make a thousand more. Save a gallon of fuel and open the ANWR to drilling. Save a kilowatt and enable a coal burning plant to spew more carbon. Given my misguided efficiencies, I have done more damage to the biosphere than Donald Trump.

In the film, “Jojo Rabbit,” the requiem is: “They did what they could.” In “Schindler’s List,” it was: “I could have done more.” The resolute few could have kicked back and waited, doing nothing in the face of evident wrongs, but they stood up.

If not for individual initiative, the revolutionary changes needed to address climate would not even be on the radar today. If we go about our comfortable lives, living in willful ignorance, there will be no change, no incentive, no role models for doing what’s needed.

It takes a Rosa Parks to tackle segregation. It takes a Buddhist monk to self-immolate against a war. It takes a lone man in Tiananmen Square to stand off an army tank. Social change asks the final measure of martyrs and activists, no matter how seemingly insignificant they are, to challenge the big systems that rue their existence.

Doing my “insignificant” best is “noble,” critics say. But don’t dare ask others to do the same by pointing out the obvious and asking the reasonable. That’s called shaming. Do that, and I am violating the cherished right of indolence.

The future is being mortgaged to economic interests aligned to fight any House bill that mandates a necessary systemic fix. Meanwhile, climate apologists condone lives of careless ease, approving of X Games spectacles, monster homes, Hummers and soda straws — conveniently removing themselves from the duties of global citizenship.

Individual action is the bridge between caring and social change. Without personal commitment in the micro, it will be harder to reach a critical mass for crucial change in the macro. Both approaches are essential.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.


Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User