Individual Responsibility for the Future

By: David Miron-Wapner

Upon hearing I was active in environmental affairs, a new acquaintance asked me at a party the other night, much like the doctor or lawyer might be asked to spontaneously offer professional advice, “what can I as an individual do to ‘preserve the environment’.” The short answer is “not much, but you must act anyway”. Perhaps not too encouraging, recognizing the limits of the very power of human action that has tipped the balance. Since I foresee a future with humanity coming through a real bottleneck to survive in a distinctively less hospitable environment, and possess a blend of optimism for the triumph of the human spirit and adaptability, and pessimism for the diminished capacity of the earth to support our excessive impact on its self-regulating, life-supporting natural systems, we need to be brutally honest as the first step in taking responsibility.


While I am a great believer in each one taking personal responsibility for our actions, the more I accept the reality of extreme impacts from climate change, I no longer believe that any one of us can have meaningfully significant effect, even collectively to diminish the extent of change human action has caused the earth or slow its pace. At the same time, individual action becoming routine is the fundamental building block of the shift in consciousness that humanity’s survivors will need in order to sustain themselves in a world providing less free services of clean air, water and arable land. Individuals taking responsibility and maximizing the welfare of the most vulnerable, both human and environmental, leads to a collective responsibility and synergistic enhancing of social and environmental justice.

So yes, we as individuals must engage in the 3 R’s of reduce, reuse and recycle, yet have no illusions that it will in any way slow the pace of climate change. Yes, we must demand and practice energy efficiency, and in every way work for a less energy intensive, more fairly distributive, currently and inter-generationally, modern economy. Each and every action must be consciously undertaken and seen in how it serves harmony and balance between earth and humanity – so our consumption patterns and transportation choices matter, as do our food and dietary choices in supporting our personal and planetary health and welfare.

It is easy to place the blame for our situation on governments and corporations for allowing the destruction to continue. True, governments are failing abysmally to act in a collectively responsible manner achieving no meaningful international accords to mandate reductions in green house gas emissions. The political debate too often appears to be about preserving the “prosperity-creating” dominant global market system that is based on constant growth, not sustainability. Corporations, stuck in a model of short-term profitability, serve their own shareholder and not the public interest in ongoing destructive exploitation of resources. From rainforest slash and burn to fossil fuel extraction to strip-mining, companies employ ever more powerful and devastating technology. As legal personalities, sanctioned by governments, companies too must be socially responsible citizens and reduce, recycle and reuse waste throughout the processes of production. And for the rest, there is insurance, which will also be utilized to compensate for environmental whiplash masquerading as natural disaster.

As the basis of all life, water, particularly access to clean water is increasingly problematic. As individuals, we can install grey-water systems in our homes, encourage efficient irrigation in agriculture and demand best practices in our public storage and distribution systems, but still have zero impact on intensity of droughts and floods that climate science agrees is on the horizon. Yet the earlier we develop and adopt technically feasible, energy-efficient and cost-effective means to process and deliver clean water, locally and regionally, small and large-scale, the greater the degree of our resilience and adaptability as individuals and society at large.

The powerful cry for “Social Justice” from this summer’s grassroots social protest teaches another generation that the words of our prophets have current power to inspire our hopes and dreams for a repaired world and a more equitable society. Soon in Israel we celebrate a New Year. We will add to our hopes and prayers a resolution of the socio-economic gaps threatening our solidarity, and set the basis for a sustainable prosperity in both economic and environmental terms.

May this New Year be an occasion to dedicate ourselves to engaging in right actions (mitzvot) in relation to the Earth that sustains us with comfortable life-supporting conditions. May we be blessed with an awareness of the impacts of our individual actions, along with a deeper understanding how we each participate in larger impacts through our communities, societies and economies. And may we be forgiven for our continuing transgressions of destruction and waste, as individuals and as a global society on the Holy Land that is this singularly awesome and glorious earth.