Introduction to Part IV
As one of the heroes in ‘The plague’ by Albert Camus said, ‘perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children.’ These words are the essence of the poet’s thinking that led to the award of the Nobel Prize for highlighting ‘the problems of the human conscience in our times’.
Revolting against the absurd and injustice can cover many issues, both great and small. We can substitute not torturing children in the above quote with care for public spaces, urban greenery, improving the situation of workers who manufacture goods that we use, protecting valuable natural areas along with many other issues related to sustainable development. In any case, we can contribute to improving the situation because we can simultaneously have both moral and economic motives, related to ensuring that ourselves and others live in a better place.
In this part of the book, we emphasise the responsibility that each of us has as individual people, for our surroundings. We influence the world around us by purchasing products and services, contacting our neighbours and other people, and participating in social consultations, etc. We decide what to buy and thus which company we shall support. As consumers we also make many other important decisions, including the most important one, ‘whether or not to buy’ (chapter 14). We decide whether or not to pick up a rubbish from a pavement or a path in the forest, whether or not to help a neighbour, and whether or not to get involved in collective activities for the common good, cooperating with others or even initiating them ourselves (chapter 15). Even though it may sound idealistic, sustainable development lies in our own hands.
Problems do not solve themselves on their own, so neither can we expect that those problems that affect us to a small degree only, or seemingly do not affect us at all, will always be solved by somebody else. If we do not want children to be tortured, or nature or other common good to be destroyed, we should react when these problems occur. Otherwise, we risk incurring the external costs caused by those who cause destruction or moral damage (see section 1.3). As individual people, we eventually pay for the renovation of public property destroyed by vandals; we suffer from diseases related to environmental pollution; and we share the guilt for irresponsible practices that the companies that provide us with our products commit in poorer countries. If we do not react, others are likely not to react either, and the external costs are likely to amplify.
In the previous parts, we saw many opportunities for individual people to become involved in building sustainable communities, companies, cities, regions, nations, and a sustainable world. Most importantly, they highlighted the need for social participation as follows:
- co-deciding on local development with local authorities and companies active where we live (tool 1.T3; case study 1.C3; chapters 9, 10, 12); and
- influencing corporate behaviour (chapters 4 and 7) and co-deciding their development and activity.
In this part, we take a look at further opportunities for individual and collective actions that anybody can become involved in. We have the right to obtain information from companies and local authorities (although we should treat this information with caution; see tool 14.T1). And we can expect them to introduce certain changes that we demand, based on the information we receive. Furthermore, we multiply our impacts by cooperating with others, based on our formal and informal connections. A group of people possessing different experience and knowledge, joined by a common goal can have a significant impact on their surroundings (see case study 15.C1). However, it is also worth acting even on one’s own because if everybody who is now afraid that his or her small actions could not change much were to act, their common power would be enough to change the world (section 14.2). Many leaders began by gathering small groups around them and leading others by their own example (see case study 15.C2).
Our impacts are not restricted to our direct surroundings because the key here is to perceive a broader context of our actions and behaviours, following the systems perspective presented in chapter 2. As consumers, we buy products that originate from across the world. Having freedom of choice, we can select those that have been produced in ways that we judge acceptable from an ethical or environmental point of view (chapter 7; case study 14.C2). We cannot solve the social or environmental problems by importing products, the manufacturing of which is detrimental to society or the environment in other countries. Many environmental problems are of a global character (climate change for example), as a result of which the external effects related to foreign production to satisfy our needs will sooner or later return to us. Analogously, social problems related to production abroad cause moral damage to ourselves and bring about the risk of increasing social tensions in the world, which sew the seeds of future conflicts.
Thus, we have to be aware of our co-responsibility for our surroundings, sustainable development and the problems about which we hear from the media. At the level of individual declarations, awareness in Poland in this area is increasing. For example, in 1992, 25% of Poles were aware of their responsibility for the state of the environment, and in 2008, 51% had become aware of this. Also, 42% of Poles claimed to be aware of the significance of the individual actions of ‘ordinary people’ for improving the state of the environment (Bołtromiuk and Burger, 2008, pp. 9–10). As we shall see in the following chapters, only to a limited extent are these declarations reflected in the ordinary people’s real behaviour. In their purchasing decisions, most often they pay attention to price, and to a very limited extent do they trust others, and this reduces their inclination to undertake collective actions towards sustainable development. However, we shall also see many examples of activities that each of us can undertake, and which have already been undertaken by others. As our motto for these actions we can use the words of Robert F. Kennedy that he spoke on the Day of Affirmation Address at University of Capetown, on 6th of June 1966, by referring to the most significant danger that prevents changing the existing order of things.
First is the danger of futility; the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills – against misery, against ignorance, or injustice and violence. (…)Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events, and in the total of all these acts will be written the history of this generation. (…) It is from numberless diverse acts of courage such as these that the belief that human history is thus shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.