We are all aware of the environmental crisis, but what can we do about it? Is it our responsibility as individuals to take action, or should we expect the government or industry to take responsibility? Some environmental problems are the result of large-scale events such as the 1989 oil spill off Alaska from the Exxon Valdez. However, many environmental problems are the cumulative effect of many ordinary people going about their normal daily lives. Even commercial companies that produce toxic waste or excess packaging may do so because we buy their products or services.
Many of our daily activities produce what are known as sub-threshold effects. This means that when, for example, I throw away a single battery, the environmental damage caused by my action is negligible. Even if I use batteries regularly, the effect is probably still negligible. So do I really need to worry?
Well, imagine a village with a population of one hundred. The villagers are about to eat lunch, and each villager has a plate of 100 beans. A group of one hundred bandits raid the village, and each bandit takes and eats the lunch of one villager. The next day the bandits decide to repeat the raid, but each bandit feels guilty about depriving a villager of his meal. However, they soon find a way round this attack of conscience. They raid the village as before, but this time each bandit takes only one bean from the hundred beans on the plate of each villager. The bandits leave, well fed and happy, each knowing that his impact on each villager has been negligible. The villagers, however, have still lost all of their lunch!1
The factor that the bandits ignored is that they knew the other bandits were behaving in the same way, and they therefore knew that the effect of the second raid would be the same as the first. Similarly, like me, many other people are regularly throwing away batteries, and the cumulative effect of these actions isn’t negligible. And I know that lots of other people are throwing batteries away, so I know that my action is contributing to significant environmental damage. This knowledge makes a difference.
Tutor in Environmental Studies,
1Adapted from Glover, J (1977) Causing death and saving lives, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.