Island News & Views
Go to Site Index See "Island News & Views" main page
blood on our hands?
Expired · 8th August 2010
Ray Grigg
A provocative little film, Espolio, first shows a woodcutter denying guilt for a tragic event of historical significance.
"It wasn't my fault," he says. "I just chopped down the tree."
"It wasn't my fault, either," declares a carpenter. "I just made the cross."
"And all I did was make the nails," adds a blacksmith. "So I'm innocent, too."
"And so am I," echoes a Roman Centurion. "I was just following orders."
No one, of course, was wholly responsible for the ensuing event. But, because of the contribution of each of them, each did his part to cause the Crucifixion.

But Espolio doesn't intend to raise a theological question; it's raising a philosophical one. We don't have to commit the final culminating act to be guilty. Our contribution to any part of the process can implicate us. And in a modern world of interconnections that is coupled to an information age in which we can follow the linkage of everything to everything else, we can't use ignorance to avoid complicity.

Complicity is threatening because it suggest guilt by association. It's the burden of our time. Uncomfortable as the feeling is, this is the world we have made for ourselves. Democracy intensifies the feeling. Consumerism adds weight to complicity.

The truth is, we can't buy anything without being a polluter. We can't use and consume anything without creating waste and adding more carbon dioxide to an overburdened atmosphere. If CO2 is a measure of judgment, flying is the worst kind of travel. A five-hour return flight adds about 1.5 tonnes to the environment per passenger, about 50 percent more than each of our yearly personal allocation for sustainability. The thought is sobering. Our travelling and consuming habits, our sense of entitlement that comes with prosperity, commits each of us to be implicated in the planet's environmental woes. Every choice we make is burdened with ethical weight.

This weight creates the sobriety that seems to infect our Age of Affluence, presumably because we already know that our wealth comes with heavy ethical implications. This is why authors write books such as The Hundred Mile Diet, or even better, The Zero Mile Diet, and manufacturers inundate the marketplace with a plethora of so-called "green" products. Recycling, free stores, composting, and second hand shops – some of them nearly supermarkets – are all ways of alleviating the background guilt of our affluence. Indeed, the social acceptability of buying used products has increased enormously in the last few years. Buying locally and even "re gifting" have become fashionable – evidence that the environmental ethic is changing economics and displacing some social etiquette. Each are ways of living more efficiently, of wasting less, of still existing comfortably but with a lower impact on a beleaguered planet.

We are now starting to see, in lurid details, the consequences of unchecked affluence. As a current example, BP's blowout in the Gulf of Mexico is a catastrophe directly linked to our expectation of plentiful oil. Offshore drilling is inherently risky, a risk that oil companies are sanctioned to take because of our demand. Every kilometre we drive increases our complicity in oil spills, leaking tankers and broken pipelines. The bigger the vehicle we purchase, the more are we accessory to its environmental impacts. Indeed, our behaviour is now so implicated in the events that occur around us that paleontologists have now named this epoch in Earth's history as the Anthropocene. We are now influencing the fundamental operating mechanisms of our planet. The thought is unsettling. The ethical implications are sobering.

We can no longer forget that every electronic gadget we now buy adds a burden to the grid and requires that – somewhere and somehow – more electricity must be produced. This realization should cause each of us to consider the necessity and efficiency of our electrical appliances. We are losing our old innocence.

We can't even escape responsibility for weather. The old maxim that "everybody complains about it but no one does anything about it" now has another edge to its meaning. Our carbon dioxide emissions are heating the planet and causing more extreme weather – hot records are being broken at twice the rate of cold records. The world's average temperature for this June was the highest ever recorded, even breaking the 1997 record – without the cyclic assistance of warming ocean currents. Wiggle as we will, squirm as may, deny as we want, we can't escape our complicity.

But this is a burden we can only bear briefly. This explains why our environmental consciousness seems to rise and fall in rhythms. Sometimes we are reminded by an energy shortage, a serious pollution event or a weather scare. Then we become more conscientious – for a while. Then we forget again, until the next reminder. But the reminders keep coming with increasing frequency. And each time they make us a little more aware and a little more guilty.

This guilt by complicity is slowly entering our consciousness and changing us, remaking our sense of who we are, what we value and how we could behave as human beings. Indeed, we have undergone important changes in the last few years. This may be consoling – if we look back. But if we look ahead? Well.... Let's just say we have a very long way to go with little time to get there.