Renewing Responsibility: A Lesson for Earth Day 2009

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The recovery of responsibility is one of the critical pieces necessary to create sustainability. The other two are, first, a renewed sense of the place of humans within the world, not outside of it looking on, and, second, a recognition that our species acts out of care rather than need (being not having). It is very interesting to me that David Brooks, writing about his impression of President Obama’s economic future speech at Georgetown University picked up on the theme of responsibility.

We’ve all heard liberal speeches on the economy. The central concern is inequality. Power and wealth tend to concentrate at the top of society, so government must stand as a countervailing power. It must defend the people against the powerful to ensure fairness and opportunity for all.

It is interesting, therefore, that when President Obama summarized his economic policies in a speech at Georgetown last week, he departed from this story line and worldview. Obama’s chief concern was not inequality. It was irresponsibility. Obama didn’t sound like an economic liberal at Georgetown. He sounded like a cultural conservative.

Here are a few of the pertinent tidbits from the President’s speech:

No one really knew what the actual value of these securities were, but since the housing market was booming and prices were rising, banks and investors kept buying and selling them, always passing off the risk to someone else for a greater profit without having to take any of the responsibility… .

But we have been called to govern in extraordinary times. And that requires an extraordinary sense of responsibility - to ourselves, to the men and women who sent us here, and to the many generations whose lives will be affected for good or for ill because of what we do here.

On the eve of Earth Day 2009, I hear a different message, one not about political ideology, but rather a call for deep-seated culture change towards sustainability as flourishing. Personal responsibility has become problematic as technology separates the actor from the act, or stated another way, transparency is lost. Clearly this has been a major factor in the collapse of the financial system.

Responsibility has another meaning also related to sustainability, a sense of duty to care for others. Modern culture which values the means more than the ends erodes this sense of the word as well. The President’s speech is full of irony for me. While calling for the recovery of responsibility, he simultaneously pictures a world much like ours used to be a few short months ago. We may return to some sort of financial sustainability, but without a change in beliefs and values, the system is very unlikely to produce flourishing. As long as human being is measured along any scale, any system designed like a machine to push us ever upward along that scale is highly unlikely to lead us toward flourishing.

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