Personal Responsibility Alone Is Doom

An inmate (center) works loading bodies wrapped in plastic into a refrigerated temporary morgue trailer in a parking lot of the El Paso County Medical Examiner’s office on Nov. 17, 2020 in El Paso, Texas.
An inmate (center) works loading bodies wrapped in plastic into a refrigerated temporary morgue trailer in a parking lot of the El Paso County Medical Examiner’s office on Nov. 17, 2020 in El Paso, Texas.
Photo: Mario Tama (Getty Images)

Here are three crucial numbers from the past week: 2 million, 1.2 million, and 83,782.

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They represent, respectively, the number of people screened by TSA on Friday and Saturday, the number of new covid-19 cases last week, and the number of people currently in a hospital bed for the disease across the U.S. They all represent high water marks since the pandemic began and illustrate the wild failure of the federal government, foisting the lion’s share of the pandemic response onto individuals’ actions and choices rather than taking a system-wide approach. But it’s not just responsibility that individuals are being forced to bear; individuals are left to bear the suffering. The government’s approach to a once-in-a-generation pandemic has been to largely sleepwalk through it, and more quarter of a million Americans have died. Personal responsibility alone has failed.

There are so many lessons to take away from this episode of American history, but it’s never been clearer that we need a bury the American approach to crises, succinctly summed up by journalist Amy Westervelt: “You’re supposed to bear the brunt of the problem, take the blame for causing it, and also solve it all on your own.” The acute spike of suffering we see now due to the coronavirus and the systemic failure mirrors what could be a similar but more drawn form of suffering tied to the climate crisis, if we don’t change course.

Consider the state of the U.S. at this very moment. The entire response to the pandemic largely rests on people making “smart choices.” Americans have been tasked with making personal choices about a public health problem. The language of personal responsibility during a pandemic works as long as we can all agree to do our part for the greater public good. I choose to wear a mask to protect those around me. Yet, instead of using that premise to set up a unified national response, Republicans, led by President Donald Trump and the Fox News propaganda machine, have turned that concept on its head, telling people to do what feels best for them. Wearing masks has been at the center of that war, despite the fact that if more of us wore masks for an extended period, we could put this pandemic behind us. Thanksgiving dinner has now being coopted the same way. The CDC has told Americans to stay home, but Fox News and Republican leaders have instead turned it into more culture war fuel while preaching “personal responsibility.”

At the same time that we are all being tasked with making “smart choices,” the federal government has essentially done the opposite, abdicating all responsibility. The best way to social distance is to stay home. Yet outside the CARES Act’s one-time infusion of cash and a loans program for businesses that kept people on payroll but has now expired, there’s been next to no efforts to incentivize people to do just that. Instead, leaders pushed to fully open the economy after patchwork lockdowns that never quite beating back the virus. Republicans in the Senate have refused to consider another relief bill to match the scope of the crisis. As a result, Americans are being left to suffer alone; businesses are going under, widespread unemployment continues to persist, people are lining up for food banks in miles-long queues or even worse, dying alone in hospitals.

While Republicans are certainly the biggest perpetrators of bullshit, they’re far from the only ones. “Outdoor” dining regulations are so lacking in New York that new enclosed structures are springing up across the city as cold weather sets in for the winter. I get it, how do you keep your restaurant in business and generate income for your employees otherwise. It’s an impossible situation absent the federal government making the money machine go brrrrr to help businesses survive through the economic hardship rather than undertaking risky practices. Meanwhile, the richest people in the U.S. have made nearly $1 trillion during the pandemic, indicating that wealth has also been privatized and consolidated into just a few greedy hands.

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“The message might be that we’re still in a crisis, but the actions say we’re not, and that our roles as economic contributors eclipse our identity as human beings,” Paul Blest wrote in Discourse Blog.

This along with record-high levels of covid-19 cases and hospitalizations are the result of laissez-faire approach to the pandemic, but pale to what’s likely next. With so many traveling for Thanksgiving, we’re staring down a cross-country superspreader event that makes the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally look like small bump in the covid-19 case graph. It’s already led to the macabre line that a Zoom Thanksgiving is better than a Christmas funeral. We’re likely going to see a lot of the latter as hospitals are overwhelmed.

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All this is deeply horrifying to watch and know it doesn’t have to be this way. Seriously, look at this image from a weekend rugby match in Australia with thousands of maskless people in the stands or this indoor Yo Yo Ma concert in Taiwan attended by 4,000 people. Robust government responses work. Those countries relied on a mix of mask mandates, lockdowns, and multiple rounds of economic stimulus to help people and now are enjoying activities with relatively low risk of transmission most Americans could only dream of. In the U.S., instead of images of thousands enjoying sporting events without masks, we’re more likely to see ones of rolling morgues like those in the top image from El Paso will be needed as the virus spins further out of control.

Now consider this in the context of the climate crisis and what’s to come if we continue down this path. The American approach of individualism above all else has provided cover for those responsible for leaving us on the precipice of the worst crisis humanity faces to continue to skate. Big Oil knew about the risks of its products and lied. Fossil fuel companies also poured money into a political system so that they wouldn’t experience any threats to their hegemony as drivers of the global economy. Even as the climate crisis worsens, they’re continuing to trot out the personal responsibility playbook, asking what people are willing to do about our individual carbon footprints.

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A few people driving Priuses alone isn’t going to stop the climate crisis. Driving oil companies out of business is. But doing so also requires policies to help workers in the fossil fuel industry have a soft landing rather than just being collateral damage, similar to what should be in place now for essential workers. No amount of GoFundMe campaigns can take the place of robust federal support.

Similar support will be needed for those on the frontlines of the impacts. Nobody makes a choice to have their house burned over by a wildfire. While there are things individuals can do to reduce their risks, ultimately the climate crisis is a bigger, badder entity than any single person can fend off. Leaving those in the danger zone to fend for themselves or chalking up their loss to personal responsibility is needlessly cruel and also ignores the fact this is a crisis of systemic failures.

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The pandemic has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the American approach to disaster is actually a crisis multiplier, locking in more suffering. But that’s what makes it all the more important for us to learn from this. Because if we don’t, the climate crisis will eventually come for us all, exacting trillions of dollars of damage and mass, private suffering if we don’t act together and demand more from our government and the corporations most responsible.

Managing editor at Earther, writing about climate change, environmental justice, and, occasionally, my cat.

DISCUSSION

imnotdedyet
David E. Davis

I’ll continue to encourage each and every one of you to exercise personal responsibility and make smart choices.

People making these choices: