We all do what we can

When trying to solve major problems such as the climate- and ecological crises, each involved party has a perception of its role. Unfortunately, safe positions are often taken, so responsibility for painful decisions can be shifted elsewhere.┬á As the stage play “De zaak Shell” also showed, this is problematic. Below those positions are revisited, and the consequences discussed.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, pestilence, war, famine and death. Viktor Vasnetsov, 1887

The scientists:

We, scientists, do what we can. We provide facts. We should do no more. Each group in society has its own responsibility and role. We publish the facts and distance us from opinions and normative positions. That is the only way to maintain our credibility as an impartial and reliable source of knowledge.

The big companies:

We, big companies do what we can. We are forced by law to act in the interest of our shareholders. If we don’t, we face lawsuits from those shareholders. If society wants different behavior from us, the laws that control us should be changed. We follow the law, and base our existence on market demand. It is society’s responsibility to stop asking for the products we make, then we will automatically stop providing them. We have no other  option than  to follow the market.

The shareholders:

We, the shareholders, do what we can. We act as required from us. Our money enables growth, development, innovations and inventions. We provide jobs, we produce wealth. If we were to stop investing, financial stability would be jeopardized. We must keep the economy running.

The journalists:

We, the journalists, do what we can. We report on society’s problems, but must ensure that all angles are properly covered. We must remain impartial and objective. We must give each opinion the attention it deserves. We cannot take overly radical positions, because then we alienate our readers, and scare off our advertisers. It is not our role to change the world. We merely reflect what is happening in society; we are observers and reporters.

The general public:

We, the people, do what we can. We live in a democracy. We are bound by the social contract. We voted for our government and follow its rules. The government has promised to provide for our needs and take care of us. It is its responsibility to use the power it has received from us to the best of its ability. We believe, expect and trust that the state will solve all our problems.

The activists:

We activists do what we can. We are fighting for a better world. We are here to show the destruction caused by current policies and point out injustice.  We reject the social contract and are disobedient. We call for change based on the scientific facts, but can not enforce  this change.  We are peaceful and urge the politicians to listen to the scientists who have been warning for decades that our society must change quickly to avoid disaster!

The politicians:

We politicians do what we can. But the problems are complex, opinions vary widely. It is our duty to find compromises that are acceptable and workable for everyone. The voters have given us a mandate, and we try to the best of our ability to keep everyone happy. But if the public is divided on the policies to be pursued, so are we, we have to  follow the course that emerges from our deliberations, that is democracy.

The radicals:

We, the radicals, do what we can. We reject a system that is rotten to the core, and unable to stop the destruction of the world we live in. We do not tolerate injustice and inequality any longer. We do not accept the repression of the state that prevents real action any longer. Most of us dissociate ourselves from violence against people, but we are desperate, and will not hesitate to use sabotage and extreme violence against objects if it proves necessary to stop a fully corrupt system that is destroying our future, and believe us, we will bring that system to a halt at any cost!


I do what I can. But I don’t really take responsibility either. I do not act, as does basically everyone else -except maybe the radicals- I hesitate. The scientific facts are frightening and the scale of the changes needed is so formidable that it is hardly conceivable that they can be implemented in time. Can I deliver such a message? Will it not deprive people of courage to act because it becomes overly clear that we are too late anyway? Until now I chose to be reticent, aware of the risk of being rejected by a society that cannot grasp the truth nor wants to hear it.

Everyone is just doing the best they can. But we seem unable to act and prevent at least the most serious disasters described by science. Will we really let  things get out of control so far that the radicals will actually start to dismantle the system, or will we  really  wait until nature does so? Given the positions of all the above parties, that seems to be the almost inevitable outcome.

Taking the truly needed measures will jeopardize the stability of the current system. That could be one reason why all parties -even the radicals- are still holding back. To bring the fossil society to a halt by force will cause chaos and untold suffering. Bringing it to a halt as quickly as necessary without violence may have equally dreadful consequences. To hesitate any longer most certainly will do also.  But instead of rising to the challenges, and thinking about unthinkable steps, we retreat into our safe roles. Yet, together, we must muster the courage to face the facts and take real action. Just doing what we can is not nearly enough anymore.

Peter Roessingh, Biologist, UvA