The Blame Game // Kellen Johnson

When I was a kid, my mom’s biggest lessons towards me was “take responsibility for your actions.” As a stubborn kid, I was often breaking this rule, as I was determined to prove how nothing was my fault. Now a days, responsibility it pretty important. As a college student, taking responsibility means making sure that my homework, laundry, or whatever, gets done in a timely fashion. And just I try to take responsibility for myself, I expect others to do so.


               During hard times, people love to talk about responsibility. The economy isn’t recovering because Obama isn’t doing enough. The economy isn’t recovering because Obama is doing TOO much. Tragedies like Sandy Hook result from relaxed gun laws; wait, no, they happen because schools don’t have enough security. Everybody has a finger to point, and somebody to blame. The media especially enjoys this power; most headlines scream about who-did-what-to-whom, and why. The public loves a good scandal, and what is scandal without someone to target?

                “Responsibility” gets tossed around a lot in terms of factory farms. After taking two quarters of Critical Thinking and Writing at Santa Clara University, which was themed “food, culture, and you,” I had already heard the words “corporate responsibility,” “governmental responsibility,” and “consumer responsibility” enough for one lifetime. Most of my writing was about responsibility, exploring topics from consumer buying patterns to fishing in the Maldives to healthy eating options in the dining hall, most of the time concluding with who needs to change what, and why, and how.

                By the end of the second quarter, however, I noticed a disturbing pattern. Most of my own papers ended by blaming a certain party for their responsibility in the cruelty, or environmental degradation, or whatever was happening, and then suggesting that somebody else, usually an abstract figure like “the government” or “consumers” should change their ways.  The media loves to do this too; they criticize, expose, or report behavior, and then usually leave it at that.

Cow at a Concentrated Feeding Operation (CAFO) feedlot. Feedlots like these contribute to water pollution and global warming.

                The thing about responsibility is that it’s forgettable. When you read a paper or a news story in a magazine that talks about how badly somebody else is doing, a reader might send 30 seconds being shocked about that content, but the underlying message is that since somebody or something else is responsible, than that person will have to find a solution. In 2013 when videos were released of piglets being brutally killed by Tyson brand famers, most news stories conveyed the message that emotionally numbed farmers, presumably psychopathic, had killed these adorable animals on their bloodthirsty path. Horrible, shocking—wait, is Reese Witherspoon pregnant?

The truth is that responsibility is irrelevant. What means a whole lot more is that factory farms are contributing seriously to erosion, soil degradation, water pollution, global warming, antibiotic resistant infections, cancer, poisoning from salmonella and e. coli, monoculture, animal cruelty, and so many different things. Who cares who’s responsible? Why do we spend all of our time searching for a guilty party, somebody to blame?

Kevin Kowalcyk, the two year old boy who was killed after eating a hamburger contaminated with e. coli.

In comparison with the actual effects that factory farming is having on the earth and on consumers. Papers, news articles, and political platforms should not consist of crucifying the responsibly party, but instead should focus on the fact that California is in its worst drought since 1988, which is probably due to global warming. Or that a hamburger from Jack-in-the-Box was lethal enough to kill a two year old boy.

Take the example of tuna fishing in the Maldives. This chain of islands relies heavily on fishing as a source of income, and is regarded as having some of the most sustainably caught tuna in the world. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the Maldives export close to ten percent of the world’s yellowfin tuna, the most valuable of all the tuna species. Though the Maldives are conscious of how they fish, foreign boats that fish just beyond their boundaries have begun to out-compete Maldivian fishers, and tuna catches have been decreasing dramatically since the early 2000s.  And, more in general, the tuna population in the Indian Ocean has been decimated and is classified as endangered by various environmental groups. In response to the decrease in catch, the Maldives recently legalized long line fishing, a very environmentally impactful way to catch tuna. This will threaten tuna, shark, and turtle populations, and will have serious environmental repercussions.

Maldivian fishermen practicing pole and line fishing, one of the most sustainable industrial fishing methods.

There are multiple responsible parties in this example. The Maldivian government, for one, has allowed a practice that will surely be dangerous for the livelihood of tuna stocks. The domestic fishermen who start to use long lines are also responsible. Foreign boats who have most heavily contributed to the decline in population and catch are surely responsible, as are consumers who purchase tuna without any knowledge of or regard for how it was caught. This is great—we know who’s responsible, and we know who to blame! In the end, however, this knowledge really means nothing. It’s dangerous to think that anything as been accomplished by pointing a finger and blaming somebody, because the truth is that fish are still being over caught and the environment is still being greatly impacted. Responsibility without action means absolutely nothing. “Blame” and “solution” are not synonyms.

What I’ve realized through this course is that the way to solve something is to actually solve it. That may sound weird, but it’s true; the only way to stop environmental and social degradation is to for consumers to stop purchasing meat, for the government to tighten regulations, and for companies to be more transparent. It’s imperative that people focus on the issues at hand, especially in the factory farm system, rather than how cruel a farmer might be, or how a company caused something. As a child, it was my job to clean up my milk when I spilled it. And I would argue that it is the job of large companies, and the government, and the consumers to clean up the mess that the factory farm system has created. But instead of wasting so much time identifying who is responsible for what, we must instead focus on raising awareness about the problems with factory farms, and what we-the American people, large corporations, and the government can do to stop the social and environmental degradation of this country. It is time that we get over our love affair with responsibility and blame, and start to focus on solutions and progress.


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