This is leadership summed up as: “No government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.” This was Margaret Thatcher’s rationale in her (in)famous “no such thing as society” interview with a magazine in 1987.
This advice of first fitting your oxygen mask before attempting to help others might be quite reasonable in the short-term scenarios envisaged in aeroplane safety manuals, however, it is questionable how well it stands up to more complex, longer-term crises.
For a start, it is all very well to say help yourself first, but when the opportunity structures are so skewed in favour of a small wealthy elite, the advice becomes less practical and even heartless.
I’m writing from a position of relative privilege. I have the means, if I so chose, to help myself (and the planet) by purchasing pasture-raised organic eggs, raised on farms with only 250 birds per hectare, compared to the 10,000 that is “standard” for free-range products. These are at least twice as expensive as intensively farmed eggs. Most families would struggle to “help themselves” in this scenario, with the logical step being for them to buy the food they can afford. But this may not be in their best interests longer-term, either in terms of their health or the health of the planet.
Increasingly, the problems we face individually are tied up with the problems we face collectively. Making individual decisions (if one has the resources to do so) about diet, recycling or our career for that matter may have only limited impact on longer-term outcomes, because these outcomes, like global warming, are the result of the complex interactions of many different forces and factors beyond any one individual’s control.
This is not an argument to simply give up on individual action. Rather, it is an argument about the need for leadership and for leaders who recognise that action at every level of the community, including the global community, is required if we are going to tackle the major problems of the 21st century.
As John Paul Getty said: “if you haven’t got a problem, you haven’t got a job.”
If the Prime Minister or his apologists really want to argue that the bushfire crisis is not his problem, then does he any longer have a job?
Jim Bright is a professor of career education and development at ACU and owns Bright and Associates, a career management consultancy. Email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DrJimBright