Who bears the responsibility to act?

This week I have been wondering, who bears the responsibility to fix human beings’ mistakes? What does it mean to be responsible for something? What does it mean to take responsibility? Can you “be responsible” for something without taking responsibility? Can you “take responsibility” for doing something about a problem without being responsible for it? Why are most of the world’s injustices and crises being worked on by people who did not cause them? 

Over the past two summers, I have had the privilege of working with extraordinary teenage activists at Youth Empowered Action Camp. Young people come from all over the world to spend part of their summer working hard with other activists, attending workshops, and learning how to be the most effective change-makers they can be on the issues that matter most to them. Many campers are working on environmental protection, and one of my mentees is starting a school club to get high school students mobilized to stop climate change and make the connection between factory farming and the massive harm that animal exploitation wreaks on the environment (more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector combined!) One of my 12-year-old campers in Australia (yes, she came to the USA from Australia for activism camp!!) is working to end live export. Since camp ended just a couple of weeks ago, she already has been gathering petition signatures, met the director of Animals Australia (!), and made progress on planning her animal rights-focused YouTube channel. 

Another camper is working to change the name of her school so it no longer honours a confederate leader. It was named after this person in protest of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling against segregation. (Both links above include more info about the problems and petitions to support the campaigns.) 

Another camper, a young woman originally from the USA but currently living in Beijing, is working to improve the air quality in China and get children access to masks. Did you know that the pollution is so bad now that children have to wear masks to go outside? And if, like many children, they don’t have access to masks, they have to just stay indoors because it is not safe? The latest exciting news on her project is that a company is donating 500 masks to her school. 

These young people are standing up and taking action not because anyone told them to but because they are compelled by their own sense of justice and urgency. Here is an account by a camper I worked with last year who named YEA Camp as the coolest thing she had ever done, and came back as a mentor this year: http://yeacamp.org/2016/02/read-this-teens-answer-to-the-question-what-is-the-coolest-thing-youve-ever-done/
These teenagers are so inspiring to me and show us the future that can be. Too often, potential activists fall prey to the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility: Sometimes the more atrocious and urgent the problem is, and the more onlookers there are to the problem, the less likely someone is to actually intervene, because we each assume that somebody else must be taking care of it. What does it take for someone to step up and do something? What makes us choose to act on certain issues over others? Please engage with these ideas in the comments, and I would love to hear: Do you consider yourself an activist? What inspires you to take action? What are some obstacles that have discouraged you from taking action on an issue or issues that matter to you? What resources and support would you need to make the difference you would like to?  

“Mountain Tambourine”

“Mountain Tambourine,” Peter van Toorn (Canada), This Same Sky p. 102 (see Resource List)

A crew took part of the big tree awaypoplar tree
on my street. A poplar, it was throwing
its ashes, its dirty pillow stuffing,
around too much. So they said. Anyway,
people were tired of it. It was too grey.
It might drop a tired branch and hit something,
a power or phone line. What’s still standing
they’ll come for tomorrow and chop away.
It doesn’t make much poplar talk now. The big
clatter’s gone out of it. On the older
side of the street, the last tree stands, tall, big,
full, leafy—a fine shade and rain holder.
It leans to one side at a warm angle,
like Annie, whose door it covered last fall.

Background on Philosophical Issues

Environmental Ethics

“Mountain Tambourine” makes us wonder what our roles are as people in relation to the earth and its inhabitants. The people in the poem cut a tree down, presumably because it has been inconveniencing humans. Is it okay to destroy non-human nature in order to make ourselves more comfortable? Our instincts might be to say no, but we must realize that our day-to-day lives depend on doing just this every day. Every time I write on a sheet of paper or print out an essay for school, I depend on the systematic destruction of forests. Every time I get in a car or even ride a bus or train, I support the creation of more exhaust fumes that pollute the air and make it difficult for all species of animal and plant life to live. Every time I open a plastic package, I know the material will ultimately end up leaching chemicals into the earth and/or being picked up and choked on by a bird or fish who mistakes it for food. My waste and its consequences will be around long after I am gone. Does this mean we should reject all forms of industrial living? Some people say yes, and choose to live entirely “off the grid” and/or as fruitarians – individuals who do not consume anything that caused another living entity, animal or plant, to die. Others believe that we can find a morally-acceptable balance between considering the interests of present-day humans, the interests of other species of animal and plant life, and the interests of future generations. Either way, it is difficult to imagine living in today’s society without in some way relying on paper made from trees that have been killed. How do we reconcile our wishes to treat the earth with “respect” and “kindness” and our urge to maintain the habits and conveniences we have grown up accustomed to?

Philosophy of Language

The tree almost becomes a character in this poem. The speaker refers to the tree’s “poplar talk,” and the tree has a “tired branch.” This personification compels us to consider what it really means to communicate. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) revolutionized how we think about language and communication. For Wittgenstein, effective communication depends on a “language game,” in which all the participants in a conversation agree on the same “rules.” Under this understanding, words mean something only within the context of a culture. The meanings of words, of course, depend on how individuals interpret them.

What is the relationship between language and communication? Wittgenstein hypothesized a “private language” (though he didn’t refer to it with this name). Wittgenstein believed that a private language – a language that only one person understands – would be meaningless. The reasoning behind this is that each word has meaning only in relation to other words. If someone makes up a word but has nothing to relate it to, then even the originator would not be able to explain her own language. This seems to imply that any language must be communicated between multiple people. If this is true, it could imply that the formation of language and even concepts depends on set, agreed-upon rules of behaviour.

However, others have put forth a wider definition of language, which can include a language spoken only to the self. If even trees can have language, would this mean they have thoughts and consciousnesses? Or would it mean that language doesn’t require consciousness? On the other end of the spectrum, is it possible for someone to have thoughts without having access to language, or do we need language in order to formulate thoughts?



Candlish, Stewart; Wrisley, George. “Private Language.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Richter, Duncan. “Ludwig Wittgenstein.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Sample Questions for Discussion

“…people were tired of it. It was too grey.
It might drop a tired branch and hit something…”

  • What are some reasons that people cut down trees? Are these good reasons or bad reasons? Why?
  • What should we do if one living entity’s existence is hurting another living entity?
  • Should the people cut the poplar tree down? Why or why not?
    • Does it matter/would your answer change if the tree were endangering buildings, plants, or animals? Why or why not?
    • What if it were only inconveniencing humans but not in danger of actually hurting anyone?
    • If the tree were endangering animals, would it matter/would your answer change if it were endangering human or nonhuman animals? Why or why not?

“…On the older
side of the street, the last tree stands, tall, big,
full, leafy—a fine shade and rain holder.”

  • Do trees have a purpose? If so, what is it and why do you think so?
    • If so, do all trees have more or less the same purpose?
  • Do people have a purpose?
    • If so, do all people have the same purpose?
  • If there were no people on earth, would the purpose of the tree be the same?
  • Who gets to decide what something or someone’s purpose is?
  • What should happen when someone or something cannot fulfil its purpose any longer?
  • Is a purpose the same thing as a goal? Why or why not/if not, what is the difference?

“It doesn’t make much poplar talk now.”

  • What does it mean to “talk” or to “make talk?”
  • Do you think the “poplar talk” means the tree was making sounds, the tree was communicating, or something else?
  • Can the sound(s) trees make be classified?
  • Do trees talk/do trees communicate? How so/can you think of some examples?
  • Can we talk to trees? Why or why not?
  • Is “talking” always the same as “speaking?” Why or why not?
  • Does “talking” always involve sounds?
  • When people use their hands to communicate using one of the hundreds of codified signed languages around the world, is that talking? Why or why not?
  • When humans or other animals use gestures or facial expressions to communicate, is that talking? Why or why not?
  • If I say something that only I understand, is that a language? Why or why not? If I interpret the sounds of nature to mean something but no one else understands them the same way, is that language? Why or why not?
Koko understands spoken English and ASL, and she uses over 1000 signs to communicate with other gorillas and with humans.

*Note: Many of the questions above were inspired by a discussion with the Spring 2015 Smith College Poetry Concentration Senior Capstone course. I am indebted to Professor Ellen Doré Watson and all my amazing peers for opening up these ideas. Thank you!

Environmental Ethics Activities

Related Resources

  • The Giving Tree book module by Professor Tom Wartenberg
    • Includes summary of the beloved illustrated poem by Shel Silverstein, guidelines for philosophical discussion with philosophical background, and example discussion questions.

Example Discussion: “Mountain Tambourine”

This is a loose summary of a practice discussion I led with a group of undergraduates February 2015, role-playing as second graders. Just an example of how many directions one poem can take us!

Note that I’ve presented the poem “Mountain Tambourine” as raising issues in environmental ethics, but this discussion went off on an entirely different thread that I had never imagined. The more varied perspectives you have in your Community of Inquiry, the more potential for new thought you have. I am incredibly grateful to Professor Ellen Doré Watson and my peers in the Smith College 2015 Poetry Concentration Capstone for their insight and perspective in this and other discussions, and their support and input on my entire project. Love you all!


Preliminary question: So we’ve been working together for a good while and seem to know pretty well how to respect each other and take turns. We know it is always important to respect each other, but is there any reason that it might be especially central to our philosophy circle, and that we might take special care to make sure we are paying attention to each other equally?

Josie – Speech is already so gendered and racialized, so this is an attempt to inhabit a different way of persuasion.

Hannah B – If no space for everyone to share, then you limit the number of responses and perspectives you have access to. Allowing space for everyone to share helps you make your own reasoning as strong as it can be.

If I talk too much, I could make someone else who’s already nervous about talking even more nervous. The kind thing to do is to give others space to come to thoughts.

“Mountain Tambourine” – read as a group

“Go-Round” – everyone shares a question or two that the poem raises for them. [After note: I’ve bolded the question starters/elements that are little flags that signal “philosophy” to me – opportunities for a facilitator or fellow student to jump in and ask further questions to stimulate a juicy philosophical discussion.]

  • What is “the last tree?” Does she mean just last on the street, or something deeper?
  • Jamie – how do the words “mountain tambourine” relate to the poem about a poplar being cut down?
  • Jamie – Who gets to determine the worth of the tree’s life, and who gets to decide they can kill it?
  • Josie – Do we have the right to make something disappear if it’s not convenient?
  • Rebecca – What makes something “too grey?” especially a tree
  • what makes a tree better than another?
  • Kyle – could this be about social death?
    • thinking about scapegoats and the Holocaust
    • could the tree relate to the Jews being removed from Europe – how could I understand the poplar as a group of people, public removal of a group if they can’t be silent in their own existence? [metaphor?]
      • Hannah B.  – What happens when a tree disappears/people is removed?
  • Hannah B.  – what does it mean to be around “too much?” What is “too much?”
  • Hannah B. – how to we classify the sound that trees make? Is that a kind of language or a kind of music? Is something being told to us?
  • Hannah – how does sound operate in the poem? – how do we classify the sounds that trees make? how do we articulate “tree sounds?”
  • Ellen – thinking about something being wrong for being the colour that it is – “If grey is what it is, then how could it be too that?”
  • or being “dirty” – being wrong just for being what it is, dropping its leaves?
  • Maggie – How do we think about sickness? At one point should we try to heal something vs. doing away with it entirely?
  • Maggie – What purpose do trees have?

As a group, we go over the questions and decide which one to discuss first. If necessary, the group can vote, but our circle decided quickly that most people were very interested in the final question posted, “What purpose do trees have?” And the participants jumped right in.

Josie – They don’t have a purpose!

Ellen – I think their purpose is to be a tree.

J – But do we get to decide that? What does it mean?

E – No, I guess we don’t get to decide.

Kyle – But how does a tree get to self-determine?

Jamie – I think the purpose is to provide fuel for humans.

Hannah B. – But what if there were no humans?

Rebecca – But if you cut down a tree it’s no longer a tree. [Something in retrospect I could have asked as a facilitator here – is one essential property of a tree that it is upright and/or living? If a tree dies of natural causes and falls over, is it no longer a tree?]

Ellen – The person who wanted to use trees for fuel shouldn’t cut all of them down. They should also be mindful to always be planting more.

Hannah B. – A tree is more than the sum of its parts (wood, roots, potential for paperness) – not just for utilitarian consumption.

Ellen – Can I ask a question of the people who are defending the treeness – does that mean we should never cut trees down?

Hannah – Well should we never let a human die?

*Distinction between killing and letting die! Do we kill humans when they are past their prime?*

Josie – I think you can’t make ultimatums – always right or wrong.

Ellen – Is it different to kill a tree than a human?

Hannah B. – YES. But can I tell you exactly how?…. No. I’m not a tree.

Rebecca – And we’re humans, so of course we’re not going to say it’s better to kill a person.

Hannah B. – We don’t have the same function as a tree.

Maggie – From a biological perspective, the function of a tree is to make more trees, just as the function of a human is to make more humans. So killing a tree is bad for the tree, but not necessarily bad for the human.

Ellen and Jamie – You can’t eat trees, so once we started gravitating towards agricultural societies (vs. hunter-gatherer/gatherer-scavenger), human cultures have needed to cut them down to clear land in order to make room to cultivate plants that we could eat.

Josie – But many cultures have lived among trees without killing them.

Kyle – Going back to “Ginko” poem [discussed earlier in the session, a poem that is a kind of performative poem, to be said aloud in the presence of a ginkgo tree, repeating the word “gingko” again and again in an effort to gain a deeper appreciation for the entity] – Trees have many purposes. They produce oxygen, etc., homes for birds.

Maggie – But that’s still assuming utilitarian purpose – its function being for someone else.

As a facilitator, I interject here to note I see two different big questions orbiting around themselves now:

  1. Does everything have a purpose?/What is “purpose?”
  2. What would happen if we never cut down another tree? Could humans survive? (more of a scientific question.

but then coming off that, what if we assume that humans do need to cut down some trees in order to live, but that other life could continue even if we didn’t?

“Snaps” to vote for which question we’ll focus on now → “Purpose” gets all the snaps.

Jamie – “Trees have babies every year.”

→ We all laugh, but as a facilitator I point out this is a good point. This is a particular distinction between trees and humans: Trees get more chances to perpetuate their lineage than people do.

Josie – It feels like we’re anthropomorphizing the tree when talking about “baby trees” etc.

Hannah B. – interjection for a question – Are we asking about the purpose, or a purpose??

Because we generally see people as having many different “purposes.” When someone dies, we might say “oh, she didn’t have children, but she painted such gorgeous pieces.”

Maggie – Creating works of art seems to be a kind of “creation” akin to giving birth – putting some part of yourself out there.

Josie, Hannah B. – “To whom does your purpose belong?” “If you’re existing in a vacuum, what is purpose?”

Jamie – “We’re also talking about purpose as if it definitely exists.”

Maggie – “Is there a difference between not having a purpose but still being in existence, and just having being in existence being the purpose itself?”

Hannah B. – If our purpose is to procreate, then that means existence isn’t enough.

Rebecca – What if we say our purpose is to live, not just to exist? Is there a difference?

Hannah B. – I think our intuitions say there is a distinction but it’s not universal – that distinction is wrapped up in our cultural/religious influences.

Maggie – Not existing can’t really be said to be a failure of the purpose of existing, but dying could be a failure of the purpose of “living.”

Hannah B. – Are there sort of levels of existing? From physical realm to memory to erased entirely …

We had to end the discussion here due to time constraints, but spent a few minutes recapping what we had discussed and tracing how far we had come. Philosophical progress rarely ends in one definitive answer, but can be recognized by charting the path from where the discussion starts to where it ends up. Ideally, some clarity will be reached about certain points, and many new questions will arise, allowing the group to delve far deeper into the subject(s) than they were when the discussion began.

Activity: What is “Natural?”

Thanks are due to Professor Thomas Wartenberg of Mount Holyoke College for the initial idea that prompted this activity.

  1. Cut up ten slips of paper and write the following:
  • a living tree
  • a dead tree
  • a piece of paper
  • a living dog
  • a leather jacket
  • an automobile
  • a bouquet of cut flowers
  • a rock
  • the Earth
  • you
  1. Have the group sort the papers into three piles: Natural, Not Natural, and Unsure. This may require extensive discussion, as participants will disagree! If you have a large group (more than six or seven), consider splitting the group in half and having each small group do the activity separately, and then come back together to discuss how you made the choices you did.
  2. Pay special attention to the Unsure pile. Why are those items not classifiable? Would you need more information about the object/entities to make a decision? What would you need to know?
  3. Is the word “natural” itself an objective word, or does it have multiple meanings?