Do I Make A Difference? Never Send To Know …
The vastness of the problems we face makes it easy to feel tiny and insignificant. This is true whether we are talking about poverty, racism, environment or ‘other.’ The cause du jour for despair and a sense of futility seems to be climate change, but what I have to say about it applies to any issue you care to pick.
With respect to climate change your personal share of global CO2 production is probably on the order of a half seconds worth of global annual output, so cutting it 50 percent would make a difference of 0.25 seconds in how fast we reach the point of no return. Of course if we correct it for us being part of the global privileged 20 percent who cause 80 percent of the problem, that boosts it to 2 seconds worth, meaning a 50% reduction would delay things an entire second. Still pretty hard to get excited about, isn’t it?
The numbers are unarguable and implacable, we are each truly insignificant. However, the numbers miss one tiny, but nevertheless critical detail, the fact that insignificant individuals have time and again shaken the world by it’s roots and turned it on its head. It would seem then that we have a paradox where reality contradicts reality.
Of course individuals have not changed anything of consequence, it has been large groups of people that brought about change. As often as we care to invoke names like Gandhi and Mother Jones the fact is that they are little more than symbols of large groups fighting for justice in one form or another. Even though social change movements have been tiny relative to the population as a whole, they were and still are huge compared to a single person and their actions.
Back and forth the argument goes, with compelling logic seeming to favour one perspective and then the other. For those looking for certainty for one perspective there is none to be found. It is also true that most who engage in this debate are not seeking guidance so much as justification for the stance they currently hold, but that is an aside that does not negate the validity of the question.
So what is the answer? As always, it depends on what the question was. From the purely pragmatic view the fact is that we make a difference because there is no neutral zone, no stance where we do not further one side or the other. This truism is expressed dozens of ways from ‘silence is consent’ to ‘if you’re not part of the solution then you’re part of the problem.’ If you’re not conserving energy you’re consuming it and making the problem worse. That’s one aspect to an answer.
Another is the obvious fact that movements are made up of individuals each of whom is as vital as the next. If not me, then who? Certainly I have my reasons for justifying inaction, but if I am being honest they are reasons that I share with just about everyone else. The specifics may vary, but the general nature of the reasons are pretty common, and hence if valid, then they are valid for everyone. Given that, where is change to come from if not me?
All of which misses the question of “makes a difference” to what? Or to whom? In considering whether we make a difference we tend to use what is known as ‘salami tactics’, considering individual actions in isolation, and ourselves in isolation from society. For the latter it can be convenient to overlook how we influence others. I do not mean necessarily family and the like, but everyone we come into contact with. Using an extreme example, think how an anonymous Chinese dissident in Tienanmen Square has inspired millions with an action that many argue was Quixotic and accomplished nothing. You and I may not influence as many or as much, but every time we act we do influence those who are aware of it.
“You are the last generation that will have to give up so little in order to achieve so much. Go for it.” – Ralph Nader May 7, 2010 at CWU
Even so, the most important difference it makes is to ourselves. It is easy enough to regard any given action as trivial relative to the enormity of the problem. Of course what is at stake is not actually a single action, what is at issue is how we live our entire lives. It is not a matter of a few kg of CO2, but rather our cumulative, lifetime total which is in question, hundreds of tonnes of CO2. The fact of our huge energy consumption makes us disproportionately responsible for the problem, but it also makes us disproportionately powerful in contributing to the solution.
Most importantly, how we behave now makes a huge difference on how we will behave the next time we have an opportunity to choose. Every rationalization makes the next rationalization all the easier, just as every right action makes the next one easier. In dismissing any given action as inconsequential we tell ourselves a lie about how it makes no difference, and no matter how trivial the action may be, the lie is not. All of the injustices damage and destroy lives, and minor though our participation may be, we participate nonetheless. We corrupt ourselves by pretending what happens to others does not matter.
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
Understood in this way the question of whether our action will ‘change anything’ in determining the outcome is irrelevant. We may be only a miniscule fraction of the human population, or even of the movement, but if our own lives matter than we are the sole determinant of whether it is a moral and meaningful life. Our actions are the only thing that make a difference because they are what define what our life is …