Ask not “how bad does it have to get before people act?”

October 8, 2020 by Joshua
in Nature, Nonjudgment

People ask “How bad does it have to get for people to act?”, “How many once-every-five-hundred year storms must we face in back-to-back years before we do something?”, and similar questions.

question mark

These questions arise from the belief that we only act to allay our own suffering, as best I can tell. I used to ask them too. They, and the model prompting, them aren’t the only places we can start from. They aren’t even effective.

If we wait until we suffer before acting, the most polluting people—generally the richest—will never act. They have the resources to protect themselves, so they’ll never feel the pain.

What to ask

A more relevant and useful question is “Who has acted in situations like this and how were they effective?” Another is “What has worked in situations like this before?” That is, ask for role models and successful examples.

After these questions, action becomes a choice, not an obligation. More importantly, we find answers. The top people I saw who acted to help others despite mainstream culture going the other way include Edwards Deming, the main figures of the British abolition movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries—William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, John Newton, and their peers—and Germans who resisted the Nazis—Oskar Schindler and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example. Deming led a war-ravaged nation to transform in a few years. The others could have benefited from the systems they eventually opposed, but chose not to.

They didn’t need to suffer to respond. They learned of others suffering and acted to relieve that suffering. If they could succeed at transforming society without first suffering, can we? I believe so. How can we not try with all we can?

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