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Care Deeply, Not Passionately

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Sometime around my grade four year—1990 or so—it suddenly became very popular to talk about saving the planet.

I remember an explosion of environment-focused messaging, especially about whales, recycling, and ozone holes. It was on our classroom posters, TV shows, t-shirts, even school supplies.

But it was the tropical rainforest, at least to us fourth-graders, that became the central icon of this abstract thing adults called “the environment.” Saving the world meant saving the rainforest. We drew posters of endangered monkeys and tree frogs, with rhyming slogans at the top.

The energy felt really positive. Even things like shampoo bottles started having rainforest imagery on them, which seemed to be a good thing. Everyone was joining the fight!

What I don’t remember is when that energy went away. I didn’t decide to stop caring, but I guess I did. I don’t think it occurred to me until I saw a gag on the Simpsons, five years later, when Homer referred to “that rainforest scare a few years back.”

Just as I write this, it has again become popular to be concerned about the Amazon rainforest. However, the top story changes much more rapidly today than it did in the 90s, so by the time you read this, the enthusiasm may have abated.

I don’t say that to be cynical. I don’t think people are less caring or concerned than they used to be. The problem is that in the smartphone age, our limited capacity to care about things is being divided between many more things. It’s not that there are more atrocities now than before, it’s simply easier than ever to hear about them.

When an issue becomes the current hot topic—a natural disaster, or an act of violence—it receives an enormous amount of public concern, and that concern can drive a lot of helpful action.

Millions of people will be genuinely moved, at least enough to tweet, comment, or make remarks to people near them.

Some will donate some money, or otherwise do something to directly improve the situation. Some will go so far as to take time off work to volunteer.

A very tiny minority will reorganize their entire lives around the issue, maybe for years, to try to make a major difference.

But because nearly everyone lives in a perpetual firehose-stream of breaking news, people keep receiving alarming details about new and novel atrocities, which erodes our investment in any particular one. Person by person, the primary emotional focus snaps to a newer or more alarming issue, and the public spotlight soon passes.

Follow me on a hypothetical vision for a moment.

Imagine if all the available “public concern” for a given issue could be collected in a huge rain barrel, like the valuable resource it is, and redistributed among fewer people. Instead of having 50 million people care seriously about an issue for all of six hours, you could distill that 300 million hours of public concern into, say, three thousand people who made it a primary moral concern for a decade.

That’s the same amount of concern, the same human capacity to care and help, only much more usefully focused. Just imagine the effect that mega-laser of concern would have, on whatever issue it was brought to bear on. The rainforest. The Rohingya crisis. Crony capitalism. Gun violence. Homelessness. Depression. Sexual abuse in the church.

Obviously we can’t reallocate public concern like rain-barrel water. Few people can drop everything and devote their lives to a single cause. My point is only that for any given issue, it’s clearly better to have fewer people caring more deeply, over longer periods, than many more people caring for a very short time.

But maybe each of us, within ourselves, can become a little more focused. Imagine if it was normal for each person to focus ten times as deeply on one or two issues at a time, rather than taking on the emotional burden of dozens of issues a month, feeling helpless about the “state of the world,” and probably not reaching the point of doing much about any of them.

In any case, the haphazard way in which our news infrastructure stirs up concern seems to distribute it in the least helpful way possible—something like releasing a tiny drop of water on each square inch of a forest fire. Their dramatic images and simple narratives create immediate, intense emotional responses. We can’t help but care about issues presented this way. But it’s a hot, passionate, fleeting kind of caring, the kind more likely to inspire partisan diatribes and “This is the worst year ever” type remarks than, say, self-reflection.

You could call that mode of concern “caring passionately.” The concern is intense, and genuine. But it wanes as the emotions wane. You probably don’t reach the point of acting on the issue, outside of weighing in on arguments about it. You don’t question your initial opinion on it.

The alternative could be called “caring deeply.” Your investment in the issue doesn’t depend on any particular emotional state. You educate yourself beyond the surface-level information available in the news. You examine your initial, passionate take, and consider different points of view. Your interest persists for months or years, having little to do with news cycles.

Inevitably, caring deeply requires you to consider what your role is actually going to be. Maybe you can devote some time or money to helping the people most directly affected. Maybe it makes you want to live differently—giving up something you don’t need, or calling your mother more often. Maybe you’ll be inspired to switch careers. Or maybe you’re just trying to understand why this happens at all.

So that’s my utopian vision in a nutshell, for what it’s worth. Consider it another example of going deeper rather than wider.

It’s wonderful that we have this strong inclination to care. If we could just find a way to concentrate that precious human concern into larger and more useful pieces, despite the media forces that would otherwise pull it to bits, we’d feel a lot better and do a lot more good.


Photo by Taha Ajmi

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DiscoveredJoys September 6, 2019 at 2:00 am

I like your utopian vision, but human nature imposes (at least) two forms of reluctance.

The first is “the risk of being in the wrong set”. Enthusiastic for 6 hours on Twitter doesn’t carry much risk of being on the wrong side of a social debate. If it goes seriously wrong not many people will actually ‘know’ you and you can always delete the Tweet or your account.

The second is the risk of “being sucked in”. People who devote a decade to a primary moral concern are rare and achieve great things, but some appear unhinged. Some may actually be unhinged. Do you want to join their cult?

Despite the risks though, I’ll agree with the premise that caring more for longer is likely to be more productive, and reduce the distraction swirling around. Just don’t lose all sense of proportion.

David Cain September 6, 2019 at 10:35 am

We definitely experience many forms of reluctance… those wouldn’t be the first I’d think of though. Can you give an example of “being in the wrong set?” It seems to me like the more passionate and superficial your take, the more likely it is that you have it wrong. I’m also not sure if “unhingedness” is more likely to be found in people who spend more time on fewer causes.

Pipsterate September 9, 2019 at 7:45 pm

I think a good historical example of that type of thing might be the temperance movement and prohibition in the U.S. about a hundred years ago. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and it was supported by the same types of do-gooder people who would be likely to be concerned with the environment or gun violence today, but ultimately ended up doing more harm than good due to unintended consequences.

It’s hard to think of more recent examples, perhaps because these unintended consequences can take a long time to become apparent, or maybe it’s just because it’s rare. After all, it’s hard to imagine that if we prevent the rainforest from disappearing, then we’ll someday regret it.

Naomi Alexander September 6, 2019 at 2:17 am

I love that you say when you were a child ‘the energy felt really positive’. Now all I feel is negativity about my ability to impact the environmental situation in a positive way – even though I’ve been trying (deeply and passionately) since the 90s. My husband said to me last week (when I was obsessing about something I’d had to buy packaged in plastic, rather than glass or metal) “Look, we don’t drive a car, we haven’t taken a flight in over 5 years, we don’t eat meat or dairy, and most importantly, we haven’t had kids…if we have to use a few plastic bottles it doesn’t mean we (you) are bad, we just need to enjoy the life we have.” And he is so right. Perfect is the enemy of good. From now on I’ll just be ‘good enough’… and try to reclaim that positive energy you speak of!

Vilx- September 6, 2019 at 2:48 am

Another reason not to sweat it so hard – as I understand, the majority of the pollution anyway comes from industries. We, the private people, only do a tiny fraction of it, especially in the developed world, where waste management is fairly efficient.

edhellos September 6, 2019 at 3:28 am

The same with us, Naomi, caring since the mid-80s and doing all the stuff you try to do, engaging in environmental groups…with the exception that we do have children, who are trying just as hard to avoid any harm possible to the planet and animals – while living a “normal” life with a lot of compromises…
but what really changed over the last years is the hopelessness, ten years ago we still had some hope left but it crambled because we are running out of time and a lot of things even got worse than better… not only regarding environmental issues but also political…therefore to my opinion its much harder to keep some of the that positive energy

David Cain September 6, 2019 at 10:40 am

I know what you mean… that part has definitely changed. I know I was a kid in the 90s, but I think the energy was completely different. It was certainly more optimistic.

The other point you mention is a big part of this equation too — the sense that it’s all or nothing, which I think can contribute to a sense of hopelessness.

anna September 6, 2019 at 2:54 am

I joined the zero waste movement and got down to a 1litre bottle of rubbish that doesnt recycle per year. I did this with joy and enthiusiasm. Now i have got there ive gone to being a bit more normal and i have upped my recycling instead of buying loose. Its important to do anything with an energy that is ‘for’ and not ‘against’ and without guilt mixed in. People follow you more and for longer if you do things for love of something and not because you hate something. On my zero waste facebook site i delete any posts that come from a place of hatred or fear (no videos of turtles with straws up their noses or videos telling people to stick out of service signs on coke vending machines on my site). Another site administrator in my city for plastic attack finds me insipid and useless because i dont have her passion but i dont know how long she can keep her anger up… will her site burn out before mine? I think so. She doesnt understand that i am for solutions and conversations because fear inducing, passionate posts may actually have the opposite effect. I saw a ted x talk the other day about how guilting people or showing people fearful images about losing weight or not smoking can actually push people to do the thing you are telling them not to do or they just give up because what is the point… we are all going to die anyway. A person that makes some small changes for the environment with love is better than someone with a bottle of rubbish per year and guilt, restriction or fear or condemnation. Thanks for your excellent post as usual.

David Cain September 6, 2019 at 10:45 am

Well said anna. I appreciate your “for” approach. Negativity isn’t just different way to motivate, I think it’s just less good. It makes us miserable, first of all, and it also leads easily to hopelessness, as we can completely forget there’s a place we’re trying to get to at all. It also puts people who aren’t yet on board with an idea on the defensive. Social media is filled with “against” messaging, and I don’t think it does much good.

Vilx- September 6, 2019 at 2:55 am

Bu if you focus deeply on some issues, what do you do with the others? Because they (and their supporters) will ALL come knocking on your door and demand your time, attention and money. And if you don’t have that to give, you get labeled as a part of the problem. You get to hear it so much these days – don’t stand aside, don’t be neutral, your inactivity just lets the Bad Guys get away with it… How do you make everyone happy?

DiscoveredJoys September 6, 2019 at 3:16 am

Perhaps you are driven to make everyone happy but you end up making yourself unhappy. You don’t strive to make everyone happy – because it cannot be done.

An underappreciated philosophy nowadays is Epicureanism. Epicurus’ views were (grossly simplified) modest pleasures, good friendships, and an absence from social striving – all leading to ataraxia or a state of contentment. The Epicurean motto (translated, obvs.) was “Live unknown!”

Rachel Homburg September 6, 2019 at 4:04 am

I know exactly what you mean, but it’s simply impossible to please everyone. Even if you had a bountiful supply of money, time and energy, there are just so many worthy causes and issues in the world that you can’t support them all. It’s actually a relief to make a decision that you will only support certain causes/charities/organisations, and then politely but firmly decline all other requests. Don’t worry about being labelled part of the problem, the important thing is that you know you’re doing what you can and that you make a decision you feel comfortable with.

Calen September 6, 2019 at 4:18 am

I don’t think you do.

Nobody makes everybody happy. Most of us can barely make ourselves happy. If you’re lucky you’ve got enough happiness to enrich your own life and the lives of a small handful of other people. Pick the handful wisely and tell the rest that they’ll have to find another hand.

Disappointing someone is not the same as damaging them. And most of the people you say no to wouldn’t be all that disappointed anyways – if they’re knocking on your door then you’re just a door to them and they’re playing the numbers game.

Also, anybody who tries to use the CUT (Compassion Under Threat) strategy on you isn’t the kind of person who will use your time or money wisely once you’ve given it to them. But also, it’s pretty rare that somebody who’s soliciting help actually does that; more often than not it’s the cloud of people around them who are putting in their six hours of compassion and trying to talk louder (for the moment) than the other people who care.

David Cain September 6, 2019 at 10:53 am

Yes, you have hit on source of the problem: there is not enough time to address everything that needs addressing. Not even close. However, our media infrastructure delivers many more problems to our minds, and we can’t help but react to all of them emotionally, which leads to overwhelm and a lot of energy wasted in arguing. The reality we need to accept is that each of us will do nothing about most of the atrocities we see, so we might as well consciously choose what we’re going to act on, knowing that there isn’t time to deal with them all except to simply react to everything in the most disorganized way possible (which is how we tend to experience the news).

It’s true that many supporters of a cause will judge others for not doing what they’re doing. Social media makes that easy. But none of them are addressing everything that needs addressing either (because that’s impossible). So ignore it.

Louise Knight September 6, 2019 at 3:29 am

I agree! The way in which I respond (both to issues I care about and various other concerns), is to bring them into my daily life. Overall, what I care most deeply about all comes within the realms of care for nature and for each of ourselves (I believe when we care for ourselves better, we care for others and everything else better). I take various small actions in the way I live, to counteract helplessness and respond to global issues; by contributing to the solution locally.

Petitions can lead to social change and support those called to act on the ground in those specific places, so I do sign them and feel they have their place. As do monetary contributions. By addressing the issues in various small ways, in my own community, at least I know my efforts are making a difference; albeit in a small area. And because they’re part of daily living, I can sustain them over a lifetime.

Another great post David :)

David Cain September 6, 2019 at 10:59 am

That’s how I think… I really think the root of most of our global problems stems from our misapprehension about what actually makes us happy. For a multimillionaire to ruin a forest trying to be a billionaire — that hints at a delusional view of what can actually make for a good life. Not that it’s easy to figure it out… ten years of writing about this and I am only somewhat more clear on how I should live. I think ultimately addressing global issues is always about adjusting the way we interact with the world on a personal level.

Rachel Homburg September 6, 2019 at 4:00 am

I think you have articulated very well what I decided to do in my own life a while ago – choose one or two things that I care deeply about and focus on them, rather than trying to spread my concern across numerous issues. This has allowed me to commit to volunteering, lending financial support and gaining a depth of knowledge that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. It feels much more satisfying and empowering because you can make a real difference and see the positive impact of your actions. Too often we feel completely helpless in the face of all the issues we hear about daily, but choosing just one or two areas to focus on means that you can commit your time/money/effort over a number of years and have a greater impact.

David Cain September 6, 2019 at 11:01 am

Yes, and when we make one or two things “our thing” then it allows for us to gain the kinds of experience or knowledge of that thing that can only be gained longitudinally — by focusing on something for years. If you spent your whole life reacting with the news cycle, that just isn’t available, even though it takes the same amount of energy.

Lynne September 6, 2019 at 7:01 am

Look at the Amazon fire vs Notre Dame fire.
Look at what we pay sports figures and entertainers vs scientists and environmentalists.
Big issues of the day are #blacklivesmatter and #metoo. We can’t even be nespectful to each other let alone work together to save the planet.
We have enough food to feed the world; we just don’t have the will.
We are the problem – the sooner we self implode, the better for the planet.

David Cain September 6, 2019 at 11:06 am

Definitely… there are economic forces that steer resources to the wrong places, and that’s a huge problem. I suppose entertainers command more money because more people see a direct and immediate benefit to their contribution. We know if we pay ten dollars, we can see a movie, and immediately benefit. But in donating ten dollars to a research fund, it seems to disappear. It’s going to be really hard for us to shift our behavior so drastically, so there needs to be some other factor that incentivizes more collective benefits.

Bob September 6, 2019 at 7:59 am

I like this post. It’s an updated take on the adage “Better to light a single candle, than curse the darkness”. It’s now better to light a single candle (and make sure it stays lit), than curse the darkness.

David Cain September 6, 2019 at 11:08 am

I hadn’t heard that phrase in a while, but I really appreciate the image. It’s definitely true and I think in any given moment, we can usually see what the nearest “candle” could be.

Lorraine Allen September 6, 2019 at 9:03 am

Yes! I agree that it isn’t so much that humans, and what we get up to, has changed so much. It’s that we are now apprised of the gamut of it instantly and constantly. Naturally, we are overwhelmed by TMI.

And, yes, the best thing we can do (and perhaps the only really effective thing we can do) is to examine ourselves – our consumer habits and, most importantly, the constant internal energy we offer to the global collective.

If each of us truly lived our very best life, most of the “causes” would go away by themselves. I constantly must remind myself to focus on that, not to focus to the point of negativity and frustration about what humanity is up to, especially since I don’t really have the ability to control anyone but myself!

David Cain September 6, 2019 at 11:13 am

Yeah… it seems like we are the same creatures, but we’re being stimulated in worse ways by our information infrastructures. I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault. I agree that the right response has something to do with living our best selves — I just hope we’re able to make that connection. It would be wonderful if the “internet overwhelm” age leads to a renewed age of self-examination. I’m not sure how crazy that sounds :)

Lizzie Hough September 6, 2019 at 9:06 am

Just some age-perspective thoughts. In 1943, Ed and Carolyn Robinson published The “Have-More” Plan, How to make a Small Cash Income into the best and happiest living any family could want. The Mother Earth News used this treatise for one of their first magazines. In 1970-71, my senior year of high school, our Debate Argument was “The Federal Government should institute programs for the control of air and water pollution.” Half way through the year, that had to be amended because, well, the Fed. govt. did just that. In 1973, there was the “energy crisis”, and my applied psychology professor came into class and told us to buy a Foxfire Book, Ben Franklin Stove, and look for a homestead. I graduated in 1974, married in 1975, and Bob and I took all this to heart and have applied basic principles of conservation since then. Over the years, there has been one pending doom after another…from over population to rain forest devastation to”fossil” fuel issues, etc., etc.. My point is this…we do what we can, with what we have, where we are. Maybe it is the “Butterfly Effect” or just the fact that it is The Remnant who eventually make a difference. In the wise words of King Solomon, there is truly nothing new under the sun.

David Cain September 6, 2019 at 11:20 am

Thanks for this perspective Lizzie. It’s interesting that we can look back a few decades, and maybe remember what we thought the future would be like, but we can’t do the same thing the other way. It is so hard to imagine what 2060 will be like. When I try to think of it nothing comes to me at all.

Judy Vanco September 7, 2019 at 9:04 am

I’ve taken great interest in what subject matter David will touch on next, & this is another honorable one!
As I read the comments here, which I don’t always do, the difference not only of opinion but the level of groundedness & focus is very apparent in the voices that have gathered here to offer their vote of yay or nay. which first & foremost makes it evident that some are totally missing the heart of the subject.
Over & over I’ve read Davids replies with his hammer in hand hitting the nail on the head, then I came to your response. Today I respond to both you & David… with hearty applause!

David Howie September 6, 2019 at 9:47 am

With the understanding—and deep appreciation—that your posts are a beacon of positivity in the sea of general malaise and hysteria, I am hesitant to offer my thoughts on this matter. Alas, I can’t help myself.

I believe there are at least two indelible factors that will prevent your proposed solution from materializing. One being that caring deeply (vs passionately) demands real work, which is more than 99% of us are willing to do. The second is that humans are wired to virtue signal, which, in this age of a headline-a-minute, doesn’t bode well for caring long enough or deeply enough.

We fix ourselves and the world follows. Or not. You know this better than most.


David Cain September 6, 2019 at 11:24 am

Yeah I don’t disagree. The utopian vision is not meant to be a realistic expectation, it just creates a line where we can interpolate a slightly less insane way of engaging with the issues of the day.

The role of virtue signalling in social media is interesting. Getting likes and hearts on social media definitely encourages people to make a lot of noise, and doesn’t really encourage real work. But social media as we know it is kind of slowing down. I get the sense that people are starting to see the emptiness of their several-times-daily routine of collecting a few likes and favorites on the thing they said. Facebook is struggling to keep its users. In short, we’re getting bored with that, and maybe (?) the next successful form will reward higher motives in us. I hope??

David Howie September 6, 2019 at 11:53 am

Interesting thoughts. I hope you’re right.

You’re a good egg, David.

September September 6, 2019 at 10:01 am

This inspires me as someone who gets overwhelmed by the figurative fires burning everywhere.
Thanks for sharing! I’m going to ponder what this could look like in my life.

David Cain September 6, 2019 at 11:25 am

I’m glad to hear that. I meant this to be a positive message :)

Brady Faught September 6, 2019 at 1:10 pm

You said it best in a previous post about not reading the news. (Paraphrasing) That reading the news can actually detract from action, because we feel satiated, as if we’ve acted by merely being ‘aware’ of an issue.

Mark Manson’s book, the Subtle Art of Not Giving a F– is my recent mantra. We only have so many F’s to give. So focus your limited F’s deeply on the things that truly are deserving of your F’s.

Nina September 6, 2019 at 1:17 pm

I installed the Chrome extension “News Feed Eradicator for Facebook” soon after Trump was elected; it had gotten to the point where two minutes of scrolling induced hours of despair. And despair isn’t useful to anyone, so what’s the point?

But it didn’t occur to me to choose something to contribute to on a long-term basis in order to counter the sense of hopelessness. I’ll give that some thought for sure. Out of curiosity, do you do this, David? If so, how did you choose what to focus on?

By the way, if anyone here is intrigued by the idea of structuring their career around a single issue, check out 80,000 Hours: https://80000hours.org/

Brenda Young September 6, 2019 at 1:36 pm

This discussion takes me back to the whole sphere of control thing- that big circle that contains all the problems and that tiny hole punch in the middle…that fraction of a percent of the whole scope of problems that I actually have any control over and putting my focus there. Like unconditionally loving the people whose lives touch mine.
But for me there is also this feeling that I’m doing some good by supporting (in whatever small way I can) someone or some group who knows more than me, who has the true inner drive to commit long term, and who is actively doing something about a big issue, whatever that issue may be.
Truly committed people are a rarity. But I feel like as long as they can utilize the temporary commitment of the ever changing population of casually committed people, they can make things happen. I’ve seen this a a parent volunteer back in my son’s elementary school days. The same 3% of parents consistently showing up, garnering the help of the occasional volunteers and getting things done.

I once read something about critical mass that stayed with me. It was a comment on a news story back in 2011 about the aftermath of the tsunami in Fukushima.
The writer spoke of a stage in development of butterflies that scientists observed where in the early stages of a caterpillars conversion to a butterfly, the caterpillar’s immune system does not recognize the butterfly cells and kills them off. But as more and more cells start appearing and linking up, a critical mass of cells become linked and this transformation starts to take place. Something beautiful and permanently different emerges. The point that was being made that as people keep showing up and caring and trying, even though the efforts seem to dissipate or come to a dead end, as long a someone keeps trying and others gradually join in, a critical mass becomes possible so that sustained change can eventually happen. It is only natural even in the incredible process of metamorphosis that life’s first response is to suppress change, the keep the status quo. Change is a struggle but also seemingly inevitable.
As far as humans go though, what I’m seeing in the world has me perplexed. This backwards direction the U.S. and other countries seem to moving in makes we wonder. Is it the immune system of the old society of the human race trying to kill off these relatively recent sparks of change (like diversity, integration, etc) to conserve the status quo but which will eventually be forced to give way to permanent change, or is this just part of a constant cycle of change and regression, perhaps the way our Universe is designed to function on the big scale.
In the case of our planet, it’s my opinion that it probably won’t be a critical mass of people making better choices that will make the difference. It will probably be the forces of a critical mass of physical factors destructive to life that will force change, reduce the population and giving living things a better chance to continue to exist. But just like in the zombie apocalypse series, The Walking Dead, the same archetypes will likely appear, like minded people will band together and history will play itself out again in more or less the same manner as always. If current events like the recent killing of an Amazon Indian chief by a gold miner are any indication, we seemed programmed for repeating cycles. I mean, I don’t know all the facts…maybe the native chief was an asshole and deserved it but it sounds like the year 1500 all over again. I’m filled with both hope & dread. At least we have meditation. We can watch with a degree of detachment or equanimity.

Edith September 7, 2019 at 7:40 pm

I see it differently. I’ll give you a real life example. I live in a Stratta. The administrators were really bad. Some of us would fight them to get them to improve the water service, others to improve the gardening services, others to demand explanations on absurd expenses. Things were time-consuming and difficult, and results were not very good. You know what worked? We changed the administrators and the board. We made sure only the ones who had been fighting the bad administration and who showed real interest on keeping the place nice were elected. Every individual problem was solved by the new people without everyone having to sacrifice their time and sanity. Now, regarding our problems in the wider world, we have little time and huge problems, and the democracy we have is not working to get the best people. The system does not work. A working government is not rocket science. For the bureaucratic sector, you follow the lead of France. They have a 2% corruption in that sector. Their system is nicely designed. In the area of democracy, we listen to ancient wisdom: In ancient Greece, you could only vote for the people who studied the longest to be politicians, and politicians and their families would live for life in houses provided by the government with a fixed modest income. You could not own property. If you wanted to be rich you would study commerce. If you wanted to be poor but help your country, you’d become a politician… and you’d be one for life. Your needs and your familiy’s needs would be taken care of by the state, with no luxury. They had a healthy separation between state and money, as healthy as the one we have between State and Religion. It was fool proof. All your candidates had a good profile. The result of an election would never be tragic. With a political elite separate from the financial one, you have leaders willing to implement the biggest democracy of all: every 50 years, the people decide if they want to continue with this socio-economic system or if they’d like to try a new one. Capitalism showed it’s nicest side when socialism was around as a fierce “competitor” or “option”. Now that few people consider the possibility of a different system, capitalism has come back with its most savage attitude. What are we going to do if we don’t like it? There is no other option. Or is it? Well, our generation suffers because we have lost faith in ideology. But capitalism is an ideology too. One that will lead us to extintion. And every ideology will be flawed, but having “competition”, the possibility of a peaceful change, will make any elite cooperative… any people benefited by a system, willing to negotiate. I’m trying to be brief with something that takes time. In short, going deeper into an issue won’t save our world. We have little time. We have to go directly to the root of the problems…deep, into the root of it all, not into the root of one bush.

Henry S September 18, 2019 at 10:44 am

David — you might be interested in effective altruism, a philosophical stance on charity which emphasizes using evidence to pick the areas where you can have the most impact. It tends to lead to people focusing their efforts on a few cause areas where they can do the most good, instead of a scattershot approach.


Henry S September 18, 2019 at 10:46 am

(Another commenter mentioned 80,000 Hours – they’re prominent advocates of an effective altruist approach to doing good.)

Richard Bell October 5, 2019 at 8:22 am

I think you are mistaken about the need to “imagine if all the available ‘public concern’ for a given issue could be collected” in order to end up with “three thousand people who made it a primary moral concern for a decade.”

I write as a participant and an observer of political struggles starting in the late 1960s onward. Over the years, I have worked for Oxfam America, the Woldwatch Institute, Friends of the Earth, and the Post Carbon Institute. I also saw people who spent their lives in the electoral political arena at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Democratic National Committee, and John Kerry’s presidential campaign.

Based on what I have seen, I would say that you do not have to “imagine” a world in which small numbers of people dedicate their lives for a decade or more to working on some issue, or at least a small set of related issues, as their primary moral concern. We already live in this world–by which I mean that i thinking about the very different organizations that I worked in and came to know well, I have been struck over the years about how so many of those people stayed with the struggle, for decades. Not the same organization of course, but in the same field, with the same basic moral focus. So people whom I first met in the Clamshell Alliance in 1977 (fighting the nuclear plant at Seabrook, New Hampshire) went on to become stalwarts in the Nuclear Freeze anti-nuclear weapons movement in the 1980s, and can still be found today sprinkled across organizations fighting climate change and promoting nuclear energy. In the years I spent working in Democratic national politics, it became clear to me that the community of people who were the backbone of electing decent progressives to office was really nothing more than a small village; I estimated that there were no more than 5,000 people around the country–field organizers, pollsters, social media people, etc.–who stayed with this work, year after year.
And from my work at Oxfam and Worldwatch, I again saw that there was a small community, and your 3,000 number is a pretty good number for how big these communities are in the U.S., of people who spent their lives focused on issues having to do with poverty, hunger, empowering women, and social and economic development.

I also agree that in an ideal world, people would be more careful about how they allotted their concern time, and would focus more energy on a smaller number of issues for more sustained periods of time.

But I don’t think people are likely to achieve this focus by themselves, as a matter of paying more attention as individuals. I think such focus can only grow out of being part of a community of people with whom you share a concern. In the absence of some level of community connection, it’s hard for people to sustain a focused moral commitment–you can’t achieve social change if you’re “bowling alone.”

Richard Bell October 5, 2019 at 8:41 am

ARGH! There is a terrible typo in my comment above. I meant to write, ” So people whom I first met in the Clamshell Alliance in 1977 (fighting the nuclear plant at Seabrook, New Hampshire) went on to become stalwarts in the Nuclear Freeze anti-nuclear weapons movement in the 1980s, and can still be found today sprinkled across organizations fighting climate change and promoting renewable energy.”
That’s “promoting renewable energy,” not “promoting nuclear energy.” I need more coffee this morning. My apologies.

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