Yesterday, I read an arousing Daily Kos diary, HOW TO BE A CLIMATE HERO (which had been crossposted from Truth and Progress, a very worthwhile action-oriented blog). The author, Audrey Schulman, described breaking through her fellow passengers' paralysis in order to bring help to a woman who was undergoing a seizure aboard a train. She found the scene strikingly evocative of her attempts to counter the inertia she has encountered regarding the issue of climate disruption.
Audrey alluded to the Bystander Effect, in which people's willingness to take action in the face of a crisis is eroded by the sight of others' inactivity. The most famous example is probably the case of Kitty Genovese, who was raped and murdered despite the presence of observers (though many were not fully aware of what was happening). Phil Ochs' chilling song "A Small Circle of Friends" was inspired by the episode.
I had a similar experience as a teenager when I was participating in a state music festival. A crowd of us happened to witness a woman running down the street pursued by a man. At one point, she turned to us and screamed "Could somebody do something?" Nothing seemed to happen. I turned half-heartedly to an apathetic teacher and asked him whether he thought something could be done, and was oddly relieved when he responded noncommittally. We all seemed happy to brush away the episode. I didn't think of it again until my friend Julia, who had been there, read aloud in class an essay she had written about it. Since then, it has occurred to me again and again. I've replayed it in my mind, sometimes in a speculative updated form (would things have been different if I'd had had a cell phone?). Perhaps it was in the back of my head when, as an adult, I intervened on behalf of a child being bullied in my neighborhood (description here).
A number of commenters, though they appreciated Audrey's point, pointed out that the analogy was simplistic. In the case of climate disruption, they pointed out, many people were effectively being paid to ignore the problem, which had not happened in the scene on the train. Audrey readily agreed, but felt that her basic analogy still held.
In fact, a compelling call to arms often simplifies the stimulus for action. For instance, the organizer Saul Alinsky, in his book Rules for Radicals, points to the way the framers of the Declaration of Independence alluded only to how the British government had mistreated the colonists, not to the help it had given them. Alinsky felt that this partial representation of the facts was justified because the rebels' overall goal of liberty for the greatest number of people could only be realized if they were able to goad the masses into action. In Alinsky's deliberately provocative view, only those interested in preserving the status quo will raise questions as to whether the ends justify the means. I'm not sure I agree, but his presentation certainly made me think, and that (in a nicely self-referential way) was undoubtedly what he was after.
Having said that, however, I want to bring up one complication that went unmentioned by Audrey and her commenters. I believe that when we decide whether to get involved in a cause, we perform a calculation (conscious or subconscious) that includes not only the importance of a problem, not only the total time we have available, but the difference we feel we can make and the fit between our skills and the problem we're attacking, and of course our personal contacts with the people involved.
For many of us, the path to personal involvement in politics often begins with work for a candidate. We hear about campaigns all the time and we know they need workers. In my case, it was Howard Dean's campaign that introduced me to politics, and reintroduced me to activism. But I soon became interested in election integrity as well. As I saw it, the only way I could truly defend the environment was to help bring in a pro-environmental president, and that, in turn, could only be done if we had trustworthy elections. I volunteered for Verified Voting, where among other tasks, I helped test the interface for the Election Incident Reporting System. This was a nice match between my software engineering skills and my interest. Unfortunately, the work ended with the 2004 election, where the reports collected via EIRS were mostly ignored. I tried to get involved with the effort to push Rush Holt's paper ballot bills, but became disillusioned when their opponents (on all parts of the political spectrum) managed to stall the legislation. Finally, in late 2006, when Boston's progressive talk was forced off the radio, I found myself involved with a group of people in my own community. It was much more compelling to contribute my time and skills to real "neighbors" whom I could meet in person, and it felt as though we could get somewhere with our attempt to have some effect on media to break the stranglehold that we'd seen from the 90s on. Now that that effort has entered a slower phase, I find myself once again circling around the activist world, looking for the right way to get involved. It's very much like a job search.
Throughout this process, I believe we need to rely on the postulate that we can be most helpful by finding the places where we are the best fit and relying on others to take on the causes that we individually, in our limited capacity, cannot. In that process, we will form connections with people and causes whom we feel especially drawn to, and given the right opportunity, we will join those causes. In the meantime, we will publicize the work they are doing. So while it may take me some time to find the best way to get involved in the fight to mitigate climate disruption (wouldn't it be great to dust off the science I abandoned so long ago?), I appreciate those who are already doing noble work in not allowing us to simply stand by. Thanks, Audrey!