Saturday, August 22, 2009

Acting Locally

There’s a beautiful piece in The Age today, which doesn’t seem to be online, about a school where almost all the children came from refugee families. A teacher asked children to bring in their favourite book from home. Most didn’t, and those that did produced very damaged copies – in one case only two pages were left.

The teacher put out a call for help, and was absolutely deluged in offers. Not only did people line up to hand over books they were no longer using, many dipped into their pockets (in one case to the tune of $2000) to buy new ones. The target has already been exceeded ten times over, and presumably this publicity will send it higher. Moreover, all sorts of other support is being offered – people with no connection to the school are offering to come in and read to the children, or construct containers for storing the books etc.

It’s all very inspiring in the way many films try to be, while being true and real and not-faked up at all.

I think it also provides an indication of how some of the problems we often see as intractable are anything but, if we can only find the right triggers for action.

This might seem a big claim. The responses have solved the immediate problem of a shortage of books in the children’s homes. We’ll have to wait quite a while to discover if they will solve the real issue of limited reading, let alone social disadvantage. And all this is just one school – there are hundreds across Australia with similar problems, along with thousands of individual students at schools where the problem is less universal.

It’s a big leap from this to saying we can beat Global Warming or war. However, I think the case that these problems are soluble with enough commitment has been made adequately elsewhere. The question has always been “is that commitment achievable?” Examples like this indicate the answer is yes if we can find the right triggers.

Something about this case caused people to take the steps required to fix the problem. The efforts they made are not all that much smaller (and in the case of the $2000 donor not smaller at all) than that required to solve the world’s macro problems. Of course only a minority of those who received the plea for help acted. Maybe there’s a finite number of people who will ever step up to the plate, but I’d like to think not. Some of those who gave to this cause were probably the usual suspects – the same people on Oxfam’s regular donor list and volunteers for all sorts of causes.

But I doubt it. I’ll bet some were people who don’t give a lot the rest of the time. This appeal touched them, they saw the problem as being manageable, and they did something.

It’s the reason for the slogan “think global, act local”. Most people find it difficult to relate to global problems, or those too big to be solved through individual action. The solution, at least sometimes, is to break the problem down into manageable parts – often based on geography – and get people to deal with these. An appeal for books to solve the problem of children growing up without them in the home, without the specific manageable case of a single rather small school, would probably have produced much less of a response.

This is one of the less acknowledged reasons why those who argue Australia shouldn’t “take the lead” on fighting Climate Change because we only produce 2% of the problem are talking utter horseshit. It’s not just that this approach would have seen us stay out of both World Wars (desirable as that may have been in the first case) or individuals refuse to pay taxes if even some others are evading.

It’s that its only by breaking the problem down to more manageable scale we can get it addressed at all. My suburb only produces 0.0001% of the worlds Greenhouse Gasses. However, making it carbon neutral is a goal that might inspire people in a way that zero national emissions might not – it’s possible to imagine it happening and one person making a difference to it.

If we can make examples like this attractive we might be on the path to putting together the pieces to get the whole jig saw fixed.

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