activism, bystander, collective, dance, ecology, GreenNewDeal, leadership, psychology
You may or may not have heard of the so-called “bystander effect.” It refers to the observation that, in some circumstances, any particular person is less likely to help someone else when there are many others who could help. It’s also of some interest that most people believe that they will make their own decision independently of what others do.
In some ways, the feeling that, after all, you are only one person, and so what you do cannot possibly impact climate change much, might be a close cousin. It’s true that if everything else in the world stays the same and you stop driving your car 10 miles to work every day and instead decide to ride your bike, it won’t have a huge impact on global climate change, but it will have some. Your actions may not save a million lives, but they could save one.
More importantly, why did your mind skip right by that premise I snuck in there? “If everything else in the world stays the same…” Why would it stay the same? When you think about it, it’s fairly well impossible that everything else would stay the same. For one thing, you would be fitter because of riding the bike. For another thing, you’d likely be in a better mood. People at work would notice that you’re riding a bike and you would end up in conversations about it. These conversations could lead to others. You’d be having people wonder why you did that. Some of them might try too.
Those are just a few of the predictable consequences. Of course, you’d be impacting the world differently all the time. There’s no way to predict all the “Butterfly Effects” you’d be causing without your knowledge. In general, however, if your actions are kinder to the ecosystem, the ecosystem will be nicer to you.
When I was transitioning from 4th to 5th grade, our family moved to an area of new development and our little neighborhood was surrounded by acres of woods and fields. In the woods immediately behind our house, mayapples blanketed the rich forest floor beneath the tall canopy of oaks, ashes, and cherry trees, all overhung by wild grape vines. I loved the forest! But as an eleven-year old, it also seemed that my friend Wilbur and I would be required to destroy our “enemies” (i.e., the Mayapples) with our wooden “swords” (i.e., broken branches with the bark stripped off). And destroy them we did.
The next year, the mayapples were “replaced” with thorn bushes — mainly blackberry and black raspberry but there were some wild roses and cat briers in the mix. Coincidence? Perhaps. We continued to fight these hardier “enemy warriors” and every year, unlike the mayapples, they kept coming back for more, though these berry bushes never bore any fruit.
Consider “The Golden Rule” — “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.” It’s the right thing to do. But it’s also a very practical thing to do. If you are nice to people, then by and large, they are more likely to be nice back to you. Why wouldn’t it be the same with other species on the whole? I’m not suggesting that it’s true in every case. No matter how nice you are to the mosquitoes that bite you, they are unlikely to throw a party for you even if you let them suck you dry!
I’m happy to say that I soon outgrew that pre-teen phase of cutting down vegetation for the sheer “joy” of it. So, I don’t have many stories that illustrate how being intentionally unkind to nature came back to bite me.
However, I do know that when it comes to honeybees, if one of them stings you, crushing the offender could well get you in worse trouble as could flailing about swatting at them. Decades after the mayapple episode described above, I went on a hike on “Turkey Mountain” with my son-in-law and some of my grandchildren when one of the boys stepped in a bee’s nest. I was holding my grand-daughter and didn’t have the option of trying to run or trying to flail at them. I just stood still. I didn’t get stung nor did my grand-daughter. But everyone else who was swatting at the bees, did get stung.
In general, it makes sense to me that if you are kind to nature, you will generally experience more pleasure yourself. Since humans are social animals, your kindness to nature will typically not go unnoticed by others. Though there might be some few perverse folks who will do the opposite of what you do, most will follow your lead. Humans are social animals. Except for pre-teen boys and a few spoiled sociopaths, most people are predisposed to be nice to other forms of life. Life competes with other Life. But Life also collaborates and cooperates with Life. Big time. And, one of the many examples is that people collaborate and cooperate. That is the natural tendency and they must be manipulated to instead be needlessly belligerent. A more natural stance is to see what others are doing that has a good result and join in.
For several years, my wife & I attended the Newport Folk Festival. Like most people, I love music, but I especially love outdoor concerts because I can dance to the music. Most of our ferryboat trips to Fort Adams State Park were accompanied by spectacular summer sunshine. Hot sunny weather meant a great time to dance to the music and occasionally take a short dip in the water to cool off.
One summer day, however, our lucky streak of sunny weather came to an end. Everyone at the festival, including our little group, huddled and shivered under their umbrellas and leaky raincoats. You think a raincoat is pretty effective at keeping the water out. But that’s because you’re judging its effectiveness on not getting wet when you walk from your home to your car and your car to your workplace or the drug store. Under those circumstances, they work well. But when you sit for hours in a downpour, you’ll get wet, raincoat or no raincoat.
So, after about an hour and a half, the thought came into my head: “Hey! I came here to dance. I’m soaking wet anyway. I’m going to dance!” I stripped off to my bathing trunks and do what I came there to do: dance. Why let the rain stop me?
I enjoyed myself. After about a half hour, a few others began to dance. Performers on the stage commented favorably on the spirit of the dancers. More joined us. Within a few hours, hundreds of people had joined in the joy. At some point, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see a microphone in my face and a large TV camera. At that time, I had the exulted title of “Executive Director” so my first thought was to wonder whether my management chain would see this interview with me in my bathing trunks, and if so, what they would think of it. In moments like that, it seems to me, the best thing to do is simply continue to embrace the moment. So, I simply told the truth about what I was doing and why; that I came to dance and I was enjoying it; that there was no point *wishing* it wasn’t pouring down rain, and that instead, it was more enjoyable to embrace the rain and make it part of the dance along with the music.
If scores of people pile on to crazy and easily disprovable conspiracy theories, wouldn’t many more people pile on to something that is positive and joyous and life-affirming?
If you make some small change that is pro-planet, wouldn’t that tend to induce others to do the same? And, if they did, wouldn’t that tend to induce still others to do the same?
You may or may not be on the nightly news and induce still more people to change their attitude or behavior, but you’ll certainly have a positive influence on those in your immediate vicinity.
If denial of reality can spread like a pandemic, why not small life-affirming changes in the behavior of your fellow human beings?
How the Nightingale Learned to Sing
Listen You Can Hear the Echoes of Your Actions
Hi John. This is to say thank you for your posts, that I follow with an RSS reader. I often wish I’d gotten closer with you both at IBM because I’ve always found you simpatico. The trouble was that I thought of myself as “just” an engineer. That is, out of class from real researchers. Stupid, but that’s me. Thank you for writing. I enjoy reading. May your messages have the effect that you describe. Douglas
John Thomas said:
“Just” an engineer? You made IBM work so there even could be research! Thanks! My dad was an engineer — my mother an English/Drama teacher. — Turns out this was the same for Douglas Engelbart.