We’ve all heard this line of argumentation. Heck, most of us have gone down that rabbit hole of thought ourselves from time to time. There are many versions of the same line of reasoning and boiled down to its basics, it goes something like this: it does not matter one bit what I do, because there is a myriad of people doing the exact opposite which negates all the effects my actions had. This might refer to our actions against climate change, efforts to keep our neighborhood garbage free or trying to uphold tax laws at every opportunity to not do so.
Economists have a term for this phenomenon: tragedy of the commons. The term originates from a British economist back from 1833 named William Forster Lloyd. In a nutshell, the example he gave was a commonly owned pasture where herders could graze their cattle. The pasture could sustain many herds if the surrounding ranchers all let the pasture regrow its grass periodically. In other words, everybody’s cows could eat the grass in no-man’s land from time to time, but not all day every day. If everyone would stick to this regime, all would be fine, but if someone cheated, the grass would be munched too often, and the land would dry out and everybody would be worse off.
And of course, there’s always some cattle rancher who takes advantage of the situation, gets their cows a bit fatter than everyone else and ruins the pasture. Call them calculating psychopaths, cunning social pariahs, or as we say where I come from, selfish assholes. It’s a common realization that there’s always someone who makes sure we can’t have nice things. This has left us with problems like the overfishing of our seas, the overuse of antibiotics, public bathrooms that are in ungodly condition, and the Holocene mass extinction.
One sobering fact seems to murky the waters here. And that has to do with numbers, or better yet scale. When it comes down to it, you don’t matter. Nothing you will ever do in your life will matter. Not even a little bit. Not on a global scale. Heck, not really on a national scale either. Most of your good deeds barely have an impact on even your kids. Your trip to the recycling center won’t matter. Neither your choice to buy a hand-crafted re-usable shopping bag made from recycled Ikea furniture, which will save you from buying at least a dozen plastic grocery bags. To make things worse, your vote doesn’t count for anything either. There has been practically zero elections in the history of our species where a single vote ever changed anything – and Radiolab truly tried to find one!
It is the very essence of egocentrism that gives us the power to influence each other.
There are closer to eight than seven billion people on the planet. You don’t have to dive deep into Google to blow your mind on the scale of human activity to realize how tiny you are and how little impact you have. Just to toss one example in the mix, on average, eighty billion pairs of chopsticks get discarded every year. That’s billion, with a b. But I bet you still have a used pair in your drawer from that one time you got Chinese takeout and felt bad about just throwing them away, don’t you? For scale comparison, let’s say, not throwing those away extended one minute of mother earth’s lifespan. Eighty billion minutes is 152 106 years. The scale here is one minute to 152 106 years.
So, why should I give up flying for the environment if almost three billion people in India and China don’t give a damn? Or do any other environmentally conscious act to save the planet. First, because it seems that the risk of an upcoming environmental catastrophe – a climate emergency – is very high, according to the information we have at this moment. So, we must deal with that – not as an individual but as a species. At least if we want the species to survive. And this is the hard part – thinking as a species, not as a single actor.
Especially in the west, we have a long egocentric worldview and life philosophy. We have a rich history of a so-called dignity culture, where we state that every human being is born with inalienable human rights. Rights that do not have to be earned, as in some honor cultures, but the dignity of the individual is seen as a birthright. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the well-known rights such as freedom from unlawful imprisonment, torture, and execution. But a right that is talked less about, but nevertheless is under the same declaration, is the right to your own name. This is a right to individuality. The right to personhood. This fundamental philosophical principle has arguably given rise great things such as freedom of thought, speech and expression, but has also given us a very individualistic and egocentric mindset. If it’s usually hard to see the tree from the forest, this mindset makes it hard to see ourselves as nothing more than a single tree, and we miss the forest. But in this moment of history, we have to move and take action as a forest, not a tree.
The good news is we are a network, a superorganism and a collective. We are a family, a group of friends, a coven, a football team, a school, a nation, a union of nations and a species. We are arguably the only species we know of capable of higher-conscious thought and abstract experience. Maybe the only species capable of transcendent qualia, hypothetical wonder and deep love. We might be the only thing in the universe capable of pondering its existence. We might be the universe figuring itself out.
Poetry aside, what can we do? Our psyche is tuned for cooperation. We do not operate in isolation. It is exactly our ability to move together that has gotten us so far – our capacity to create culture. Culture is a collection of values, norms and scripts that move all of us. Culture is a feedback loop where we’re both influencing it and influenced by it. Norms create culture. Culture creates group identity. Group identity creates tribes, tribes create nations and nations form global unions. Projecting our values creates manners. Manners create norms. Norms create laws, laws create treaties and treaties create mandates for global actions.
It is the very essence of egocentrism that gives us the power to influence each other. The capacity to make decisions by ourselves gives us the power to create values and to project those values around us. Evolutionary psychologists have argued that the very fact that we have unique features and capabilities to identify ourselves and those around us as individuals has given us the higher capacity to work towards a mutual and complex goal. And that that goal can be altered together if necessary. The very same capacity that makes you able to point fingers at peoples across the oceans is the same capacity you can use to show that we can be and do better.
It’s time to be more of a virtue ethicist or a deontologist. We need values and rules to solve this. Doing the moral math of individual actions versus everyone in India, that is to say, personal consequentialism, only works if you are omniscient. We don’t know how the clockwork of our ecosystem works. We can’t really predict the future with high certainty. The math here is too hard, and we cannot do it alone. I bet you didn’t know that eighty billion minutes were 152 106 years. And I bet you couldn’t even guesstimate it. Me neither. None of us can. But it was computable because many of us working together created math, calculus and relativity. Not one of us figured any of that out by themselves. We created a culture of learning, norms about schooling and built universities as a nation.
So, when someone gives you the headline argument, throws a cigarette butt to the ground or refuses to recycle, they might call it a teleological, consequential or even a utilitarian approach. But we have a better term for that. Being an asshole.