The Collective Action Necessary To Save The World

Isaac Asimov’s seminal "Foundation" series of novels begin with the psychohistorian Hari Seldon predicting the destruction of the Empire within three centuries.

Three centuries seems like a long time. A lot can happen. And yet the tectonic forces driving the Empire to destruction are inexorable, and therefore visible to Seldon.

Here is something that seems to me inexorable: Our ability to survive as a species -- as communities, societies, nations -- is entirely dependent on our ability to view ourselves as part of a whole rather than solely as individuals.

This is not at all an easy thing to do. David Frame, director of the New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute, once told me that a problem can have one of three possible solution forms: collective action, weakest link, and best choice.

A “collective action” problem is one that requires lots of people to work together.

A “weakest link” problem is just what it sounds like. Imagine, for example, a row of houses along a levee or a stop bank, where everyone is responsible for maintaining their section of the levee. But if one person fails, it’s everybody’s problem. So people are incentivized to maintain their own section, but they’re also incentivized to help out that one person who’s likely to let their section fail.



And “best choice” is where one person or group can address the issue for everyone. Maybe there’s a street that’s really dark. Everyone on the street would like it to be nicely lit, but all it takes is one person to actually install a street lamp -- and the problem is solved for everyone.

Obviously, best-choice problems are the easiest to deal with. Most of us can kick back and be lazy while the one gung-ho go-getter installs the street lamp. Weakest link isn’t too hard either: We each do our bit, and we pitch in a little so the whole thing doesn’t collapse.

It’s at collective action that the whole thing gets tricky. Collective action means not only do I have to do my bit, I have to trust you’re going to do your bit. And not only do I have to trust you’re going to do your bit, I have to trust everyone is going to do their bit. And while I may trust you, I’m unlikely to trust everyone -- so I’m way more likely to just say, “Screw it, there’s no point.”

Here’s the thing: The most important issues of our day require collective action.

Let’s start with the most obvious: the pandemic. While some people have compared COVID to car accidents or cancer, there’s a massive difference in that one is contagious and the others are not.

Because COVID is contagious, as more people get it, more people are going to continue getting it. And the steps we take to mitigate or curtain the pandemic -- from masks to lockdowns to vaccines -- only work if a critical mass of people employ them.

But COVID is an above-the-fold issue. The 800-pound gorilla standing just over COVID’s shoulder is, of course, climate change: the issue that is designed in exact opposition to the way our brains work. It’s large-scale, abstract, far away. Our individual behavior has minimal impact on it, and we get minimal feedback on the effectiveness of that behavior.

Why am I writing about this for Media Insider? Because it matters how we frame these issues. It matters when we showcase easy individual heroes rather than the complex messiness of groups. It matters when our stories are focused on Dr. Fauci or Greta or Elon, playing into our yearning for a best-choice solution.

Collective action requires us to understand that we’re not sitting in traffic, we are traffic. We all have a role to play in addressing the challenges we face. Our future, in the end, is up to us.

1 comment about "The Collective Action Necessary To Save The World".
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  1. Kenneth Fadner from MediaPost, December 17, 2021 at 8:08 a.m.

    Amen, Kaila

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