Many writers take the time to carefully delineate some problem or other in society, spending huge chunks of books, papers, or theses to do so. Certainly the description of a problem is important, and a critical first step in understanding and addressing any issue. And I do this myself—in many ways, writing is a way to wrestle with ideas and refine them.
Yet once a problem is understood, I become hungry for more than platitudes. Many authors have held my full attention as they explained the complexities of a major problem, but then have ended these otherwise compelling pieces of writing with trite clichés. Use compact fluorescents, recycle, buy sustainably, vote—as if those things alone, or even all of them together, could be enough.
I give them credit for the effort, but I wonder if they, and I, miss the mark. Even though I want elegant single solutions, I am never sure they really exist. Social problems are complex structures with long feedbacks and a diversity of inputs and outputs. Societies are ponderous entities that lag far behind their most progressive members. So I think no individual inner journey, no matter how compelling, will change a society. No amount of careful shopping will make change; even if a majority of people changed their shopping habits, they would still be a minor force compared to the structural forces controlling our economic system. And no amount of careful voting will solve big problems; even if problems like climate change could wait for the next election, or the one after that, top-down efforts can change only a small part of any social structure.
If there is any single solution I can see to social problems, it is to take humble responsibility for the state of your community, however you define it. The structures of society rely on collective ideas, and so they must be changed collectively, but the greatest impact you can have on ideas is with the people who know you and are willing to engage.
Local change, though, cannot be prescribed with a one-size-fits-all approach. It functions mainly because it relies on members of a community to know that community well. It may mean knowing the candidates in your state government, and picking ones who exemplify solid ideals. It may mean working on the level of your county, city, or town to change practices around resource usage and social justice. It may mean withdrawing where possible from global feedback loops and their unintended consequences, and instead supporting tighter local feedbacks, formal or informal, economic or social. It may mean speaking with your neighbors or your family about sexist or racist or classist ideas, and ways you can challenge them. When you break the legitimacy, pervasiveness, inertia, organizational manifestations, or broad unconscious acceptance of an entrenched idea on the local level, you make it that much harder for that idea to translate upward into higher levels of society.
And, too, I think it is an absolute need that we build alternative ideas on the community level. If we create a culture of caring for our elderly as a community, we buffer them against rising exploitive medical costs and make changing our health care system less of a zero-sum game. If we support local agriculture, we reduce the overall importance of factory farms with damaging environmental and business practices and simultaneously make our food systems more resilient. If we elect intelligent and discerning representatives to our local positions, we show other intelligent and discerning people that politics can be more than cutthroat partisanship. If we support thrift stores and materials cycling, we reduce our community impact on the global environment. If we model solutions within our communities, we can impact the kinds of solutions that are visible and available on larger scales.
I also think changing individual minds is important; certainly it must be done if one is to effect social change, and probably it is the first step of every collective endeavor. And I acknowledge that fighting the effects of detrimental institutions is important; changing them takes time and we must mitigate the damage in the meantime. But firstly we must look for their fundamentals and root them out of our communities, because only then will we be free to choose anything different. If we focus only on effects, we will forever be plugging the holes and never fixing the dam. If we focus only on tearing down detrimental institutions, we will have nothing to replace their social functions.
I am forced to realize that, after describing big problems, any solution I can propose will probably be little more than a token. So maybe I shouldn’t propose one at all—maybe instead of proposing a few solutions, I should look at the work of understanding problems as a solution in and of itself. If we can lay out the functions of a thing, name them, and see them, maybe we can understand it well enough to recognize it’s myriad and subtle effects. And maybe then we can find a better way.
Image Credit: Lena