Connecting Through an Idea

Demystifying Social Change: Part 4

Ideas arising from people’s direct experience can have unexpected power.

Big change from the ground up. The world is clearly driven by strong trends, conditions, and attitudes. Civilizations that have come and gone remind us, however, that the energy for big changes usually doesn’t come from top leaders. Typically these spend their time consolidating their control, and just when they assume that they have things where they want them, new conditions erupt. Christianity altered the moribund Roman Empire from the bottom up, and the untamed Vandals decimated it. Islam arose from a desert householder able to convince his peers that God spoke to him, and came to dominate the governments of the region. American colonists, common folk talking to each other about their grievances, challenged the seemingly invincible British Empire.

Change depends on common agreement. What people agree on, they can do. Put the other way, if people don’t agree on it, we know they can’t do it. The French agreed to overthrow their monarchy, but their uncertainty about what to do next brought on the Reign of Terror. The number of people who agree on an idea predicts much of what they can accomplish.

Till recent decades single governments were the locus of control. Comparable influence today may be in a global concentration of power among large corporations devoted to the accumulation of wealth by structuring society for their advantage. Change is unlikely to occur from its leaders who, if history teaches us anything, are concerned first with consolidation of their power. It‘s more likely from others who experience the effects of it.

In my prior articles on social change I suggested that there was a price to pay for it, that mediocre thinking hindered it, and that the orienting idea needed now is the good of the whole. This is a perspective for sorting priorities and weighing effects according to a full range of values–all human and other life forms–so that the outcome of effort is as good as it can be.

Limited goods pushed too far threaten the good of the whole. The idea of the good of the whole corrects a tendency destructive enough to erode civilization. Here’s a way to understand it: Human effort typically fixes on a perceived good and pursues it, leaving open the question, “When do we stop?” In practice, people keep going until external conditions block their effort. The elusive point always begging for attention is “When does the good we pursue cease to be good?”

The question goes unanswered so often because people don’t like to open it and deliberately exclude it from conversation. The reason lies in how human perception organizes effort: We intuitively regard limits to the good we pursue to be bad! For us to think differently, others have to teach us. People pursuing money, land, or other assets are poised to reach for the next increment, not to check themselves by asking “Are we destroying someone’s life resources by doing this?” or “ Are we robbing all to reward a few?“

Consider a plant manufacturing products people need. As incidentals compared to life itself, their value is limited. But if a byproduct of their manufacture is toxic to human and other life, then a good for the company and consumers overruns its inherent limitation and destroys good for something else.

The principle operates in issues large and small, past and present. Plantations in the early colonies created economic gain for owners, but by depending on slavery exceeded the inherent limit of that good and committed a gross violation of human rights. Gain for US bankers trading derivatives in the last decade circumvented accountability for their actual worth, threatening even the stability of the economic system. The oceans are polluted, the sky clogs with carbon dioxide, and marine life declines not because people set off in the morning thinking “Let s see how much we can destroy” or “How can we strip the oceans of fish?” They think about what to them is obviously good. They grow crops, travel to their place of work, operate the society, engage in recreation, and feed their family–good results that are the reason it’s so hard to correct problems. Nobody intends them, no one’s change of heart will solve them, and the inevitable effect of limits not respected is ignored. I‘m reminded of a cartoon from the early years of the environmental movement. Two men look out a large window at smokestacks billowing smoke. With a smirk one says to the other, “Where there’s smoke, there’s money!”

In many eras, such a concern might be assigned to priests and pastors for their prayers and not to ordinary folks to take to heart. Everyone had their own worries. Today, however, economic instability affects the whole, the condition of the water and air touches all, and attitudes of international hostility or greed continue their ripples of harm.

Teach people to address indirect causality. To act together, we have to understand what we’re doing, and draw the threads of indirect causality together into an understandable picture. An organizing task likely to remain urgent for a long time is enlarging people’s viewpoint so that they can recognize how they damage others, and commit to set this right. One person telling someone else “You injure me” would be easier. Civil or criminal proceedings might resolve it or legislation could separate the good guys from the bad. And personally, we don’t want blame for anyone’s distress.

But where causality is indirect, we feel off the hook. Eskimos may visit the nation’s capital to protest global warming that melts the permafrost under their homes and the sea ice they hunt on, but they find no single person to accuse. The causality, completely clear by the evidence, remains indirect, which bids us think differently. No longer able to confront directly those who injure us, our effort depends on our act of intelligence followed by substantial effort engaging others in it. Where the pursuit of a goal extends through much time and many conditions, the same intelligent insight must persist across the entire continuum. We can’t just tell others our conclusions and expect them to be followed out, but need to disseminate both the desire and ability to grasp and pursue the causality we observe.

Intelligent understanding of indirect causes may be turn out to be decisive in the emerging effort at change. Because the nature of today’s problems require it, we can bet that society’s way of coping with them will differ from how they were handled before. In the 18th century, French mobs might burst into princely palaces, and mass marches expressed the energy of change in the 19th and 20th centuries. In this one, people readily discount large numbers, skeptical to believe anything backed by momentary enthusiasm. Now, as society turns increasingly to scientists and economists to interpret data, the urgency of sheer understanding deepens. To the extent that we can involve others in it, we’re more likely to solve problems. The less we do so, the more inevitable it is that the limited goods people already seek will push past their point of balance and create negative effects they then ignore.

Assess limited good by whether it enhances the whole. A sea-change in America might begin small, simply with more people thinking systemically as they cope with the problems of their neighborhood, community, and region. The lever for ultimate change is many people pursuing the widest benefit to all affected, all human beings and all living things; people willing at every point to examine the contrary picture and commit first to doing no harm.

We needn’t assume that any specific effort is misdirected. Human creativity is enormous, and connecting one effort to another is open to invention. Even in commitment to one value, people can remain independent of its possession of them, and can subscribe to the broadest good. The critical quality is recognizing the conditions under which one value becomes a stable increment of a comprehensive set of values. We examine our own value carefully for whether, placed alongside all others, it damages or enhances the whole–sometimes a subtle estimate to make but eventually necessary.

Such an effort conflicts with people’s wish to defer hard thinking to others. Large numbers may never do this because it stretches the narrow concerns of mainstream thinking and challenges the attitude-driven ignorance that guides many votes that in turn settle the broad outlines of government. If you’re ignorant of cause and effect, never examine them, and a persuasive voice and appealing face tells you that their meaning is X, you’re vulnerable to believing X.

The need is clear if hard–thoughtful people who grasp subtle implications and aren’t taken in by specious proposals. As balance of understanding pervades the electorate, the machinery of government is safer from demagogues and those who would co-opt it for their own gain. Without it, the capability of the nation is no more secure than the quality of the messages fed into its consciousness, and it can more easily be led to war, fiscal collapse, or other disaster.

For a certain increment of constructive outcome, the shift I suggest may even be indispensable. Partisanship for a limited good, pursued too far, inevitably creates negative consequences even for the solitary good promoted. When we arrive at any negotiation committed only to “standing for” one value, others must see us as limited in our benevolence toward their needs. The best they can expect from us is that we compromise rather than that we actively aid in meeting their need. Whenever people are loyal only to a limited purpose, they structure the situation for a cessation of trust at a certain point, leaving society in stalemate over problems unresolved.

The objective before us is to change national thinking about indirect causality. While we need thinking citizens everywhere who take charge of what they can do directly, we ultimately want also a clear majority of voters in every district willing to respond to evidence about the effects of the policies they espouse. An advantage of this stance is its nurture of crucial links between people as shared motivation becomes ground for cooperation. Trust occurs when agreements hold up (i.e., people have integrity), and all are aware that others are committed to their well-being. Implied is thorough communication among all who adopt this viewpoint: “We want to know where people’s hearts are, what they think and believe, so that we can trust the initiatives each brings to the table.” We elicit latent power by asking, “How would the world look to you if you approached contests among values with your primary interest the good of the whole rather than your specific individual concern? What would appear different?” How does the shape of the world change if all the elsewheres steadily occupy your center, and you deferred your own standard preoccupation to wait its turn?

That most minds will resist this emphasis shifts more responsibility to those who grasp it. The human mind tends to admit just one thing at a time into central awareness and bids others park in niches at varying distances away. Some things (such as the needs of those far from us) never make it to our center, while others pop in for a visit, perhaps as an occasional “pang of conscience.”

If you have not made this shift and would like to discover it, I suggest preparing carefully because it may be a watershed in your life. You may discover pleasure and significance by setting your own purpose beyond a limited good and direct it to all good possible. Once committed to weigh all conditions for their best outcomes, people can cooperate to the end and know that others reciprocate in sustaining the good for them in return, and that each is welcome to engage the resources of the whole:

Do you have an idea?

Does it contribute to the good of the whole?

Can others apply and develop it?

Is it the right thing to do?

The bottom line is that we ask each other to do it because it’s the right thing to do, regardless of whether it benefits us or not.

Many will ignore this effort. A friend of mine in his twenties was invited to hang out with a group for an evening. “They were all dressed in black,” he said. “They were all anarchists, and they talked about bringing down the government.” I said to them ‘Is this what you guys do? Do you think you’ll ever make any difference?’ One said to me, ‘It doesn’t matter. I’m happy this way.’”

Being “happy this way” might describe many (at least in economically steady times), yet can prevent us from noticing that a bigger world is swallowing us up. If we wish to reclaim our lives, we need to think differently.

In my fifth and last article of this series, I’ll discuss the organizational sequence implied in carrying out the ideas I’ve treated.

  • Read Part 1, 2 & 3.
  • John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of Finding Your Inner Lenin: Taking Responsibility for Global Change (Xlibris, 2006). He welcomes comments sent to him directly at and will email an ebook version of his book to anyone without charge upon request. Read other articles by John.

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    1. Don Hawkins said on February 16th, 2010 at 3:11am #


      Gore wants us to clean up our factories and plants in order to protect us from global warming, when China and other countries couldn’t care less. It would make us totally noncompetitive in the manufacturing world, and China, Japan and India are laughing at America’s stupidity. Donald Trump

      This Trump fellow is not real bright but he has a lot of company. Gore first of all is only one player and all the World is a stage. Do the people in the know in China, Japan and India understand what climate change means for there countries, oh yes they sure do and I don’t think they are laughing. You want to talk about totally noncompetitive in the manufacturing world well have you taken a look at the States lately? What is it we produce here oh that’s right knowledge so that’s what we see. Now if we go with this Trump fellow’s thinking and just on the off chance climate change is real and happening faster than first thought I wonder in a few years about ten what we will be manufacturing here in the States. I-phones, cell phones, TV’s, washing machines and with his thinking maybe a few other product’s can you think what they might be? Again just on the off chance climate change is happening have we seen any of those surprises Mr. Lovelock spoke of yet? No not yet but darn close. This thinking from this Trump fellow is it short term thinking when thinking of future generations is it an old way of thinking is it the very thinking that got us to this point in the first place is it just better that way? Is it just better that way, is it just better that way?

      Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar”, every “supreme leader”, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. Sagan

      Where might this Trump fellow fit in with what Sagan wrote. Am going to work today with my Son on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam and will we be wearing a suit, no will every hair on our head be in place, no will we feel good about the work we are doing, yes and I am still trying to get my Son to understand he is a very lucky boy to have a farm and to enjoy a nice cup of coffee after work and the work he does now and in the future a very lucky boy indeed. With this Trump fellow and his thinking just on the off chance the future is what? A new way of thinking the choice is our’s. Coffee then make my lunch my car will be arriving soon and Mr.Trump you are not a bright man no you are not.

    2. Don Hawkins said on February 16th, 2010 at 4:17am #

      Laughing in India are they!

      London, Feb 15 (ANI): In a new study, scientists have found out that water warmed by climate change is taking giant bites out of the underbellies of Greenland’s glaciers, with 75 per cent of the ice lost by the glaciers being melted by ocean warmth.

      “There’s an entrenched view in the public community that glaciers only lose ice when icebergs calve off,” Eric Rignot at the University of California, Irvine, told New Scientist.

      “Our study shows that what’s happening beneath the water is just as important,” he added.

      In the summer of 2008, Rignot’s team measured salinity, temperature and current speeds near four calving fronts in three fjords in western Greenland.

      They calculated melting rates from this data.

      The underwater faces of the different glaciers retreated by between 0.7 and 3.9 metres each day, representing 20 times more ice than melts off the top of the glacier.

      “This creates ice overhangs that crumble into the sea,” said Paul Holland at the British Antarctic Society.

      “Warming water may also be unlocking ice from the seabed, removing the buttresses that stop inland ice sliding out to sea,” said Rignot.

      This is one way that warming oceans could be helping to shift Greenland’s ice off the land and out to sea.

      According to glaciologist Eric Steig at the University of Washington in Seattle, the importance of bottom-melting by warm ocean water was well-known in Antarctic glaciers.

      “But this is the first study to strongly indicate that it is occurring in Greenland too,” he said. (ANI)

      Remember a little fact in Antarctica West Antarctica same thing is happening and have they picked a new location for the New York stock exchange yet? Any ideas on ports Worldwide large sea guards should do the trick and the moon is made of green cheese.

      Fasten your safety belt’s we are in for a bumpy ride!

    3. Deadbeat said on February 16th, 2010 at 2:47pm #

      John Jensen writes

      [People] think about what to them is obviously good. They grow crops, travel to their place of work, operate the society, engage in recreation, and feed their family–good results that are the reason it’s so hard to correct problems.

      I don’t get it. I cannot see how you can write your commentary without any mention of Capitalism. People are indoctrinated. This indoctrination is deliberate so that people accept their oppression. The question is why do people have to go to work to earn a living? Is that freedom or is that slavery? The Capitalist mode of production is problem and you avoid analyzing that. In fact you make it seem “normal” when in fact what is needed is altering the context. You seem to want to do that but either you are not going far enough or would rather soft sell the issue which runs the risk of losing your audience.

      Also people are too pacified by trying to maintain a “middle class” lifestyle whereby debt is central to this pacification. This is why I suggest that the Left should radically from a debt repudiation movement. Recently the courts have been rubber stamping bank foreclosures on paid-in-full homes. However this movement should not be limited to “honest hard-working (read:white)” payers but to everyone — “deadbeats” especially. Only when there is solidarity around radical action will that get the attention of the ruling class.