Thursday, September 13, 2007

How to change the world in 5 easy steps

OK, they're not easy, and there's probably more than 20 steps, but the real story won't sell magazines. Now that you've gotten this far, read on if you still want to know how to change the world.

Why go here? Blogfish started something with comments on Carl Safina's conservation outreach to evangelical Christians. As a result, blogfish is now challenged on how to change the world. So here goes.

First note that we're talking big changes. It's not enough to get everyone to switch from green shoelaces to blue, we're talking big changes like the color of shoes. Maybe even shoes AND socks.

I think there are ways to try to change the world that have a better chance of success, and other ways that have a poor chance of success. What's the difference? I think a strategy with the essential focus of tearing something down is unlikely to make big gains. In contrast, a strategy that has the essential focus of building something has a better chance of making big gains.

I think people often try to change the world by tearing down a society that isn't what they like, and remake it in their image. That's got a building aspect, but it's mostly about tearing down our current culture and world, and in my view it won't work. Because people recognize the essential focus on tearing something down and don't like it.

In contrast, I think the right way to try to change the world is to try to build something better than we have now, without the need to tear down so much of what we have now. It will shine through to people as a gain, a benefit, and something worthy of the noble goals being pursued.

Hmmm...this violates all the rules of good blogging, where's the story here? OK, let's try an illustration.

Suppose you're living in a lousy house. Somebody comes along and says you should really tear that down and start over, and it'll take 2 years to finish. You ask what happens when it snows next winter and you're told, you'll shiver and suffer, but ultimately you'll be glad. I think the answer is mostly no thanks, we'll keep what we have.

Now suppose someone else comes along and offers to help you rebuild your lousy house without tearing the whole thing down. You may have some gaps and holes during rebuilding, but you'll never have to stand out in the cold.'ll always look like progress in the right direction. That's a much more attractive project.

So if you want to change the world, craft a plan that feels more like progress than steps backwards. Otherwise, you have the hard sell of convincing people to suffer. And who's going to say yeah, send some of that my way?


Kevin Zelnio said...

Can you give exampled of popular programs that have had success building upon old ideas or institutions?

Kate said...

I think it's more a case that with the house being rebuilt slowly over time there will be different types of suffering... maybe not as acute, but more prolonged. You can't very well rebuild the roof over one part of the house then come back and rebuild the other if the framing you're attaching it to is rotten. And if the very foundation is rotten, then you have a HUGE problem.

What we have here is an unwillingness of people to bite the bullet and do what needs to be done. It's like potholes in Buffalo... you can keep slapping patches on them, but people will keep loosing tires and axels until you tear up the road and rebuild it right.

ARE there EVER times when you can build thing up over a period of time? Well, yes... theoretically, But history has shown that humans need to hit the depths before they react, and that the most instrumental tool of social change has been revolution.

We've been trying to change the world through education and soft words for years. Maybe it's time for a more drastic approach? The problem is, as long as we continue to pull our punches, we're going to get hit in the face by those who are under no compunction to behave in the same civilized manner we espouce. That goes for science education, politics, global warming, and civil rights. Sooner or later we're going to have to admit that the rot has gone too far, and we have to deal with the discomfort of total reorganization.

Anonymous said...


In the context of religious faith, I would argue that the approach that PZ, Dawkins, etc. is taking is not to sell people on atheism by using an analogy such as "tearing a house down." Because this implies that people are loosing something that is actually important and worthwhile having. They are trying to show people that by letting go of dogmatic, superstitious faith, they are loosing nothing except dogmatic, superstitious faith which have acted as blinders their entire lives. And that as a newly converted non-religious person, they can enjoy the same pleasures and comforts as they formerly did (maybe even more so!). They are framing it not as a loss, but as a gain.

BTW, I've really been enjoying this debate.

Mark Powell said...

Kevin, Interesting question. Consider something near to you, our universities. In the 1960s, radical students wanted to remake the system. What happened? Their proposals were assimilated and we got things like gender studies classes and departments, etc. Universities morphed in response to pressure, the pressure was seeking revolution, the response was evolution, and the changes are popular.

Can you give an example of popular programs that weren't built upon old ideas or institutions?

Mark Powell said...

Dorid, I agree that humans need a "burning platform for change" to get active and change. Some collapse or crash or failure is necessary to force change. But people don't like to go downhill first before going uphill towards solutions, IMO. Dealing with managers and decision-makers like elected officials, they tend to be very cautious and incremental in their approach. Don't let frustration be your guide to making change, because it's a poor guide.

Mark Powell said...

Matthew, Thanks, glad you're having fun here. Critics of religion can frame giving it up as a gain, but how do people with religion feel about giving it up? That's more important than how critics frame it. If someone finds comfort in religion, do you really want to ask them to give up comfort? That's a tough thing to ask people to do. You can try, but realize you're asking a lot.

Anonymous said...

re: Mark

Well sure, that's the trick. But, there will never be one perfect frame so I think lots of frames should be tried. But yes, I would want them to give up that comfort and my argument would be that it is not needed, that comfort can be sought elsewhere. It may sound like pie in the sky to you, but again, I think there is room for experimentation with different frames. Honestly, I have more hope for children and young people than hardened adults, but I would still try... Regardless, one thing I will never do, is deceive or be dishonest about my intentions, and it is my opinion that there are some science bloggers out there that are doing exactly that.