Estimating the size of global problems

I wrote a comment on Tumblr a couple days ago, on a thread about the lack of media coverage of Bernie Sanders. Here's the whole thread, but there's a point at the bottom that I've been thinking about all day, and I want to expand on it.

There probably/definitely is some conspiring going on in parts of the industry, but I’m betting most of [the poor coverage of Bernie Sanders] is the organic consequence of the culture of journalism today and the awareness or fear that those conspiracies exist and might threaten one’s credibility, employability, and livelihood.

This is an important point to me because I think it’s important to stay aware that the media, like many industries, is full of potentially-good people reacting to threats and pressures, meaning some effective top-level reforms could free them to be the reporters they once imagined they could be.


It's really incredibly easy to think of people as being good or bad, for us or against us, part of the solution or part of the problem. And that's not always a terrible way to look at things -- the last one, especially, highlights the reality that we're all living with unconscious prejudices we have to identify and unlearn. But this point, about people afraid to act, is one I've been thinking about a lot as an activist.

There are people -- I believe a huge number of people -- who have a solid internal moral compass, and know what they'd prefer to choose to do, ethically. But every day, to protect their livelihoods, they make a different choice, and do things they'd rather not do, because starvation and imprisonment doesn't sound like a good time.

I believe that all those people have a tipping point. For some, it's a tiny nudge, for others it might be a complete re-configuring of society. Some people may just need to feel confident they can pay off their student loans. Others may be willfully resisting becoming aware of truths that might make them hate themselves for doing the work they do. But I believe that for most people, the choice not to fight for social justice is not about real ideological disagreement; it's about fear of the consequences.

If you want to discuss the minutiae of ideological disagreement I'd be happy to get into it, but the broad point is nobody wants to see everybody suffer if they can avoid it. Even hardcore Ayn Rand devoted objectivists justify their "Screw you, I've got mine" approach not on the basis that other people's wellbeing actually doesn't matter, but the belief that a socialist approach to human wellbeing is doomed to fail. That's fear. Fear that trying to make things better is bound to make them worse.


The way the mind naturally flows to passively viewing these folks is with a certain amount of contempt. If you're an activist, and you're thinking of someone who does less activism than you, I expect you probably think it through and respond kindly and with understanding, but when you do the quick mental math that happens in the corner of your brain where you're not really looking right now, what you get is

My activism - their activism = positive sum; Therefore me > them

This shorthand is super-easy to resist when that's the only problem you're trying to solve. "Am I better than this person? No, obviously not. Human worth is not calculable in terms of measures of perceived activism."

But I think it sneaks in sometimes when we think about bigger problems. When we think of the unimaginable scale of problems like climate change, racism, misogyny, worker exploitation, and we try and wrap our heads around it --

I'm going to stop saying "we" now, because I'm not reading your mind.

When think about problems of that scale, what usually happens is my brain makes a rough calculation of how hard it's going to be. It goes something like

(People in favor) * (institutions supporting reform) - (people opposed) * (institutions supporting status quo) = an extraordinarily large negative number that reflects the degree of resistance I expect the movement to meet

But when that equation is spread out, the (people in favor) ... - (people opposed) part is the same equation as above, and it suggests that the majority of the people in the world are actually committed to, or at least are perfectly indifferent to, human suffering, and need to be convinced individually that, on whatever individual issue, the wellbeing of the relevant people matters.

Obviously, that's not really true. A lot of people may not realize there's a problem, and will turn their behavior around as soon as they see it and work to support the wellbeing of others whatever way they can, and a lot of other people may just be waiting for the ethical option to be made safe enough that they can take it without risking their livelihoods.


It's hard work coming up with a mental shorthand that gives me an approximate impression of how difficult any given social justice movement should be, given the expectation that people are basically not evil. I think it'd have to be different for each separate thing. Like, the equation for raising the minimum wage to a living wage should probably turn out something really simple, because most people are convinced as soon as they really understand just how little $7.25/hr is. The equation for ending factory farming might be a lot closer to the first approximation, because not everyone is quite as prepped to extend empathy to animals as well as humans. But maybe I'm totally wrong about that. Maybe it's the opposite.

What I've come to understand and believe is that it's not worth trying to do the math. Huge, global problems seem unfathomably hard. It's my general impression that they're pretty much always a lot easier to solve than they look, and that there's a lot of support just waiting for better weather.

Instead, I think it's worthwhile to just assume that every big problem is solvable within my lifetime, and act accordingly. The worst case scenario there is that I'll accidentally help chip away at some problems that would have seemed too scary to even look at if my projections were more refined.