But what can I do?

Recommended behaviour to make society better is to think, then act

February 6, 2020 — November 6, 2022

Assumed audience:

People who want to make the world better but feel overwhelmed by working out how

Figure 1: “Death equalises sceptres and hoes”

Many people feel that civilisation as we know it is under severe or even existential threat and that they are powerless to prevent it. I agree with the first part of that statement, but not the second.

I do not have much time to write this out at length at the moment, but I suggest humbly that lazily succumbing to the sense of powerlessness is itself very dangerous and could yet kill us all.

And it is a kind of error in moral calculations that I think of as a starfish problem.

What we (and I will restrict my attention to Australia, the polity I feel competent to comment upon) can do is simple and powerful. We mobilise each other to accept nothing but a better society, and we apply actual leverage to the levers of power to achieve that better society.

This is all that has ever worked. And it is enough. I do not mean this is a hokey Care-Bears way, as a feel-good platitude. This is not “believe in yourself and whack it on the vision board” stuff. I mean this in a hard-nosed data-led fashion: Uniting people to make stuff better is what makes stuff better. (TODO: actually present evidence).

The question is —

1 But how can I do that?

For the sake of concreteness when I need specific examples, I focus here on the cause of moderating and adapting to climate change risks. You can inject many other causes here if you wish; war, disease, domestic violence, starvation, the collapse of the education system, animal wellbeing, political polarisation, killer robots…

Here is my smoking hot list of things that I think make it better, from easy things for beginners to start with, through to hard things that begin to require expertise. This is a contextual list. The basic idea is: find stuff that is not being done enough right now and do more of it. Or better yet, encourage many other people do more of it. When/if enough is being done, switch to a different thing.

Easy to say, hard to do.

Maybe you are freaking out right now and just want to do something so you can feel some agency. In that case a no-terrible way of starting might be a list like this: I’m freaking out about the climate—what can I do?.

But let us suppose you want to get hands-on with your deciding. Perhaps the ClearerThinking.org tool might be helpful: Leaving Your Mark on The World

Too much of a time investment? Read on for some advice. If you have particular skills though, maybe you can do something that make use of those specific skills.

2 Contribute to organisations who make it better

This one is real easy. If you have limited energy or experience, start here and leverage someone else’s experience.

2.1 Give good organisations money

Donate to an organisation with a credible plan to make things better. Donate publicly, and commit to donating more. If you have any spare money, this is a good thing to do. Prefer recurring donations to one-off donations. Organisations that spend their time on one-off donations need to spend more of their time pleading for new donations. You do not want that, you want them to get to work saving you. Here are some organisation I donate to. If this is the only way you can help the world, it is a noble one. We call that earning to give.

2.2 Volunteer your time

Also, you might consider volunteering skills, if you have some that are high value. I am putting this second because it is harder and more complicated. Volunteering works best when it is treated like work that just happens to be done pro-bono. Like paid work, everyone’s probably going to have a better time with clear job descriptions, agreed time commitment levels. Regular check-ins and feedback to improve the quality of the work over time. Arranging to manage this well also takes work and resources, so don’t be surprised if an under-staffed or under-resourced organisation struggles to accomodate your specific volunteering preferences. (Maybe you could donate them some money to help with that.) If you treat your volunteer job-hunting like a real job-hunt, you’ve got a better chance of finding a good fit for your skills and interests. And if you’re lucky enough to find an organisation that treats its volunteers like workers who happen to be pro-bono - with job descriptions, interviews, etc, they will probably be well placed to treat your time with the respect it deserves.

If that is not the situation you face, donating money is better.. You are already good at your job, but you are not necessarily good at being, e.g. political campaigner, so take that sweet money from being good at your job and give it to someone who is better at campaigning so they can resource their projects and turn that money into change.

2.3 Which organisation?

It should be an organisation that seems to consider their strategy — not one who just does media stunts that make us feel like our money went somewhere useful. We want organisations that do more than colour and movement and telling people off. We want organisations that have a proven track record in winning diverse communities to the side of what we really want. Much has been written on this choice, but I tend to think that community-building and lobbying organisations are the best investment. Community building is a force multiplier that helps other things get started. Lobbying is where the rubber hits the road, and politicians get the message. That is the actual work we need done. But both these things are not as sexy or attention grabbing as media stunts, so we tend to overlook them in favour of media-focussed organisations.

Donate to organisations that expand the dialogue, that help others do the same, or which can bend the political apparatus to their will

🏗 here is a brief screed on donating to politics that I wrote for some former colleagues, who were discussing how to make a difference to climate campaigns in particular.

At the meeting today I was espousing this essay about US politics: Too much Dark Money in Almonds.

The main point of this essay is that even in their system, which has much more dark money than ours, it is cheap to buy an election, and industry decisions worth billions are decided by a million bucks here and there. Indeed, as we saw in Australia, Clive Palmer exercised massive influence in the last election by spending $60 million, or about $4 per voter. What a bargain! Or, to turn that around, we can exert as much influence as Clive Palmer cheaply. If we could persuade 5% of Australian voters that they should donate $1000 towards their favourite NGO or political party each year, we could absolutely be setting the agenda. Whilst giving money to causes does not bring the same satisfaction as turning up in person to a protest, it is possibly the most urgent thing we can do. $1000 is not much money for some amongst us. And other amounts are OK too 😉.

I would go further and say that donating to political movements is likely to be lot more important than certain ethical consumption choices typically are, at least expensive ones. For ethical consumption choices where we pay more for a less polluting product it is typically (I assume) because we hope there will be a force multiplier to that choice by demonstrating a demand for the more planet-compatible product, not because we hope a biodegradable toothbrush will save the earth; I suspect that typically a bigger force multiplier would be funding determined lobbyists to lobby hard for a consistent and strong industry policy to make the non-polluting option affordable and profitable for everyone rather than making it a private choice for people with the time and spare income to make these choices.

Your favourite political party would also be very reasonable recipient. If you donate to a party make sure to tell them you are donating because of climate, and maybe even join properly so you can put the pressure on in branch meetings.

I will tidy that up and add supporting evidence one day.

For now, here are two very interesting position pieces on where you dollar goes farthest in one particular issue of note: climate change.

Organisations that are large enough to have a well-honed volunteer onboarding for generic actions are few in Australia. Here are a couple; my listing them here is not endorsement as such; they are the ones who are big enough to be a safe bet for directing some volunteer energy. Also, I would welcome good suggestions for other organisations.

There might be groups that work to mobilise your particular demographic that might be worth getting in touch with e.g. Australian Parents for Climate Action or Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action. There are more listed under this helpful link: I’m freaking out about the climate—what can I do?

3 Support a campaigner

Next level up, support a campaigner. I am not a campaigner. But I know several. You probably do to, but maybe you have forgotten because it has been so hard to get them around for dinner lately.

These are highly-skilled, in-demand people, who work long hours in a thankless job at great personal cost, so that the rest of us can live our lives in comfort at their expense. That pressure erodes their social connections and their friend networks, because they are out late at night working on campaigns instead of drinking down the pub. This means that they don’t get to benefit from the society they are saving, and don’t get to call on as many favours from friends when time gets rough, because in the cruel accounting of human friendships, we fail to rate great altruism highly,

There seem to me to be many things that can be helpful in nourishing a high-achieving campaigner and keep them at tip-top performance

  1. Cut campaigners some slack. They are still your friend, even if they have to demonstrate it through electoral politics. If they don’t return your calls at election time, make sure to keep inviting them to things after the next election is over. They still need friends.
  2. Do campaigners time-saving favours and do not expect anything back, except the work they are already doing to save our bacon. The hours they get to spend in the trenches help us all. Free them up by helping them move house, or cook them dinner or something.
  3. Thank your campaigner friend, while you are dropping by with that dinner.

4 Make friends

OK, the next level up is still not that hard. Persuade people to make common cause with you in creating a better society.

How, you say? Absolutely the best way is to make friends. Not joking, this is a very powerful thing to do and we systematically underestimate how important it is.

In particular, if you make friends outside your usual circle you are piercing the epistemic community and letting opinions flow between people who might otherwise not talk. Polarisation is the Achilles heel of democracies, and fixing that helps us get better at fixing everything else.

Do you have a school friend you’ve lost touch with in a town you don’t normally visit? Waiting for an excuse to talk to the family who owns the local delicatessen? These people might be in political bubbles different to your own political bubble, and talking to them is a way to bring your political bubbles together; that makes both your bubble bigger.

And wait—this bit is important—I mean, genuinely make friends. People aren’t just pieces on a political chess board, they are also human beings and they might just have opinions that you haven’t heard before. The best way to persuade someone of your opinion is to listen to theirs. And the best way to listen is open-heartedly, to another human being who you respect and who has their opinions for real reasons, and whose opinions might teach you something.

People find it cognitively challenging to work out what persuades others, especially ones who are not in their already-persuaded social circle. How about this simple introduction to how persuasion work for a first step? Climate action for absolute beginners. A good rule of thumb is don’t panic or judge, but listen and invite people to work with you towards better things. Pushing panic is rarely an effective persuasion strategy.

Plus, as a bonus, by meeting more people in your community, you build a more resilient community. These are the people who have your back in a crisis and help you to adapt to disaster. There is something in this for you too.

5 OK, how about taking it pro?

Made friends? Had your opinions challenged? Opened up some dialogue? Persuaded people that things need to change? Maybe it is time to start organising a more formal network of people who are happy to work together. Become a community leader! Go to council meetings! Invite politicians to paintball! Have actual fun outside your circle.

What has always worked, and what works still, is the simple act of organising: working together to build a person-to-person, outwards-facing, exponentially-spreading movement to demand a better society. What works to make the world better is converting people to convert other people. This involves more than merely demonstrating to your friends how fancy and righteous you are. The real action persuades strangers to be righteous. It supports persuading strangers to persuade other strangers. Being a productive member of civil society is out of scope for this little note, but I reckon this is not rocket science. If you want to be a community organiser, there are resources out there.

6 When?

Now. Right now. These links are clickable. Fill out the forms, visit the websites, find some action that you can do and start it off.

7 But this stuff won’t make a difference

Yes, it will.

It might feel painfully indirect, and it might not be as satisfying as marching in the streets, but it is incredibly important and systematically undervalued. It is time to start valuing the everyday heroism of conquering the normal fears and laziness keep us divided against each other. It is time to value the small battle of persuading just one person to join us in fixing shit.

Maybe we find the work of making a better society unglamorous because it is not what we see in the movies. We want a Hollywood moment, a lone hero against the world who saves the day and gets the girl/boy/other. But looking at history, Hollywood solutions where one person rises up with a magic sword and laser goggles and purity of heart to save the day, they have never been the tools of change.

If you are still skeptical about the world-saving benefits of donating money and making friends across social divides — ask yourself while the interests of entrenched power work so hard to exploit divisions? Why do the powerful seek to turn the people against one another if their unity is worth so little?

OK, that is my agenda. I advocate roping as much of society into a common network of mutual good as possible. I do note that I do not know exactly the details of what common good might be, but I feel that if it is good that we work out with the greatest number of us doing our best to find it in the best possible way, it would be the best possible good.

Here is a youtube playlist wherein I dump thoughts in this vein.

8 OK, how about some other ideas?

Alright that is not all that can be done. Maybe if you have special skills, or intend to acquire them, you can do more advanced stuff. Here are some ideas that I am interested in.

8.1 Fix the media

One obvious way might be to subscribe to and advocate independent journalism, or if you are fancy, experimental journalism. I suspect that powering up independent journalism has a high multiplier effect.

How do we hold power to account? One step is the press. The media landscape in Australia is not diverse or good at holding power to account. One reason for that might be that the media owned by a small number of oligarchs who would like to media to do as little possible work towards holding them to account, while still appearing credible. I would recommend subscribing with cash money to support independent journalism. Here are some non-oligarchic sources for Australia who also have reasonable journalistic ethics The Guardian, Crikey, Schwartz Media. 1

I would welcome also ideas on more foundational fixes to journalism.

8.2 Ethical consumption is probably low leverage

Figure 4: We don’t all have time or money for artisanal biodynamic flower milk

Giving up meat? Refusing microplastics? Maybe society needs to do those things. But the causal connection between what I buy at the supermarket what society consumes at large is complicated indirect. It is not at all clear that personal consumption choices are the most effective way to influence societal consumption choices.

Is it better spending 1 hour researching and using vegan alternatives to your preferred hamburger, or 1 hour freelancing to donate more money to an animal charity? That kind of calculus is murky.

I suspect that in general ethical consumption strategies have low leverage.

Feel free to give up meat or microplastics or whatever if you would like (I have given up various things), but generally, these are not likely to be the most efficient or effective ways to make a difference. See ethical consumption.

9 Still not inspired?

Remember those links from the top?

Other suggestions welcome.

10 References


  1. I would appreciate some more sources; now that Crikey has veered to the left these are getting politically homogenous, which is indicative that I need to rethink this for the Australian context.↩︎