Monday, November 11, 2013

Things Never to Doubt

Yesterday I was leading a Sunday school discussion of environmental justice. A social worker pointed out the high incidence of cancer in neighbors of the industrial area known as Rubbertown in west Louisville. Others brought up radiation poisoning in Afghanistan from U.S. weapons, the problem of products (classically, lead paint, asbestos, and DDT) becoming widely used before their dangers are known, the deregulation pressure from industries that profit from pollution, the difficulty of knowing the sources of what we purchase.

Everyone was concerned; everyone felt helpless. What we knew, based on Scripture’s many calls to justice, was that the poor should not bear the burden of pollution in their bodies so that consumers can enjoy cheap products and investors can increase wealth they don’t need.

This is a group of caring Christians who get it. And yet, as we talked, frustrations bristled. We know ourselves to be caught in webs of environmental injustice. We suspect that our awareness of this only scratches the surface of our unintended compliance.

Dr. Kristen Shrader-Frechette has become my go-to-guru on environmental toxins. She is a public health and environmental ethicist who teaches both biology and philosophy at Notre Dame University and directs the Center for Environmental Justice and Children’s Health. In her 2007 book Taking Action, Saving Lives: Our Duties to Protect Environmental and Public Health, she lays out the daunting health statistics linked to industrial pollutants. Then she makes the personal connection: People who enjoy benefits from what causes illness and death to others have a moral responsibility to demand better of our government and our corporations. We can’t think of it as charity, but as the price we pay for the products we use.

She advocates a small-wins approach: taking the time to become informed, and working with others to plan and carry out sustained efforts for incremental change. Seeing small successes builds resilience in citizens, confidence that we can change the way things are, she says. Citizen groups in the past have changed both laws and practices regarding DDT, ozone-layer-destroying CFCs, and the particulate air pollution that once engulfed our cities. We can influence the future.

In graduate school long ago I read about “the anxiety of influence”—that is, the worry among poets and other artists that their work is derivative, not original, influenced by predecessors whose work they can never outclass, as if anything under the sun could be truly original.

But this is a different anxiety of influence: how can we, individuals in a sea of seven billion others, hope to create a world in which we can make confident choices, or even dress ourselves and drive to buy a tube of toothpaste without fretting over—or closing our eyes to—the sources of the clothes, the car, the petroleum, the toothpaste and the tube? No wonder we are anxious; no wonder we throw up our hands, block it all out, and watch TV.

I’ve thought a great deal about this problem of influence. What good does it do, on any
meaningful scale, if I meticulously minimize my purchasing, recycle the endless stream of containers, ride my bike to the store in secondhand shoes, mix my own cleaning products, teach classes, and attend Sierra Club rallies, if I am not at all sure I can influence those closest to me, let alone the U. S. government and a hundred powerful corporations?

Sitting in church pondering these questions, I remembered something else from graduate school—in fact, I had written my dissertation on this very thing: The power in influence is not in its exertion, but in its appropriation by others.

The energy in the “influence exchange,” we might say, is not in the influencer, but in the ones who notice what someone else is saying and doing. Humans are chronic imitators and derivers. We are all looking for a better way, and we look to one another for models. By the time we notice that we’ve changed, we may be unable to trace the sources. In fact, we may not even notice that our perspective has shifted, along with our actions, since the influence is not experienced as pressure from without, but as inspiration from within.

That’s why we rarely feel effective as change agents. We rarely see the extent of what we’ve wrought in others. How many times have I heard students echoing my exact words months later as if they had thought them up themselves? How many times have they echoed these same words when I wasn’t there to hear them?

In their book The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government (whose title is almost longer than the book itself), Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer claim that individuals possess far more influence than we know. They say, and demonstrate, that “society becomes how you behave”:

From the quantum level up, we are far more interdependent than our politics and culture generally let us think. We are at all times both cause and effect. Our mirror neurons and evolved social rites mean that how we behave influences how others behave, and how they behave influences us (34).

Small acts, tiny everyday choices, accrue and compound into tipping points.... Tiny acts of responsibility are replicated, scale upon scale, and thus every act is inherently an act of leadership—either in a pro-social or anti-social way (61-62).

These are hopeful words. So why don’t we feel effective? I think it is because the influence we notice is rarely what we ourselves generate. Rather, it’s what we receive.

When the woman touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, he said, “Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me, " as if he were surprised (Luke 8:46). Didn't he know power was going out with every word and deed? Perhaps not. His job was only to carry out his calling with integrity. So is ours. He didn't give up, hopeless as his tasks of healing, teaching, and leading seemed. And because of this, his influence has changed the world for another sixty generations since he last said, "It is finished."

“Never doubt,” said Margaret Mead so famously. “Never doubt.” It bears repeating: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

And, added Reinhold Niebuhr, “nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope.” 

We don’t get to see the sequoias we plant grow old. But someone else will. If we go ahead and plant them, that is.


  1. Thanks for passing on these words of reassurance. As a small church Teaching Elder, I sometimes wonder what, if any, influence I may be having. Yet, as you have experienced, I sometimes hear my words come back to me later as if they were original to the speaker.
    Such is the case with our growing, blooming Creation Care ministry hear ar FPC E-town (now in our 3rd year of Certification as an Earth Care congregation!) Now where, people are beginning to ask, did this idea originate?
    Your blog piece put me in mind of a line from the opening scene of the movie "Contact." Young Ellie, rapidly spinning the dial on her new HAM radio, was having difficulty finding a frequency on which to connect with anyone. Her father came in and and gave her some advice that became important to her all through her life ( and thereafter mine as well!) "Small moves, Ellie," he said, "small moves." A growing mass of "small moves" becomes an avalanche of change.

    1. That's a great story, Skip! Thanks for offering it!