For Big Problems, Small Solutions

The logic of largeness devalues the personal when it comes to making a difference.

| Winter 2016


The logic of bigness devalues anything that seemingly could not have much of a macrocosmic effect on the world.

Photo by Alavlon Studio/iStock

Let me present a logic that has immersed me ever since I became aware of the state of the planet as a teenager: The world has some big problems right now. The crisis is urgent. There is no time to indulge in small, insignificant solutions that will be swept away by the tsunami of climate change, economic meltdown, nuclear holocaust, resource-scarcity fueled wars, and so forth. We need big solutions to big problems. Therefore, whatever you do on a local level, you’d better make sure it is scalable. You’d better make sure it can go viral, because otherwise its impact will be trivial.

Contained within this logic is an implicit hierarchy that values the contributions of some people—and some kinds of people—more than others. It values the activities of people who have a big reach, a big platform, a loud voice, or the money or institutional power to affect thousands or millions of people. That valuation is, you may notice, nearly identical to the dominant culture’s allocation of status and power—a fact that should give us pause.

The logic of bigness devalues the grandmother spending all day with her granddaughter, the gardener restoring just one small corner of earth to health, the activist working to free one orca from captivity. It devalues anything that seemingly could not have much of a macrocosmic effect on the world. It devalues the feminine, the intimate, the personal, and the quiet. It devalues the very same things that global capitalism, patriarchy, and technology have devalued.

Yet the logic seems indubitable. Certainly my message will have a bigger effect if a million people hear it than a thousand, or one, or none at all? Certainly, if the gardener puts a video of her soil regeneration project on social media, it will have a much greater potential impact than if she practices it invisibly on her small piece of land? Because if no one finds out about it, it will affect only a few square meters of soil, and nothing more. Right?

Here we come to what some call the “theory of change” that underlies the ambition to do a big thing, to scale it up, to reach millions. At its root it is a Newtonian cosmology that says that change happens only when a force is exerted upon a mass. As a single individual, the amount of force you have at your disposal is quite limited. But if you can coordinate the actions of millions of people, perhaps by becoming a president or a pundit, or by having lots of money, then your power as a change agent is magnified as well. Thus we sometimes see an ambitiousness among NGOs and activists that eerily mirrors that of CEOs and celebrities: a race to compete for funding, for members, for Facebook likes, for mailing lists, for consumer attention.

A force-based causality in which bigger is necessarily better is a recipe for despair, paralysis, and burnout among those seeking social and ecological justice in the world. For one thing, the ruling elites who are wedded to the status quo have far more force-based power—more money, more guns, and through concentration of media a much bigger voice—than any activist organization ever could. In a contest of force, we lose. Furthermore, when we buy into bigger-is-better, most of us must live with the disheartening knowledge that we are smaller-and-worse. How many of us can have a big voice that reaches millions? By necessity, very few.