Save the World, Quit Smoking

by Joe Brewer: environmental writer, cognitive scientist, co-founder of hivethrive blog, and agent for progressive social change

Wealth is about more than the size of your pocketbook. A better measure might be the size of your address book. Better still, the depth of bonds shared among the people listed there.

Our pop culture media is filled with imagery of wealth in the form of material stuff -- the latest gadgets, a slick new car, the mansion on the hill. Upon closer inspection, we can see that all this marketing carries another message:

Get all this stuff and people will like you.

The driving force behind our consumption culture is the need to be accepted and cared for. We don’t live in a “you’re on your own” world -- the people around us matter a great deal.

The power of social connections can be seen in a recent study about people who have quit smoking. Recently, an article in the New York Times reported that smokers quit in clusters. It is not a solitary effort.

Smokers tend to quit in groups, the study finds, which means smoking cessation programs should work best if they focus on groups rather than individuals. It also means that people may help many more than just themselves by quitting: quitting can have a ripple effect prompting an entire social network to break the habit.
This is the kind of phenomenon that causes social activists to perk up and pay attention. Simply changing one person’s behavior doesn’t get very far. But ripples… now that might transform the entire system. One of the researchers, James Fowler, commented on the social nature of the ripple:
As cluster after cluster of smokers disappeared, those that remained were pushed to the margins of society, isolated, with fewer friends, fewer social connections. “Smokers used to be the center of the party,” Dr. Fowler said, “but now they’ve become wallflowers.”
Herein lies a clue for community entrepreneurs. We can create a healthy food system and get off the commodity crop treadmill. We can build energy systems in harmony with nature and kick fossil fuels to the curb. But we can’t do it without addressing the web of relationships among people in our communities. The technologies that save the day may look more like Facebook and MySpace than hydrogen fuel cells and mutant algae (a “biofuel” under development that could be very bad indeed if ever it finds its way to the sea).

The conceptual shift is from direct to systemic causation. Simply thinking that Technofix A causes Societal Solution B is grossly inadequate. Instead, we need to think about the patterns and flows of human interaction. This can be seen with hydrogen fuel cells. Even if they were to work (something I have serious doubts about as a trained physicist and material scientist), we would still have the same transportation system. Our cities would still be clogged with cars. Our daily routines would be filled with long commutes from burb to city and back again. The system wouldn’t change.

Alternatively, if we direct future city development toward “downtown hubs” where residences are built near railways and buses, people can walk to work, and the streets they walk upon are lined with local markets filled with local products… well that would be a different system. And the social consequences are readily apparent.

Another researcher, Duncan Watts of Yahoo! research, articulates the point clearly:

“We tend to think of individuals as atomized units, and we think of policies as good or bad for individuals,” Dr. Watts said. “This reminds us that we are all connected to each other, and when we do something to one person, there are spillover effects.”
The need for new ways of thinking should be clear. Luckily, there are plenty of creative people out there leading the way. These researchers, whether they think of themselves this way or not, are entrepreneurs. Their work is likely to shift the focus of behavioral research away from the individual and toward the community. Shifting focus means shifting funding. Systemic causation again!

Kicking our oil addiction requires a similar shift in focus. We cannot pick on the individual actors - no matter how egregious actions from the ExxonMobils of the world happen to be - and expect to change the system. Instead, we must look for clusters of activity and find leverage points.

I am confident that the progressive community will find a way. Every new experience of success and insight only encourages me to do more. After all, I’m not alone.

Neither are you.

Add a comment
  • to get your picture next to your comment (not a member yet?).
  • Posted on June 3, 2008. Listed in:

    See other articles written by Joe »

    Pledge to do these related actions

    Wash dishes and clothes at night, 338°

    Running major appliances after sundown eases the stress on the grid. In cities like mine ...

    Help others, 243°

    Help the needy...

    Folow this related project

    Featured Companies & Orgs