turn away, one by one, community by community

We start out in families, neighborhoods, communities. We feel like people have some agency. In those early-life small groupings we see significant things happening, meaningful decisions being made, ideas and behaviors having impact.

Then we grow up into the world of mass society.

We tend to retain the sensibilities of agency and community.

In our created households and even, maybe, at work, significant things happen, meaningful decisions are made, ideas and behaviors have impact. But in regard to the macro context of our lives, the broad society as a whole, sensibilities of agency and community are delusional.

* * * *

“I think we can do better.”

“I have ideas for doing better.” (or: “I subscribe to ideas I’ve heard that could make things better.”)


* The typical middle-class or richer resident in the developed world is a pretty privileged person, all things considered, who could be doing tremendous good in the world by being somewhat more charitable.

* An extremely large share of philanthropy goes to causes that cannot be even remotely described as maximizing benefit for humanity. If society were inclined to demand just a little bit of rigor in terms of “why are you supporting this?” we could unlock a lot of good.

* Direct cash transfers to the poorest people in the world seem like a good cause with scaling potential; there also appear to be several interventions related to health and nutrition that are even more valuable at the margin than cash.

* There is a lot of animal suffering in the world that could be remediated with regulations that are not too costly. There are also some promising research lines that might be able to massively reduce animal suffering if we invest in them.

* Improving biotechnology is greatly increasing the risk of engineered pandemics, and we ought to be doing more to block those risks.

* More speculatively, AI is progressing very rapidly, with the research mostly done by for-profit companies whose main interest is in ad sales and by Chinese firms who are trying to entrench the power of a tyrannical regime. Neither group is particularly attentive to the risks involved in this research, and we should try to promote both workable regulatory controls and more responsible research programs.

* There are a number of important U.S. policy areas that are relatively neglected by mainstream U.S. political advocacy spending, including housing supply production, international labor mobility, and macroeconomic stabilization.

Matthew has given a lot of thought to these issues. He feels as if he can influence policies.

There are policies. There are people who propose, people who influence, people who implement policies. The policies do affect the fate of individuals and of our collective.

“we could unlock a lot of good”
“if we invest in them”
“we ought to be doing more to block those risks”
“we should try to promote both workable regulatory controls and more responsible research programs”

But in modern mass society the collective is not a community.

It’s a collection of a for-all-intents-and-purposes infinite number of disparate groups, infinite number of atomized individuals, infinite number of random forces.

There’s no cohesion, no coherence. There is contingent temporary agency that has some contingent effect. The effect might last a while and affect some or many people for a while. But there’s little you can do about it and it’s not significant in the long run, anyway.

It’s natural to feel as if we have agency and operate within some kind of community. It’s hard to fully grasp that such sensibilities are actually ludicrous.

We are not prone to comprehend about scale. To vote in a school board election where the outcome might be 632 to 489 is one thing. To cast one vote among 150 million in a national election is ludicrous. At that scale the idea that “we are going to the polls to make a significant decision” is ludicrous. Yes, there is an outcome. It’s contingent. The effect might last a while and affect some or many people for a while but there’s little you can do about it and it’s not significant in the long run, anyway.

The scale is not in any way communitarian. The scale is insane. No one has significant (enduring) agency within it. It’s a crazy zoo of randomized forces.

It does have trajectories. Absent predators, the population of the species will grow. The impact of the species (human “development”) will extend. Until it over-extends.

But thought up and implemented policies are not significant in any enduring way.

And so the agency-deluded and the policy thinker-uppers wind up frustrated. Movements for change wind up frustrated.

The only movement that could amount to much in the long run would be a movement to Forget About It All … “it all” being the zoo of mass society. Recognize that it can’t be affected in any enduring way. Turn away. Cultivate sanity. Human scale localism. Real community … a locus of potentially significant personal agency … a locus of potentially significant personal satisfaction.

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Steven Welzer

The editor of Green Horizon Magazine, Steve has been a movement activist for many years (he was an original co-editor of DSA’s “Ecosocialist Review”).