23. July 2009 · 6 comments · Categories: advocacy

Here’s a simple parable for climate change:

A large group of kids has congregated out on the sidewalk in front of their school. It started with just a few friends, showing off their latest video game. But the crowd grew, and now completely blocks the sidewalk. A guy in a wheelchair wants to pass, but can’t. The kids are so wrapped up in their own interests that they don’t even notice that together they have completely blocked the sidewalk.

Further along the street there is a busy pub. The lunchtime crowd has spilled out on to the sidewalk, and now has become so big that again the sidewalk is blocked. When the guy in the wheelchair wants to pass, quite a few people in the crowd recognize the problem, and they try to squeeze out of the way. But individually, none of them can make much difference to the blockage – there are just too many people there. They shrug their shoulders and apologise to the guy in the wheelchair.

In both cases, the blockages are not caused by individuals, and cannot be solved by individuals. The blockage is an emergent property of the crowd of people as a whole, and only occurs when the crowd grows to a certain size. In the first case, the members of the crowd remain blissfully unaware of the problem. In the second case, many people do recognise the problem, but cannot, on their own, do much about it. It would take concerted, systematic action by everyone in the crowd to clear a suitable passage. Understanding the problem and wanting to do something about it is not sufficient to solve it – the entire crowd has to take coordinated action.

And if some members of the crowd are more like the kids, unable to recognise the problem, no solution is possible.


  1. Adrian Schroeter

    But still this doesn’t imply that the individual is powerless. To me your post kinda sounds like without some sort of organized effort there won’t be much we can do about it. But I still believe that the individual can make changes happen.

    Picking up on your pub example, if the first few people step aside they make way for the guy in the wheelchair and thus others in the crowed become aware that there is a problem with their current situation and enabling them to act.

    What I want to say is although our direct impact on the greater scheme of thing might by tiny but as soon as people pick up it becomes more like an avalanche that starts with a tiny pebble.

  2. Yes, this is true. I wanted to say the missing ingredient was “leadership”, but that doesn’t quite cover it. Successful examples that can be emulated are important (even without leadership).

    But if a significant subset of the crowd cannot recognize that there is a problem, no amount of “good examples” will help. Then coercion becomes necessary, with all the attendant problems about who gets to do the coercing, and who’s rights will get trampled.

  3. Nice parable.

    Gradually more people in the crowd will grow to know the situation.

    Eventually the entire crowd will feel the problem directly, but it may be too late for rational action, the crowd may then act irrationally.

    Disturbing to realize that the Pub owners might use deceit and denial when trying to keep the crowd assembled and doing business.

  4. Ah, yes. Those pub owners. The ones with the vested interest. I overlooked their role. They keep the pub crowd happy with lots of beer. And encourage them to stay for another. They kinda know they’re causing a problem, but, hey, it’s great for business…

  5. Adrian Schroeter

    So it seems the problem is not big enough or in the case of climate change the people don’t need to face the consequences right away, to realize that in the end they kill their own business.

  6. The blind business chant goes something like “We are making piles of money, won’t pay taxes, don’t care about any consequences, and don’t get in our way”. While this may be a financial delusion, it runs much deeper.

    Psychologist Alison Wiley in her blog Diamond-Cut Life says “the remaining naysayers not motivated by profit have a psychiatric condition called oppositional defiant disorder (ODD).”

    “People with ODD will go to incredible lengths to oppose and resist what they don’t like, oblivious to reason or to the consequences of their actions, or inactions…adults who exhibit these behaviors and thought patterns are in a state of arrested development, and haven’t yet grown up.”

    from http://www.diamondcutlife.org/ the-psychology-of-naysayers-on-global-warming/

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