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A Life Less Selfish. Plus, Do the Green Thing: My Video Chat with Andy Hobsbawm.

Picture credit:  minimouseaunt

Short of time? Skinny version here.

Once upon a time, a woman had a cow.

She put the cow on the village common to graze, after all, she was entitled to do so. That common was for everyone's benefit, so lots of families had their cow grazing there. The woman thought "Why not get another? I'll let that one graze too, and start growing my assets".

So she did, and her neighbours did the same, after all it's in their interest to increase their livestock numbers too.

They all got more and more cows and let them graze on the common. One day someone noticed its cow carrying capacity was under a lot of pressure.

Everyone had thought the increasing cow approach was a sensible strategy for those families able to capitalise on the "free" grazing. But some began to wonder how long the once lush common could sustain this excessive depletion and soon, the damage would be so great the common was ruined and no one could graze even a single cow.

Here's the problem:

The benefits of each individual cow went directly to the family who owned it and no one felt obliged to put anything back. Eventually everyone had to bear the loss.

This dilemma was described in a famous article called "Tragedy of the Commons" by the ecologist Garrett Hardin. He said if people act individually, thinking primarily of their own self interest, they will eventually destroy a shared limited resource, even though it is obvious this will be in no one's long term interest.

Ask Ari.

The ancient philosopher Aristotle (384 B.C.-322 B.C.) thought about this problem a very long time ago and said:

"For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few."

Have you heard of "the bystander effect"?

A young woman called Kitty Genovese was just a few feet from home when she was repeatedly stabbed by a random stranger. She managed to scream for help and stagger closer to her apartment block. She was attacked again, this time her injuries were fatal. This is a very sad story from New York City in the sixties. The newspapers later described how a large number of "respectable, law abiding people" had either heard or witnessed the attack, but none called the police at the time.

Psychologists studied this incident and set up experiments to determine why so many people failed to take appropriate action (the bystander effect).

They didn't discover a lack of empathy.

Instead, they found evidence that the more people who are around when a person seems to need assistance, the less chance of anyone actually helping. It seems there's a diffusion of responsibility, people generally assume someone else will report the incident, step in to help, or do what's necessary.

I hope we never witness violence like the stabbing of Kitty Genovese, though every minute of every day, people are subjected to all kinds of horrors. What I do hope is that we will find the courage to help others when we see a need. I don't just mean in extreme situations, I mean whenever we can.

Oh yea, that's a tall order.  If we're honest, it's a bloody inconvenience too but I think it's something good to aim for.

If we want a kinder, more sustainable, better world, we are all responsible for helping make that happen and I reckon we can!

The fantastic thing is that now, we are truly able to come together and do stuff in ways that were, until a very recently, impossible.

In the summer, I went to an event called Shift Happens 2.0 in York. I had chance to chat with Andy Hobsbawm from DoTheGreenThing.com. We talked about the unique time we are entering, that could make all the difference to how we live in the world. One of the things that came out of that chat was our need for us all to keep working together, taking action to create a better world, and encouraging others to do so too.

We can't wait for politicians or for other people to solve the big issues of our time, we must each shoulder some responsibility to act and make things better.

You know what? I reckon changing how we live can be really hard work.

Sometimes, it's a pain in the ass to change things.  I'm not joking when I say I struggle to form new, simple behaviours, like turning taps off sooner, let alone bigger changes needed to save our world! But all these small efforts add up, and we start wanting to do more and more.

Anyway, here's the video chat I did with Andy Hobsbaum, hope you find it useful.

Andy Hobsbawm from Reallygood Pictures on Vimeo.

Course, no leader has everyone's support, or is above accountability, but we do need leaders who understand and care about the big issues that demand urgent attention.  (Please see this link for some updated context on Andy's Obama references.)

I know, it feels like a ball ache when we think about changing how we live, tell me about it. 

The task seems so massive:  my little changes (even my big ones!) are so, so, so, minuscule in a world of billions of people, huge corporations, and political and economic structures ravaging our planet.  I'm not just talking about climate change.  In a way that's a symptom of a lack of caring, a shortage of kindness, and a poor sense of the way our selfishness, choices, and actions affect others.
As Tony Schwartz from the Energy Project says "We’re all in this together, and we literally can’t afford to act any longer as if we’re each free to pursue our self-interest with blinders on. The antidote is a higher level of awareness – the capacity to see the consequences of our actions over the long term and to make choices from that perspective rather than succumbing to our most primitive impulses.".

But a movement's started, it's gaining momentum, and we can be part of it.  Actually, we must be part of it or we are all up Sh** Creek. 

And I for one, don't want to end up like that woman with the cows.
Thanks very much for reading this post. I hope you found it useful. I'd love hearing what you think. Tell me what you think are the most encouraging signs we can turn things around?  What do you tell yourself to help you focus on making a positive difference?  See you in the comments.  Much love, Ian.

Your comments:

Jeena says:
15/10/2009 18:45:12

Hi Ian, Great read and I enjoyed the video thanks. I think that if people used less meat for each meal this could really help. It is far better buying quality lean meat a few times a week than a daily intake of fatty meat that has been raisied badly. This is one reason that I like to publish a lot of vegetable based recipes on my food journal as it is good for our health too. I think if more people adapted the 'little things' it could make a big difference. After all we are quite lucky compared to a lot of countries in the world, sometimes people do not realise how lucky they are. Maybe people need to think about others more to realise what they have and how to appreciate it better? more empathy? Just a thought anyway. :-)


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  • Ian AspinLocation: Lancaster Lake District, UK
  • Bio: I’m passionate about my work:TV journalist, producer, presenter, business ideas person. I care about: family, friends, helping people, finding meaning, running