How the global 1% gets distracted by low-impact activism

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Imagine two different types of carpet:

Carpet 1 is filthy, dirty, torn up and has stains everywhere.

Carpet 2 is nearly pristine with the exception of a single red wine stain.

It’s easy to see why we’re naturally wanting to clean up Carpet 2. With a small amount of effort, we can take something that’s imperfect and bring it back to a near perfect state. There’s a sense of accomplishment in restoring order out of chaos.

We can also see why we’d rather not think about Carpet 1. Even with a lot of effort, maybe even all of our effort, we’ll never be able to get it to look like Carpet 2. We could spend hours investing in one tiny corner of Carpet 1 and still experience almost no sense of accomplishment.

This is a metaphor for our desire to shy away from extreme poverty and solely focus on issues that affect us, living in the top 1% of the world (for reference, anyone making $34,000/year lives in the global 1%).

It’s feels good to work on issues that only affect us (like school shootings and college debt) because there’s a good chance we can resolve these issues to a satisfying degree.

And, of course, working on these one-percenter issues isn’t necessarily bad. It’s usually good! But perhaps working on them might be an inefficient use of our energy.

I would like to suggest that we have a healthy discussion reassessing how we can best distribute our activism efforts. Because the brutal reality is we’re not talking about stains on a carpet. We’re talking about human beings. And what higher calling could there be than to maximize our efforts to help our fellow human beings?

Think about it like this. Each year we have a certain amount of energy that can be devoted towards activism. Just to pick a number, let’s say the average American has the capacity to devote 2 hours a week towards activism. Given that we have a finite amount of time to offer, it would make sense for both ourselves and those we want to help, to use that time in the most effective way possible. So, for example, we could choose between marching through the streets of DC to protest a corrupt political system or we could use that same amount of time to raise funds for bed nets to bring the malaria rate down in a rural African village.

Both of these have the potential to affect positive change. But only the latter will produce a significant reduction in actual human suffering. And, while this is undeniably true, it’s often the former problem that get’s the most attention. This is because a one-percenter problem appears prominently in our flourishing society, just as a red wine stain appears prominently against a white carpet. Meanwhile, the more severe malaria-related problem is swallowed up by a backdrop of many other complicated issues, just like any singular stain found on the very dirty carpet.

So, I am proposing that we reconsider how to best help our fellow human. Instead of attending to the issues that are most prominently featured, what if we attended to the one’s where the greatest impact can be made?

Of course the white carpet with a red stain needs attention. But plenty of other people are attending to that problem. Instead, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work where our efforts will produce the greatest result: the dirty carpet that no one wants to touch.

“We forget: In life, it doesn’t matter what happens to you or where you came from. It matters what you do with what happens and what you’ve been given.” -Ryan Holiday