Over the past couple years, I’ve gone to a number of film festivals. In this time, I’ve seen a good number of documentaries about important topics. Some of those topics range from food insecurity in the United States (see the above hungry girl in Finding North), to a critique of the fee-for-services system of health care delivery that we have in this country (Escape Fire), to attempts to portray the urgency presented by climate change in the form of photographic change of glaciers (Chasing Ice).
Many of these documentaries about huge problems in our world have an advocacy section to them. “What can the viewer do now that they have this awareness of a huge problem that impacts our daily lives?” (Last Call at the Oasis was a notable offender in this regard.) They can donate to the causes that are currently attempting to spread awareness, sure. But how can the viewer actually do something to change the huge problems that we have in this world? The truth can be rather depressing: almost nothing.
I think that there is a real tension between being aware and being able to change some of the larger problems that surround us. None of us, no matter how little water we use, are going to stop water availability from being THE crucial issue in the western united states in less than two decades.
And yet, despite how much I talk about how little an individual can do to change the big problems before us, it is also a truish that the answer is NOT “nothing.” The little things that we do, the changes in our consumption behavior, talking about the issues with our friends, blogging about the issues, or even just alluding to them, these little things we do matter. It might not be very much, but hey.
A related problem with all of this discussion is necessarily a question of agency. How much control do we have over our environment, our lives, who are friends are, etc.? I would say that answer can also be depressing: much less than we like to think. As Michael Lewis said in a recent commencement speech to Princeton graduates:
My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either.
So our successes and misfortunes are overwhelmingly determined by luck. Our environment, the wealth of our parents, the intellectual prowess and training that we received, all of these factors and more are entirely outside of individual control. It would seem as though we have nearly nothing that we can control for ourselves.
Despite how nearly overwhelming this lack of real agency is, there is another truth: we are not entirely without agency. Though we don’t have much control over our lives, we individuals definitely have control over SOMETHING. I can choose, for instance, whether I want to exercise tonight, or whether I write this post, or whether I open myself to certain opportunities that might benefit me in future career decisions. In short, if we are successful and if we manage to create something so wonderful as a photographic representation of climate change we owe almost all of that success to luck. But in order to get lucky in the first place, we have to play the game of chance. And that LAST part, we have control over.
There is a curse to being aware of all the myriad of problems in the world around us. That is definitely true. But there is also wonderful opportunity. Because, even if as one person we can’t influence all that much, you won’t do anything if you don’t try.
This post was created in response to eladnarra’s post, The Curse of Awareness.