The Reluctant Activist

July 2014

 350 activism in Potomac 5-19-2014_cropped

I was not cut out to be an activist. A good activist should be an extrovert – outgoing, happy to be talking to folks. A good activist should be patient, because many goals that are worth fighting for take time – sometimes a lot of time – to achieve. A good activist should be positive, upbeat, optimistic, to “keep the flame of hope burning,” because without hope it is easy to sink into despair and defeatism. Outgoing, patient, and positive.

I was thinking about this while riding my bike back home from Bethesda recently. It occurred to me that some of my more distinguishing characteristics are exactly wrong for a good activist. As I pedaled, I worried that I’d forget these characteristics before I could get home to jot them down. Then I thought of the perfect mnemonic to help me remember them: SIN. I tend to be shy, impatient, and negative. It’s sort of a sin to be that way if your goal is to move mountains to change the world for the better, don’t you think?

And I have another characteristic that really isn’t such a good fit either: I’m basically an academic at heart, always striving to do the best unbiased analysis, being careful to clearly state the necessary caveats and not overstate the case. A couple years ago my daughter showed a photo from Occupy Sanity on the website, Measure of Doubt, that she and my son share. It made me laugh. The photo showed an activist in a crowd holding up a hand-written sign. The sign said, “What do we want? Evidence-based change. When do we want it? After peer review.” The quote my daughter offered with the photo was, “Two, four, six, eight! And if you could please register your studies ahead of time to combat publication bias, that would be great!” This has my name written all over it. I think it’s very important to have evidence to support one’s claims and to have the best, most unbiased research possible to back up proposed policies. If I think there are caveats, I’m uncomfortable keeping them to myself. I want everyone to feel they can trust me, and for me that trust must be based on building a reputation for honesty and intellectual rigor. As I said in another essay (see here), I strive to be epistemically rational – to care more about finding out the truth, whatever it is, than pushing a cause. And the truth is often not so much black and white as nuanced shades of gray. This is not an activist’s mentality.

In fairness (to myself), you could say that I’m a realist rather than a pessimist (negative). And, in keeping with my own educational background, I think like a Bayesian statistician. That means I evaluate a situation and the probability of success of my activist’s goal, according to the evidence available; as new evidence becomes available, I reassess the situation and update my (subjective) probability of success. If the probability of success seems reasonably large (like, say, over 25 percent), I might be able to make an argument for optimism. If the probability of success seems small, it would seem unrealistic to be optimistic.

I am in good company in this approach. In an online conversation with Ezra Klein about climate change, Ta-Nehisi Coates says to Klein, “You’re a pessimist [about climate change],” to which Klein replies, “Yes. I’m a realist.” In the text accompanying the video, Klein explains: “ … I’m a climate pessimist. I don’t believe the United States — or the world — will do nearly enough, nearly fast enough, to hold the rise in temperatures to safe levels. I think we’re f**ked. Or, at the least, I think our grandchildren are f**ked.”[1] This is not just idle pessimism or just Ezra having a bad day. It’s hard to read the text of the piece (or any scientific writing about climate change or the politics of climate change, for that matter) and not conclude that the evidence for pessimism far outweighs the evidence for optimism. You might say that climate change is the optimist’s ultimate challenge. After all, one doesn’t want to seem stupidly or ignorantly optimistic.

So, I tend to be shy (I’m much more comfortable expressing myself through my writing than through shouting slogans while holding up posters); I’m impatient (What do I want? Change! When do I want it? Now!) I’m a realist, which means that I am sometimes a pessimist. I strive to be epistemically rational (believing that finding the truth is more important than being right), and I am ready to acknowledge shades of gray in a story that others may see as black and white. So you can see how improbable it is that I would get within ten feet of activism about any of the issues I care about.

And yet … I really care about certain issues. I really care about climate change and how it will savage the world as we know it if we continue to fail to act; I really care about the transformation of our democracy into a plutocracy or an oligarchy – a government for and by the rich few. I really care about the mechanized torture of animals in “factory farms” so that we can eat meat more cheaply. And it is, unfortunately, pretty clear to me at this point that very little will change unless people get out there and try to do something about these things.

So I’m trying to wrest my “better angel” from my “SINful” (shy, impatient, negative) self. How do I do that? Not methodically; and not so easily. But I have made some progress.

We face many problems in this country, and one of the first bits of progress I made was to realize that I cannot work on all of them; I cannot even work on most of them. If I try to work on more than one or two, I will quickly feel overwhelmed. Luckily, there are many millions of people in this country, so other people can work on the problems I’ve chosen to let be. It’s okay to not work on, say, gun control, even though it’s very important, because there are other very important issues and I cannot work on more than a couple and maintain my energy (and sanity). In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that I still feel a twinge of guilt every time I see something about some pressing problem or I get an email asking me to support (read: “donate to”) a good cause and I don’t do anything about it.

But I’ve picked my battles. I’ve chosen to focus on two problems: money in politics (a.k.a. our growing plutocracy) and climate change. Why? Well, taking a step back to see the “big picture,” climate change has been called the greatest threat to the entire planet that human civilization has ever faced (with the possible exception of nuclear winter). It is an existential threat. (I’ve written about this elsewhere; see here).

And why money in politics? Because unless we solve that problem, it will be virtually impossible to solve the climate change problem – or any other problem that requires a government solution, as I’ve discussed in other essays (see here, here, and here). It is a meta-problem – a problem that must be solved in order to solve the other problems. I’ve come to think of it as finding a way to release our political system from the clutches of moneyed interests so that we can once again have a government run for and by the people.

So I chose these two problems because I think they are both supremely important. And there’s another reason I chose them: there’s a lot of evidence supporting the contention that these are indeed serious problems. There is now a veritable mountain of evidence from climate scientists and other scientists (who are studying the impacts of climate change) that it is real and human-caused – and an extreme threat. Similarly, credible political scientists and economists who have been studying the growing influence of money in our politics have come to pretty solid conclusions – that wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals, and our elected officials respond more and more to the desires of the rich and rich corporations – their “donors” – rather than to what their constituents want.

This credible research satisfies my need for evidence-based thinking. It’s not just that people are holding up posters and shouting; it’s that scholarly peer-reviewed research has overwhelmingly concluded that these are serious problems indeed.[2] And if there are nuances – shades of gray in the black and white picture – they are completely overshadowed by the starkness of the picture itself. I don’t have to convince myself that these are huge problems. The evidence does that for me.

So now that I’ve identified the problems I’m going to work on, there are just a few “minor” issues to resolve … like overcoming the pervasive feeling that we’ll never be able to do this; the powers arrayed against us are just too great. Okay, I’ll try to calm down. Breathe …

The powers arrayed against us – Big Money (or should I say BIG MONEY) – are great. And this is a notable difference between these challenges and the challenges taken on by other activist movements that have been hugely successful – most notably, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the LGBT rights movement. (I wrote about this at length here.)

Focusing on the negative, as is my wont (or perhaps just being realistic), I see how much easier it is for the big rich Goliaths – well-financed industries and industrialists with enough money to hire trained lobbyists and to basically “buy” Congressmen – to push their agenda than for all of us “little ordinary Americans” to push ours.

It has been pointed out, however, that, while they have the money, we have the people. And that’s true, but it matters only if enough of those people engage with these issues. As just one person, without any important connections, I can’t do much; if I join with some other people to work together, the chance that we could actually have some impact increases a bit – but only a bit, I would guess, unless a lot of people get involved. The more people who get involved, the more impact we can have. The problem (for me, at least) is convincing myself to go ahead and get involved, to overcome the feeling that it’s hopeless because not enough people are in it, and the few of us who are just cannot effect change unless we can get a lot more people on board.

So my negativity about activism is, I believe, well founded. The odds don’t look good unless a lot of people get involved; but many people are apathetic and many others get discouraged by how bad the odds look, and so they are hesitant to get involved (why bother if there’s such a small chance of succeeding?). This lends to activism a “picking ourselves up by our bootstraps” quality.

But here’s a more positive take on activism: The probability of success is not cast in stone – it is, as economists might say, endogenous to the system – that is, it is affected by other variables. Or, put more simply, not only does the probability of success affect the activism of people, but the activism of people affects the probability of success. We can increase the probability of success by our activism.

One of the first things an activist movement tries to do is to “spread the word,” to get more people involved. As more people get involved, the probability of getting even more people involved increases, and as more people get involved, the probability of success goes up as well. So it pays to look beyond the probability of success at any one point in time (especially in the early stages of an activist movement) – to take the long view, to look out to the “horizon” where activism strives to meet its goal; out there, the probability of success is much greater, if the activists don’t lose heart.

But I’m impatient. I want success now. I want our government back; I’m tired of watching Congress (at least the conservative side of Congress) push legislation for the rich and block legislation for the rest of us. And I want our Congress to put a price on carbon, as they should have done years ago. Well, too bad. It’s not going to happen now. I’ll just have to wait. But if enough ordinary Americans push back, these things might eventually happen. And if I get involved, maybe that will be the catalyst for a few more ordinary Americans to get involved – or at least to become aware of the problems. And as those people get involved or at least become aware, more people might get involved or become aware. The civil rights movement didn’t start off with a sea of people behind it; but there was a sea of people on the National Mall when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech there.

And here’s the thing – we have a choice: either we can get involved or not. Even if we feel overwhelmed by the forces arrayed against us, even if we feel stymied by the seemingly low probability that we can actually change things for the better, it’s practically guaranteed that nothing will change if enough of us don’t get involved. If we do get involved, there is at least a chance that we can change things for the better. And the more people who do get involved, the greater that chance will be. It’s really that simple.

So, as I said, I’ve chosen to work on getting money out of politics and climate change. But what do I mean by “work on”? I’m not really a leader; I’m more of a follower. I’m not really a take-the-bull-by-the-horns sort of person; I’m more of an analyze-the-bull-and-its-horn type. I’m shy about getting out there with a poster and shouting slogans. As I said, I don’t really have an activist’s personality.

Well, as a start, I can donate money to causes I care about. I donate to a bunch of organizations working on causes I care deeply about. I recently donated money to Lawrence Lessig’s MAYDAY.US get-money-out-of-politics campaign[3]; I also tried to “spread the word” on Facebook. I greatly admire Lessig’s passionate commitment to getting money out of our political system.

And I’m getting my body out into some demonstrations. In February 2013 I joined the climate change rally on the National Mall, and listened to Bill McKibben and other speakers rally the troops as my toes froze. (Given the particularly cold weather at the time, we also had to contend with the truly ignorant remarks of some of the global warming deniers). And on September 21, 2014 I plan to be at what I hope will be a massive rally in New York City where the world’s leaders will be gathered to discuss climate change. I’m spreading the word about that one too.

Recently I joined a local climate change group pushing to get our local government to divest from the fossil fuel industry. When we have meetings, I mostly just listen. I did get myself out to a sign-holding-and-chanting demonstration designed for President Obama to see as his motorcade went by (after a fundraiser in deepest richest Potomac, MD). Maybe he saw us and heard us (it was hard to tell, since the windows of his limousine were darkened); I forced myself to shout something (I forget what it was). It was a little painful.

But I do like to write, so I volunteered to write stuff for the organization – fact sheets and frequently asked questions (with answers!). That, I think, may be my best way to contribute. We all have something to give – a talent, perhaps, or our financial resources – or simply our physical presence at demonstrations. Everything helps.

For me there’s been a “push-pull” feeling about getting involved in causes I care about – yes, I want to do this, but no I’m not sure I can do this, but I want to do this, but I’m not sure I’m well-suited to doing this and can’t other people just do this instead of me, but I’ll feel better if I do this… and besides, I’ve noticed that just griping and doing nothing doesn’t accomplish anything and doesn’t make me feel better. So I’ll do my best, short of a personality transplant, to get involved and to stay involved – and to overcome my “SINful” self. I hope I’m still alive (and the planet hasn’t been destroyed) by the time we see that shining light of success at the end of the long tunnel. It will have been a battle well worth fighting – and winning.


[2] Needless to say, if further credible research concluded that one or both of these problems were not such problems after all, I would adjust my assessment as well.

[3] Wikipedia gives a nice overview. See



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