Climate change affects everything: food supply, rising sea levels, economic inequality, democracy, health, everything. Even US Defense Secretary James Mattis, whose boss pretends to believe it’s a Chinese hoax, calls it a major national security threat.
But if climate change causes so many other, smaller problems, does helping solve one of those smaller problems help fight the big one? Does it work both ways?
Can small solutions become something bigger, part of a virtuous circle?
Virtuous circles start when doing one thing right—or one right thing—ends up making other things better. Fixing a road speeds up everyone who travels on it.
I know they work in our individual lives. John Ratey’s book Spark taught me how exercise helps the brain by releasing neurotransmitters that elevate your mood, creativity, and focus. It got me running—that book and the story of the little kids at St. Ninian’s School in Stirling, Scotland and their Daily Mile. I can’t list all the ways my life is better because of my daily mile.
Virtuous circles aren’t just happy coincidences. They’re cause and effect. They can be proven with math. For example, paying people a living wage gives them disposable income which they spend, boosting the economy. It also leads to productivity gains and societal benefits which offset the initial loss of low-wage jobs.
Here’s another one. Including more than one token woman on a board makes a company more profitable. Even if the company only does it to avoid a lawsuit or bad publicity. In fact, adding women to most any team increases its performance on a wide range of tasks. Math.
Some virtuous circles seem like a surprise because they go against cherished but unproven ideas—things we know for sure than just ain’t so. Like the idea that poor people are lazy.
The innovative nonprofit GiveDirectly.org, for example, gives cash directly to poor people, instead of food or clothing or other goods and services. There’s no work or education requirement. Just straight-up cash. And yet, the recipients use the money to make their lives healthier and more prosperous.
Poor people don’t always blow their money on liquor and shiny things? Who’d have thought? I know there are exceptions. Some micro-finance institutions, for example, found that some of their borrowers wasted the money and didn’t repay their loans. They also found a solution: only lend to women. The ones who drink and spend it away are almost always men.
Sometimes the virtuous circle is hidden; tug on one lever and a faraway part of the machine starts moving. That’s what happened when research and policy nonprofit Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) and the Uganda conservation organization Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust (CSWCT) studied what would happen if they simply paid poor farmers not to cut down trees in a forest that was home to chimpanzees.
The main goal of the experiment? Well, take your pick:
- Protect chimpanzees
- Help poor farmers
- Reduce CO2 levels by preventing deforestation
- All of the above
With the help of some Stanford scientists, they used satellite imagery to essentially keep track of every tree in the area and make sure the farmers didn’t cheat. The test worked: the farmers helped conserve a swath of forest and reduce carbon in the atmosphere (less wood burnt and more trees taking up CO2). And they used the income to improve life for their families.
And because this was Uganda, where the currency is weaker than the dollar, the cost was a fraction of what it would be in a developed country, but had the same benefit. Trees aren’t nationalists; they clean the air for everybody.
And let’s not forget the endangered chimpanzees, who got to keep more of their dwindling forest home. With the sixth (and first self-inflicted) mass extinction happening right now, saving one of our last remaining evolutionary cousins is not a side issue. Save the chimps (and others) and we save ourselves.
We struggle sometimes though, to see others as connected to ourselves. Empathy is a huge challenge for people who want to help the poor or save the chimps. Some psychologists call it “psychic numbing,” when we can’t process the suffering of large numbers of people or animals. We cry at the suffering of a refugee child like five-year-old Omran Dagneesh or three-year-old Alan Kurdi. But 65 million refugees becomes a number, because our brains become overwhelmed and we think it’s too huge to fix.
That’s why it’s so heartening to know that even doing one small, good thing to fix one problem ends up helping to fix another, and another, and another. It allows us to start. Virtuous circles abound, though they’re sometimes hidden. In climate policy as in life, we should look for them and expect to find them and harness their power.