The Fallacy of “My Part Doesn’t Count”

An oddly appropriate historical photo to help you visualize my wagon analogy.

An old photo to help you visualize my wagon analogy.

I’ve heard the exact same argument three or four times in the last few days, in what seems like a strange coincidence. To wit, “because my part is small, it doesn’t matter”. I heard an economist on NPR the other day discussing a potential carbon tax in Vermont, and he was saying that Vermont is so small compared to the rest of the world that cutting our emissions would have no measurable effect, so we should just skip the tax. Then I saw the argument in one of the Wait But Why posts, where the author discusses the cruelty of factory farming, but admits that he still eats meat from factory farms, even though he knows that “if everyone thought that way nothing would ever change”. Then there was David Brooks’ article about climate change yesterday, where he discounted a nationwide carbon tax in the U.S., on the grounds that it would have no measurable effect worldwide (which probably isn’t true).

These statements are actually difficult to counter, because they are related to what economists call the “free-rider problem”. Namely, that if someone else pays a price, and you can skip the price and yet still get the service, then it is in your rational interest to do so. Unfortunately, in the case of most sustainability issues, not acting is also a prescription for failure. It is generally true that taking action does not guarantee change. BUT—not doing one’s part often adds to the inertia of a problem, and helps to ensure that no change will occur. Now, if the issue at hand was whether or not your town could have a fireworks display, and the free-rider problem caused your town to not have one, then we could probably live with that. But with sustainability issues, the very future of the planet could be at stake. Failure is not a good option.

Here’s an analogy to help me make my point— imagine a wagon or cart with no brakes, something like the one in my opening image, unhooked from the horses and rolling slowly down a slope. The wagon isn’t overly heavy by itself, and if it had no people in it, then two adults could probably grab it, and pull, and bring it to a halt, which would keep it from gathering speed and careening out of control. Now, imagine the same wagon packed with people, with no one else around, and the whole shebang begins to roll down the slope, toward certain death and injury. Two people jump out and try to stop it, but—now two adults can’t stop it, because of the weight of all the people in the wagon. Every person who is still inside is making the problem that much harder to fix. In this situation it now takes more than two people to stop the wagon, and so more people need to jump out and help. Those who jump out to help affect the situation in two ways, first by lowering the weight in the wagon, and second by adding their effort to those trying to stop it. And, every time someone jumps out the job gets easier to accomplish.

So, environmental issues are often like the runaway wagon, whether it’s global warming or ocean acidification or human impacts on wildlife habitat, or any one of a great many issues. Because the problems are not caused by some evil destroyer, but rather by ordinary people living ordinary lives, by not changing our activities we remain in the wagon, and continue to worsen the problem. And, like the wagon speeding up, inaction will lead to greater and greater danger. Even if you don’t help stop the wagon after you jump out, just jumping out makes the problem easier to fix. And, in reality, for most of these problems, the very act of jumping out helps slow the problem, through other, indirect effects.

A real-life example of this—let’s say you quit driving your full-size pickup truck every day, and lease an all-electric vehicle instead, and you buy renewable electricity on your electric bill so that you can charge it with renewable power. This is a huge change; your actions will prevent thousands of gallons of fossil fuel from being burned, every year. You’ve jumped out of the wagon—there is now less weight to slow. But you’re also helping to pull it to a stop—others will see your actions and be inspired to do the same. Your actions act as a proof-of-concept, showing others exactly how it can be done. You will also be creating a “new normal”, by changing people’s perceptions of how things should and could be done. And, added to that last point, since most people aren’t actually unaware of the consequences of these big problems, your actions begin to alter prevailing conceptions of moral and ethical “right and wrong”. It’s easy for people to do the wrong things when everyone around them is doing the wrong things, too. But when others they know start doing better things, suddenly they begin to feel like they’re on the wrong side of the fence, and they will begin to change, too. This is why it works so well when electric companies tell people on their bill how much power they use compared to their neighbors; it’s a form of peer pressure that’s very effective.

Now, free-rider problems, like other market failures, are best dealt with through government action. And, eventually we will have government action to slow or stop carbon emissions, to mandate composting and recycling, to do more to protect wildlife, etc. But we live in democracies, and politicians will not change first. So we have to change, first, and government action will follow. It isn’t always easy to be the first to change, not everyone is bold enough to buck social norms. But, kind of like in the wagon scenario, the more people do it the easier it gets for others to help, as a critical mass builds. Because of this, the first people to act have the biggest impacts.

So, do you want to change the world? Be brave, and jump out of that wagon. The world is ripe for change. It’s all up to us, but we have the power, and our small parts do matter. In fact, they matter a lot.

Top image credit: Sids1, “Socialist Sunday school wagon trip, Auckland, c1920s”, Flickr Creative Commons.