by Marsha Rakestraw
“If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” ~ Mother Teresa
If a child were drowning right in front of us, most of us would stop and save the child, rather than walk on by, intent on our business.
Ethicist Peter Singer asserts in his book “The Life You Can Save” that we’re each faced with that situation every day: there are millions around the world in desperate poverty; but do we help them by donating as much money as we can (or helping in other ways), or do we continue to stop by the coffeehouse for our daily latte on our drive to work?
As humane educators and changemakers, we know about the dire state of the world: more than 50 billion land animals killed for food each year; millions of displaced refugees; 27 million human slaves worldwide. There are enormous numbers of people living in poverty, of animals abused and oppressed, of species going extinct, of beings affected by the climate crisis.
Those numbers add up to a lot of suffering.
So what keeps us from doing more? Why do we buy the daily latte instead of donating that money, and why don’t we take more positive action to help?
According to researchers, it’s because of the numbers. People are willing to do more and give more when they can identify with a single or small number of those in need. Researchers Small, Lowenstein, and Slovic conducted several studies comparing people’s willingness to give and discovered that:
“When donating to charitable causes, people do not value lives consistently. Money is often concentrated on a single victim even though more people would be helped if resources were dispersed or spent protecting future victims.”
Likewise, a recent study did a small exploration of “the ways that journalism about climate change either engages citizens in climate issues or makes them feel passive and helpless.” Their discovery? Statistics on climate change and reports about solutions and/or groups involved in climate work weren’t nearly as popular as the story about a single climate activist. Their conclusion: People “really like to read about individuals fighting to change the system.”
What does this mean for us as humane educators and changemakers? Instead of overwhelming people with facts, statistics, and “doom and gloom” overviews, it’s more effective use the power of one: to share a story about one person, one animal, or one piece of the planet.
We can help people get to know Drissa, the boy sold into slavery to work a cocoa bean plantation so that we can have our chocolate bar; or Freedom the cow, who became a friend instead of food; or Luna, the tree that lived for hundreds of years, helped nurture an ecosystem, and raised consciousness about the preciousness of the natural world.
Sharing the stories of individuals helps people to care by showing them how we’re all connected, one relationship at a time.
So whenever you want to inspire and empower others, start with the power of one.