Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Saving Starfish

There was a story I was told when I was young when people were feeling overwhelmed with all the problems in the world. An old man is walking on the beach and sees a young lady throwing starfish into the water. He asks her what she is doing and she says the sun will dry out the starfish. She needs to return them to the water. He points down the beach at the hundreds of starfish and says she can't possibly make a difference. She picks up another, and as she throws it back to its home she says, 'I made a difference to that one'.

This story was a founding parable for the Starfish Greathearts Foundation and they do great work. I love the tale and the lesson, but I have been mulling over a problem that it doesn't recognise. I am a big believer in the power of people on the front lines to know better than some grand central plan. Often we know the right thing to do without being able to communicate it. On the flip side, we struggle to increase our circle of empathy. In fact we quite often don't even know about the problems beyond those that come into our field of vision. At worst, we actively don't care.

We often think of leaders as people who will get things done. The leader has the power and represents groups of people's interests to make sure everyone is heard. That doesn't work if decision making is best left in the hands of individuals. I think a leaders role is perhaps to remove obstacles and let people get on with it, but also to ask tough questions. To point out inconsistencies.

A blaring inconsistency for me is the noise being made by 'the 99%' in America. The inconsistency lies in the fact that most of those 99% are in fact part of the 1%. You need just $34,000 annual income to be part of the global elite. The global median salary is $1,225.  I am not saying that inequality in America is not a problem. I just have two issues I need help with.

The first is wrapping my head around why people who don't think money buys happiness should be so concerned about there being people who have lots more than them. As soon as you benchmark your own happiness on someone else's level of wealth I think you can lose track of what is important to you. I am not saying that there aren't impoverished people in America. I would argue that most of them have 'enough' already. Most of them are cultural billionaires. In fact, if you are reading this blog, you are probably also a cultural billionaire. Money is a seductive measure because it is easy to quantify and compare. The good stuff can't be compared. The good stuff is priceless. We may just be scared of the good stuff and so making a noise about inequality gives us a way to kill time.

The second issue I have a problem with is getting emotional about 'high bar' problems when there are still lots of low bar problems for us to solve. There are enough people in the world that have enough to spare to deal with issues like ending absolute poverty. In America. In the World. That isn't the kind that depends on what other people are earning. That is the kind that ends lives.

I think it is good to focus. I think individuals are best placed to pick up the starfish and throw them in the water. If you live in a liberal democracy with a strong constitution, you don't need government to sort everything out. You don't even need consensus to sort some of the big problems out. You just need to care about the big problems first. The American '99%' can make a huge difference to global inequality if they want to. Perhaps that is the role of leaders, not to govern, but to tell stories. And to build a bigger tribe.

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