What Matters Most
"Paradise is gone. There is nothing to go back to."
Rex Stewart, Survivor | Paradise, CA
Pop. 26,000 | Destroyed By Fire, 2018

Home is where the heart is. It is as close to paradise as most of us will ever get, at least on this side of the grass. Our communities are often, on an emotional level, extensions of our homes. They are the groups of people with whom we are emotionally engaged. People may be invested in small or mid-size towns, in neighborhoods, in extended families, in co-worker groups, and in a seemingly infinite variety of local voluntary associations. From all of this, individuals weave a tapestry that represents their personal community of the heart.

By contrast, few people relate to Los Angeles, Chicago or New York as communities. These big cities are little more than abstractions to most of the people living in them. Residents usually have little of their hearts invested in these abstractions, and they understand little about how or why their city's functions developed as they did or how their city's government affects their lives today. Exhorting them to learn and care now is unlikely to be any more effective than such appeals have been in the past.

The essence of what is put forward here is that we need to bring people together around the things they care most strongly about. Without prejudice or moralistic inferences, that clearly means self, family, extended family, and groups of real people with whom a given individual is emotionally invested. This is what people actually care about the most. It has long been so, and so it is likely to remain.

Protecting our homes and communities isn't, however, shorthand for a parochial perspective. Instead, it is a vantage point, a way of looking at and talking about issues that helps people recognize their stake because it is based directly on what they care about the most. This vantage point serves as a prism through which we can view everything, every threat and every opportunity, the world has to offer.

Alongside caring most about ourselves and the people closest to us, most of us care far more about the near future than anything over the horizon, good or bad. We evolved to be this way, and it often works out pretty well for individuals and small groups. So we're unlikely to have much luck changing this aspect of who we are. Our intuitive discount rate devalues the future, so the more immediate the problems and opportunities, the easier it will be to get people to care.

Focus on Where the Heart Is

Some say, "all politics is local." Indeed, many activists and advocates are focusing primarily on smaller scale efforts, often but not always local, in which members of a community undertake an effort to address some issue with direct, important, and near-term impacts on their homes and communities (bad or good, problem or opportunity).

Some of the most interesting and significant efforts have two additional characteristics. First, they require communication and cooperation between groups who haven't necessarily gotten along in the past, or for whom there was at the outset good reason to suspect they might not get along if they tried to work together. The second characteristic is that the direct local issue being addressed is tied to issues important in some way on a larger scale (regionally, nationally, or globally).

This includes, of course, things like flooding, wildfires, droughts, hurricanes, tornados and the like. It also includes good things, such as attracting and supporting new employers, building new or improved community infrastructure or service facilities, and countless other positive goals.

But the key insight is this. Practically every issue of global long-term importance is right now having real and significant impacts that are directly felt by individuals, families, and communities.

A household, neighborhood or community may be being harmed by a factory closing, by monopoly employers, by an episode of acute local water pollution (think Kalamazoo, or toxic algae blooms endangering communities in Florida), by acute local toxic air discharges, by the collapse of critical bridges, by severe degradation of community rivers, by storm or drought caused farm crop disasters, by closure of an extractive industry employer (a mine or well field), by the exhaustion or contamination of a critical local water source, etc. The examples are endless.

For most issues important on a national or global scale, local dynamics and interests are engaged in particular communities. This way of seeing and talking about things brings together global long-term issues with what ordinary people care about the most, living, as they do, at home and in the here-and-now.

This way of thinking isn’t a narrowing of the issues of concern, but rather it is a distinct way of seeing, analyzing, and talking about the entire range of issues. Issues are approached through the emotional portal of what real living people are most invested in, their homes and communities.

Activists have often despaired about getting people to care about climate change, death of the oceans, etc. Human rights activists despair about getting people to care about poverty, violence and cruelty in far away places.

Our mistake has been in too often presenting dire problems or huge opportunities only as abstractions, described using incomprehensively huge numbers (a gigaton, anyone?), big concepts few grasp (really, how many ordinary folks have any idea what a climate change "tipping point" is?), and long-term and/or global projections of benefit or harm that few can understand, and about which even fewer will actually care. If we wait for people to care about things way off in time and space, we'll be waiting until the arctic boils.

Published: June 2019
Revised: May 2023

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