How many people does it take to make a difference? Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? As much as it is handy to invoke Margaret Mead’s quote; “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.“, there’s a good chance she never said it. But it is such a good quote, let’s work with it. As for having too much of a good thing, anyone who makes desserts knows there are limits, and anyone who has sat on committees of brilliant people knows that too many happens too easily. Finding a place in the world is a gratifying achievement, especially for frugal folk who aren’t attracted to the roles of consumer or spectator. The opportunities exist, but there may be reasons why it is harder to find gratification and compensation – and yet, the effort is worth the potential reward.
Folks who are frugal by choice tend to appreciate achievements instead of acquisitions. (Ferengis shudder at the thought.) The more you understand your own values, the more apparent the advertising pressures become. Stuff becomes less appealing and experiences rise in importance. Frugal folk volunteer a lot, and also spend more time sitting in wonder at the natural world. Causes become things to work on. Sailboats could’ve ringed Shell’s oil rig, but it was a crowd of (mostly plastic) kayaks that rowed out to corral the platform. Kayakers aren’t necessarily frugal folk, but in order of expense boats typically go from power down to sail down to water you have to row. Whether they made a difference is too early to tell. They did make a statement. (And the colorful kayaks made for some pretty pictures.)
In May 1776, a few dozen men gathered and argued about the future of the British colonies in America. We know how it turned out: revolutionary and good, and yet far from perfect. Their collective wisdom, insights, and audacity are so well celebrated that we tend to mythologize them. The Founding Fathers is capitalized. Good. They changed the world. Not only did they do something remarkable, but the fact that the colonies had such talent is incredible. The colonies were barely not wilderness. The colonists were people who left convention to pursue opportunity, freedom, or both. The population was about 2,600,000. The United States was born from a group of people about the present population of Chicago. That’s more than the population that Seattle, but less than the population of the surrounding counties, which undoubtedly were all represented. A few dozen people revolutionized government. A few hundred people made a statement about an oil rig, and what it represented. A few hundred thousand can march on the capital, and find that they made a great noise but weren’t heard. I don’t doubt the wisdom, insights, and audacity of people today. I think they’re up against something much more difficult.
In 1776, the population of the planet was about 800,000,000. The British American colonies were a small, seemingly insignificant portion, less than 1%. Now, the population of the species is nine times greater. In 1776, a few dozen men held a lot of influence because half the population was excluded by gender, another large percentage was excluded by slavery, another large percentage was excluded by access to information, especially those in the real wilderness or illiterate or both. The few remaining had few to convince. In 2015, the same amount of energy by the same number of people, and possibly the same percentage, can meet an equal and opposing force, and another, and another. The American Revolution was tough enough. Changing minds now is much tougher.
People who aren’t as actively engaged, people who just want to get on with their lives are finding troubles, too. I rarely meet someone who is spending most of their time lounging. Recent poll data reveals that the percentage of Americans who think hard work is fruitless has grown from 23% in 2009 to over 40% in 2014. They’re working harder, but they aren’t getting ahead. Getting ahead isn’t a euphemism for surpassing the Joneses. Getting ahead is increasingly simply getting ahead of the bills and achieving some financial stability. It has become common that people holding down two jobs can’t afford rent and food, especially if they are raising a family.
A possible explanation may have less to do with work ethic and more to do with demographics. How many people does it take to take care of all the people? One person can take care of one person, but there’s no margin for error. One disaster is disastrous. A couple or a family brings support and stability, hopefully enough to allow some time for critical times, like raising an infant or caring for the elderly. A village allows enough excess to enable crafts. A town can create marketable specialties. A city can support multiple industries, universities, hospitals, – go open the Yellow Pages (if you remember what that is, or was.) And then a nation can handle the really big issues like defense and – who can marry who, or who can smoke what, or whether pieces of cloth can be burnt or not. Okay, so there are some flaws in the system.
All of those tasks, projects, and services are becoming more necessary because of the increasing population. The increased necessity has increased the appeal of technology. We’ve seen an increase in productivity that makes it easier to do far more with far less. Our efficiency has increased, and may have become too much of a good thing. Our improved efficiency means that it takes fewer people to provide all of our necessities.
the increase in agricultural labor efficiency over the past century – from 27.5 acres/worker in 1890 to 740 acres/worker in 1990 – Environmental Protection Agency
This may be why, even as productivity increases and GDP increases, wages stagnate. Increased efficiency through better information, automation, and robotics, means fewer people are required to do the work. Increased supply (population) and decreased demand (productivity) mean fewer jobs in terms of percent. This may also be adding to wealth and income inequalities. More money is flowing around, but there’s less need for it to go to wages, which means more go to the people running the companies. They may have no intent to accumulate great wealth, but it has to go somewhere, so it ends up with them. No conspiracy required.
So, what’s frugal person to do? A major goal to start with is basic survival. Enough folks are having trouble with that. We need solutions. Ironically, technology and small communities may be the key. Decentralized power, distributed information, and an increased awareness of sustainability mean that many who can afford solar cells, a good internet connection, and some basic household and gardening skills can take care of themselves, those around them, and if necessary walk away from a dysfunctional, conventional society – at least until some ingenuity reveals a way to enact positive change.
It was easier to be noticed for wisdom when there were fewer wise people with extra time. Making a difference or a dollar may be more difficult now, especially if conventional approaches are taken, even if they were revolutionary once. If you feel discouraged, remember; the rewards are as great as ever, but the methods must change, and are.