Whatcha Gonna Do?


by John Zielinski

I’ve been thinking about personal action quite a bit lately. This has been driven by what I’ve seen going on in the world around me. What it’s forced me to do is to reflect on why I decide to take action on a specific issue and how I decide to take a specific action. I’ve found it a useful exercise.

Let me start by saying that there are quite a few things about which I’m concerned. The list includes: manmade climate change; increased militarization; ongoing wars; renewed nuclear proliferation and threats of nuclear war; human rights issues at home and abroad; overt racism; religious intolerance; cybersecurity threats against individuals, organizations and countries; opposition to science; universal access to affordable health care; poverty; violence; gun control; and erosion of civil liberties. There are plenty of others as well. As I review the list there are two points that jump out at me. The first is that many of these items will have no direct or indirect effect on me in what’s left of my lifetime. The second is that my concern about them is largely independent of the first. Let’s take a look at an example or three.

The evidence is clear that the planet’s climate is changing and that the change has been – and is being – driven by human activity. Although there are already negative effects of the change such as hotter summers, melting ice caps, droughts and storms of increased intensity, the worst of what’s to come will come after my wife and I are worm food. Why should I care if humanity chooses to destroy itself by ignoring the problem? The fact of the matter, though, is that I do care and I can’t say that I’m sure why. In the cosmic scheme of things, this is just one, little, irrelevant rock in space. Whether or not the planet becomes a literal twin of Venus won’t matter to the universe. Things will continue until entropy eventually causes everything to wind down. On the other hand, for this closed system things are likely to get pretty ugly for a lot of creatures (human and other) that had nothing to do with creating the mess. So, what am I doing to try to slow or reverse what’s starting to look inevitable?

Making big changes requires major efforts, right? That was the focus of the Paris Agreement and the Kyoto Protocol. If we can get countries to agree to reduce emissions, then maybe it’s not too late. Another approach, though, would be to get a majority of individuals to make personal changes and personal sacrifices to reduce emissions. What if we drive the change from the bottom up instead of the top down? What can I do personally? Am I doing everything that I can? Perhaps most importantly, am I willing to endure some minor discomfort or increased personal costs for the greater good? Oh, I can also try to ensure that my government is populated with officials who are willing to work from the top down while the rest of us work from the bottom up.

How about another example?

All around the world there are people who have been imprisoned because of their race, sexual orientation, religion, or political views. It seems unlikely that I’ll be so treated – at least for now. I don’t have any personal acquaintances who are imprisoned for these reasons, so why do I care? I care because this is wrong. It’s that simple. What can I do about it? I can align myself with like-minded people. We can organize ourselves to capture and share information about these horrible practices. We can take collective action to shine a light into the dungeons and dark corners when governments refuse to act. I, personally, can take time to write to people in positions of power to release these prisoners of conscience. It’s not much of an effort for me, but when put together with thousands of others it just may get someone released. I can also help political candidates who are committed to eliminating the abuses gain office.

Maybe just one more.


Gun violence in the United States is at an epidemic level. In the past 50 years (since 1968), data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that more than 1.5 million Americans have died in gun-related incidents. For comparison, it’s estimated that about 1.2 million US military personnel have been killed in all wars in US history. Although I’m personally acquainted with people who have had children or siblings killed by guns, the numbers suggest that I’m more likely to die from heart disease, cancer, stroke, Alzheimer’s or a car accident than from being shot. So why do I care? I care because this is a preventable epidemic. What can one person do?

While public demonstrations in favor of stronger gun laws are laudable, the fight requires more. It will likely require continuing what’s already been a sustained effort for years for at least several more. It will require money to sustain that effort. Perhaps most importantly, it will require a change in the make-up of the state and national legislatures that make the laws. It will require that people who are eligible to vote take the time to get out and actually vote for candidates who are committed to making the change.

The common thread in these examples is to take the action that you can. One of the most direct of these actions is to vote.

My own activities to try change the world started when I was a teenager. Before I was eligible to vote I was writing letters to newspapers, state and federal legislators, my governor and the president. I was canvassing on behalf of candidates who I thought could and would make a difference. I was offering to provide transportation to voters who couldn’t otherwise get to the polls to vote. As I got older life added demands and some of my tactics had to change. Providing financial support of candidates and organizations that supported my views became a bigger possibility and a part of the mix. Above all, I always made it a point to vote for who I thought would do the most good. Since I’ve never encountered a politician with whom I’ve agreed on everything, defining “the most good” has often meant making trade-offs. That’s meant prioritizing my areas of concern. The same is ultimately true for every voter.

The recent past seems to have charged up young people in this country. I think that’s a good thing. My hope is that they stay energized and take the next step to changing things. I hope that they make it a point to get out there and vote. I hope that everyone else who thinks that things need to change does so as well.

Few of us have the time, energy and resources to act on every issue with which we’re concerned. As with so much else, the key to success isn’t about doing everything. It about doing the things that will pack the biggest punch. In our form of government that means voting.

What are you willing to do to facilitate change?


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