The power of individuals

Christopher Bazley, February 2017

I've been thinking about the power of individuals (or lack thereof) in the current political climate. We are constantly being urged to sign petitions or take to the street in protest against the latest policies of President Trump. We are told 'One person can make a difference' and invited to consider '10 simple ways' to reduce our carbon footprint.

I do not believe that any of these acts will have a significant effect.

If I believed that I could improve software quality worldwide by training programmers to write the best standard of assembly language (or another low-level language) in Windows Notepad then I would be delusional. The only way to achieve my goal would be to create better languages and tools. For example, if I were Microsoft then I might use my monopoly position to incentivize use of C#.

People will always be flawed, whether that flaw manifests in self-indulgence in their use of energy or their inability to write error-free code. Institutions are also flawed: programmers may have been pressured into writing bug-ridden code in order to meet a deadline.

Solutions that rely on abstinence or good faith are doomed to failure; we need to make doing the right thing easier and ameliorate the effects of doing wrong. Telling people to take a cold shower every day or use a 'low flow shower-head'  (I can't imagine anything worse) will only make them miserable or rebellious. Furthermore, environmentalism as a quasi-religion of abstinence and penitence is rather too easy to satirize.

The Atlantic slave trade wasn't stopped by individual ships' captains deciding not to carry slaves: it was stopped by the Royal Navy's blockade of Africa. Slavery wasn't abolished in the United States by the cumulative acts of manumission of individual slave owners, but by a bloody civil war.

Votes for women weren't won without acts of vandalism and arson, the incarceration and force-feeding of suffragettes, the death of  Emily Davison under the hooves of the King's horse, the Russian revolution and British victory in the first world war.

A petition on, or will not bother the likes of Donald Trump. Petitions lost their worth as a campaigning tool as soon as they moved online instead of requiring a loyal band of campaigners to trudge the streets, collecting signatures. Big changes require personal sacrifices; online petitions require none.