Opinion | You’re trying to solve big problems the wrong way

By Lucas DiBlasi, Senior Staff Columnist

This column is the second in a three-part series exploring the urgent and existential threats to humanity and how we can best respond to them.

While a pandemic rages, politics functions dismally and climate change looms as an omnipresent threat, it’s natural to wonder how you can be a part of the solutions to these problems. But as I argued in the first part of this series, the way we consume information radically skews our perception of the issues at hand, making us overrate some threats and underrate others.

Due to these and other misperceptions, many people’s current reactions to the crises we face range from only mildly helpful to actively counterproductive.

Our misconceptions about the biggest problems in the world not only cause us to weigh their risk incorrectly, but can contribute to mental and physical health issues. Furthermore, if we’re to take meaningful steps to solve these issues, we need to understand which of our current reactions are nearly futile — and which make the issues worse.

The way that most people interact with the news and social media only stresses them out and makes them more pessimistic. While there may be some amount of stress necessary in learning about the world’s problems, high levels of media consumption are linked to heightened anxiety and depression, which can have terrible impacts on our health.

One of the more paradoxical reactions to consistent bad news is doomscrolling. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, doomscrolling — a new term used to describe endlessly scrolling through feeds full of bad news — became a commonly discussed issue. Doomscrolling is a counterproductive reaction to the news — more bad news doesn’t negate previous bad news.

However, many people react to polarizing political issues by engaging with them on social media in unhelpful ways. A Yale University study found that social media’s algorithms teach us to share and react strongly to morally outrageous stories, but snarky comments under posts about fraught issues rarely change anyone’s mind.

There are ways that social media can help spread useful information, but many people don’t utilize it that way. For example, after the police murder of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter and other activist organizations used the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter to share information about protests and links to various bail funds. But at one point, their efforts were hindered by people attempting to support the movement.

A trend evolved to show support for the activist organizations where a user would “mute” oneself — refraining from posting normally in order to give space to Black voices. However, many Instagram users began to post black squares with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, attempting to “mute” themselves. Soon after, activists sounded the alarm that posting these squares actually backfired.

The same hashtag used to organize helpful events in previous days crowded feeds with black squares — effectively muting Black voices and activist organizers. The black squares became more of a “virtue signal” than an actual show of support, and led to concern that the ease of posting would cause some to believe they didn’t need to take any substantive action. 

Outside of the often confusing and counterproductive world of social media, many people take action and advocate for real sacrifices when trying to reduce waste and combat issues such as climate change. While these actions are often well-intentioned, they’re much less impactful than is generally assumed.

I’ve written before that ethical consumerism — the idea that people can purchase “ethical” products en masse, and doing so will force companies to be moral — is a complete mess. Due to the complexities of modern society, finding a completely ethical product is nearly impossible, and almost always costs more money — implying that you must be affluent to be ethical. Furthermore, collective action — such as boycotting Amazon — rarely materializes.

Recycling is another excellent example of an action that people believe is a solution to a worldwide problem, but is really borderline useless. And in America, most items placed in recycling bins can’t and won’t end up being recycled. Plastic industry-funded ads promised that recycling would solve the problem of single-use plastics — when they really just placed the blame on consumers instead of companies.

Again, I’d like to clarify that the people taking these actions are searching for ways to contribute to solutions. But this search for hope can cruelly backfire. When people are just trying to feel like they’re solving a problem, it can be too easy to stop helping when that desire is satisfied. This tendency is noted in a 2019 study on “nudges” — small actions that supposedly help solve large issues with much lower costs.

The study found that small actions such as decreasing water consumption often caused people to increase negative actions in other areas, such as increasing energy consumption. Furthermore, it found that reminding people of previous nudges they’d made decreased their support for substantive governmental policies that are necessary to actually solve climate change.

This study points to the issue that’s at the heart of all of the stress and anxiety that huge, seemingly intractable problems produce. People want to feel in control — we want some modicum of hope, however small. We want to feel like we’re doing useful things that matter, and we don’t want to see the world end.

And I’m not using hyperbole here. While anecdotal, the underlying assumption of many viral Twitter memes and conversations I’ve had in college is that the world is literally ending, and soon. As I said in part one, it’s not — or at least, it’s not going to end soon or for the reasons that people think it will.

But there are still huge, life-threatening and life-changing issues at play in America and across the globe. I’ve outlined how the media skews our perception of these issues, stressing us out and leaving us grasping for hope as well as doing near-useless things to combat the wrong issues. I’m not making these arguments because I think the struggle against these issues is hopeless, but because I believe we need a solution that fixes both our consumption with information and our actions utilizing it.

Before we get there, in part three, we need to understand our place in the unfolding drama. We’re frantically trying to regain control over a world that is horribly flawed, and that only makes sense.

It’s not your fault that the world is like this, and it’s not your fault that you were born into a system where you can’t help but be complicit. It’s not from guilt and terror that we should try to solve huge problems, but from a sense of responsibility to the world and caring for others.

If we really want to solve these problems, we can’t take the weight of the world on our shoulders — that would crush any single person. We just need to take on the weight of what we ourselves can reasonably, effectively shoulder. So take a deep breath and stay tuned for part three.

Lucas DiBlasi writes primarily about politics, music, and crises. Feel free to email your opinions on Weezer (or whatever else) to him at [email protected].