How Can We Build A Better World -- One Person at a Time?

You must be the change
you wish to see in the world.
-- M.K. Gandhi

We have become a nation of sleepwalkers. We look around at the world's problems and wish they would go away, but they stubbornly persist despite our most heartfelt desires. So we end up living in a kind of ethical haze.

It's not that people are bad or that evil is winning some kind of eternal battle. The vast majority of us have good intentions when we go about our daily lives. It's that we have been lulled into a sense of complacency about the world's problems, as if they are less-than-real occurrences. We react similarly to how we might normalize the strange events that occur while we're in the middle of a dream.

People starve, communities fall apart, violence thrives, families fade, and nature disappears, and we continue on with our lives as if nothing is wrong. We are stuck in our daily patterns, living on auto-pilot when it comes to the rest of the world.

But like a whisper in the back of our minds that stays with us always, we have the feeling that something has gone awry. We have lost our faith in each other. Politicians are corrupt, corporations seek to make a profit at any cost, and lawyers win cases without justice being served! It seems that everything and everyone is for sale. Nothing remains sacred. We feel that perhaps we can only truly rely on ourselves.

When these negative beliefs become widespread, we disengage from the outer world, recoiling into our own personal lives. As we withdraw, we see our society rushing aimlessly toward an unknown future, without any sense of morality or conscious purpose to direct it. Awash in a sea of knowledge, we lack the wisdom to guide our own destiny.

How Did We End Up Here?

How did we end up here? Many people point the finger at a culture that breeds apathy. In fact, beneath apathy there lies an even bigger culprit: cynicism. Cynicism is the deeply ingrained belief that human beings are, and have always been, inherently selfish. Cynicism in this form is not just a long-term emotional state or an adopted intellectual philosophy, it is a way of relating to the world.

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Cynicism fundamentally destroys hope. We begin to see the world as a place that will always be filled with social problems, because we are convinced that people look out for their own best interests above all else. The pursuit of happiness becomes little more than an attempt to accumulate material wealth, increase your social status, and indulge any desire.

Helping others, giving something back, and making a difference in the world no longer show up in popular culture. Indeed, people who decide to seriously pursue such goals are often labeled as odd, naive, overly sentimental, unrealistic, or simply irrational. The most you can strive for under this worldview is to come out somewhere nearer the top than the bottom.

In a world of constantly increasing complexity, cynicism becomes the safest, most strategic position to adopt. It involves no action and thus no risk. Cynics can portray their inaction as more rational, objective, and even more scientifically founded than people who are trying to change the world. Apathy becomes an acceptable state of being.

How Did We Become This Cynical?

So what happened? How did we become this cynical? Simply put, our modern society manufactures cynicism. Every day we are bombarded with media reports of crime, disaster, conflict, and scandal, both locally focused and from around the globe. The stories are usually too brief for us to gain any meaningful understanding of the problems and lack any options for us to contribute significantly to their resolution. Waves of negative imagery wash over us relentlessly as we try to keep up with what's happening in the world around us. Like sponges, we absorb the negativity; it spills over into how we look at the world and affects how we act or fail to act.

The Cycle of Cynicism begins when we first find out about society's problems. When we recognize that others are suffering, we want the suffering to stop. We even wonder if there is anything we could do to help. When no viable avenues for action are presented, and we fail to generate any ourselves, we do nothing. We end up feeling powerless and sad. We may become angry and blame people in positions of power for not doing anything to stop it, either.

We feel that we are good people, we see an injustice, but we don't do anything about it. In the end we reconcile this dissonance by accepting that perhaps nothing can be done. And we initiate a process of slowly numbing ourselves to the suffering. We subtly begin to avoid finding out about the suffering in the first place, since knowing only makes us feel bad. Over time we shut out our awareness of most social problems and retreat further and further into our insular, personal lives. We become apathetic.


1. Finding out about a problem
2. Wanting to do something to help
3. Not seeing how you can help
4. Not doing anything about it
5. Feeling sad, powerless, angry
6. Deciding that nothing can be done
7. Beginning to shut down
8. Wanting to know less about problems
9. Repeat until apathy results.

How do we break out of the cycle of cynicism? We must stop blaming others for not doing anything and begin to take personal responsibility for being good people in the world. We need to seek out information that provides us with a basic understanding of our world's problems and a variety of options for action. We have to generate a form of practical idealism based on well-informed actions that actually make a difference in the world. Each of us must decide what we want our life to stand for and how we can uniquely contribute to a better world. By thinking about what we can provide for the next generations rather than about what we can take for ourselves in this lifetime, we can choose to create our own destiny, instead of leaving our children's future up for grabs. Finally, throughout it all, we need to recognize that we can't do everything.

We must reconnect with a set of core values that every one of us can embrace despite our many differences -- values like compassion, freedom, equality, justice, sustainability, democracy, community, and tolerance. (No society -- especially one as powerful and rapidly changing as ours --survives for very long without a moral compass to guide its evolution and progress.) We have to deliberately build our society to increasingly reflect and nurture the growth of these values in the world.


1. Taking personal responsibility for being a good person
2. Creating a vision of a better world based on your values
3. Seeking out quality information about the world's problems
4. Discovering practical options for action
5. Acting in line with your values
6. Recognizing you can't do everything
7. Repeat until better world results.

Think about the world that you would like to live in. Let yourself imagine the a world that you could be proud to leave for your children -- a world where peace, justice, compassion, and tolerance prevail and where each person has more than enough food, shelter, meaningful work, and close friends. What would a more loving, accepting, patient, understanding, and egalitarian world look like? Your vision of a better future will provide you with an inspiring goal to work toward and will keep your passion alive for the journey ahead. As we start out, we must be aware of the many traps that can stop us from making a difference in the world.

Trap #1: "That's just the way the world is"

Building A Better World -- One Person at a TimeIf you look back through history, you'll discover that the world has always faced seemingly insurmountable challenges: slavery, hunger, warfare, and intolerance. But can you imagine how the world would be different if all people throughout history had resigned themselves to just accepting the troubles of their time? Can you imagine the cynics of the day saying that:

 * America will always be an British colony
  * slavery will always exist
  * women will never be allowed to vote
  * whites and Blacks will never share the same classrooms
  * people in wheelchairs will never have access to public buildings
  * free public schooling won't work because the poor don't want to be educated

... so there's no point trying to change anything.

For every social problem that has existed there have been people dedicated to solving it and creating positive social change. Every situation that has been created by humans can be changed by humans. A better world is always a possibility. Although current problems may seem overwhelming, to surrender hope only ensures that nothing will change. Embrace your vision for a better world and you'll find all the hope you will ever need.

Once you let yourself envision a better world, you can then consider where you fit into this whole picture. Our culture teaches us that we are each completely responsible for our own well-being -- that we are independent creatures who should make our own way in life without depending on others. But really we all rely on each other for our daily existence. We eat food that grows in soil nurtured by microscopic organisms. We drink water that has vaporized from the oceans. We breathe oxygen respired by the trees and wear clothing made by people across the planet whom we will never meet. We rely on our friends and family for support and create a sense of belonging and meaning within our communities. Our personal well being is inextricably linked to the well being of our families, our friends, our communities, and our planet. And the well being of others, in turn, is shaped by our own well being.

When you truly understand the interconnected nature of the world, you realize that you are both very powerful and yet very small -- you influence everything around you, yet there is so much more to life than just you. When you validate the clear connections that bind us all together, you gain awareness of how each of your actions affects other people and the planet around you.

Trap #2: "It's not my responsibility"

You may be saying, I didn't cause the world's problems so why should I be responsible for fixing them? That may seem true on the surface, until you realize that the problems that our world faces are created by the daily actions of millions and millions of people. The CEO of a company may be the person who should be held most responsible for the pollution created by her/his company. But don't the shareholders bear some responsibility, and the people who purchase its products, and the local television station that covers car crashes and celebrity weddings instead of investigating local water quality?

All of us hold some measure of responsibility for the challenges that our society faces, even if it's only because we have not taken the time to become informed about our world and about the well being of others. We don't like to take responsibility for other people's messes, and we like to think that our own messes are very small. But our impact on the world is much larger than we think. For example, try to answer the following questions:

* Whose car causes smog?
* Whose use of energy causes global warming and climate change?
* Whose apathy leads to the lowest voter turnout in history?
* Whose frown makes people think that your city is not a friendly place?
* Whose purchases keep an unethical company in business?
* Whose lack of support for a community group causes it to close its doors?

The answer to these questions is, All of us together. The responsibility lies with the group as a whole and with each individual. How you spend and invest your money, the career you choose, the car you drive, your participation or non-participation in our democracy, and countless other decisions all have an impact on our planet and its people.

Trap #3: "One person can't make a difference"

Even if you are willing to take responsibility and do your part to make the world a better place, you may be thinking, But I'm only one person on a planet of six billion people. I can't possibly make a difference!

Problems such as racism, hunger, and inequality seem so big that it's easy to feel small and powerless. How much of a difference can you actually make anyway? In truth, you can make one person's difference -- no more, no less. On a daily basis, you not only have the power to perpetuate the world's problems, you have the opportunity to stand up for the creation of a world based on your own deeply held values.

* Your money invested in the right bank could help create more wealth for poor communities.
* Your letter can be the one that changes the behavior of an entire corporation.
* Your vote can elect government officials that really make a difference.
* Your timely call to a friend can change their outlook for the day.
* Your donation can help a social change organization meet its lofty goals.
* Your purchase can allow a locally owned business to thrive in your community.
* Your participation can transform a small group of people into the beginnings of a social movement.

Not only does each of your actions have a direct impact on the world, but also every choice you make sends a message to those around you. Your choice to use your bicycle instead of your car, set up recycling bins at work, or volunteer for an organization you care about can inspire others to do their part. We create momentum for each other. At the same time, we support each other to live in a manner that creates possibilities for a better future.

Don't ever let anyone convince you that you have no power -- together we have the power to change the world. All significant changes in the world start slowly, at a single time and place, with a single action. One man, one woman, one child stands up and commits to creating a better world. Their courage inspires others, who begin to stand up themselves. You can be that person. Once you become aware of how your actions affect others and accept responsibility for your role in creating a better world, your values will come to the forefront of your life. In what ways do you want to change the world? What do you value most in life? What would the world be like if everyone was taking responsibility for how their life creates and shapes the world?

Trap #4: "Building a better world seems totally overwhelming"

Building A Better World -- One Person at a TimeWanting the world to be a better place is one thing, but being willing to personally take on bringing that world into being is another. As you more fully integrate your values with your actions, you are bound to become frustrated. The first thing you may notice is that we all live in contradiction with many of our values.

* You wish people were friendlier, but you realize that you are often too busy to smile and say Hello to the cashier at the place where you go every day for lunch.
  *You detest the thought of children slaving away in a sweatshop, yet you find out that the new pair of shoes you just bought (at a bargain price) were made by workers paid only a fraction of their living expenses.

Your realizations may leave you feeling frustrated, guilty, or even hypocritical. But remember we don't have to be perfect people, have perfect knowledge, wait until the perfect time, or know the perfect action to take before we begin making the world better. (Those are all just ways that we keep ourselves from making a difference.)

Keep in mind that the goal is a better world and not a perfect world. It is not an all-or-nothing commitment. You take those actions that are sustainable for your unique life. Once you start, you'll gain better knowledge, better timing, and better actions and ultimately become a better person for it. Learn to live with your imperfections; embrace them -- they are what make us human. And consider this: If you were somehow able to manage to be perfect, who would be able to live up to your standards? Who would want to join you in making a difference? Who would be able to do what you do? No one.

With each conscious choice you make to create a better world, you take responsibility for your existence. You increasingly become the director of your life as you more fully integrate your values with your actions. You create a stronger and healthier society and planet. Now is the time to commit to transforming your good intentions into action.

Trap #5: "I don't have the time or the energy"

The last thing most of us want is to add even more responsibilities to our already busy schedules. Not only do we not have the physical energy for more activities, we don't have the psychic energy to worry about the world's problems. We fill our daily schedules with bill paying, message returning, meal making, appointment keeping, note writing, house cleaning and appearance fixing. We surround ourselves with more and more technology to save ourselves time and then often find ourselves at the mercy of it. In the end, it seems that we have even less time and more to get done.

When you take the time to reschedule your life, based on your most deeply held values, you will find all of the time necessary to live a fulfilling life that contributes to others. Upon examining your priorities, you may discover that although you value spending time with your family, you actually spend most of your free time watching TV. Why not shift your energies?

Trap #6: "I'm not a saint"

You don't have to be a saint to make a difference in the world. Many people stereotype individuals committed to social change as people who have put aside families, convenience, and pleasure for a cause they deem to be of greater importance. Images of Mother Teresa, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi come to mind. We see these individuals living in poverty, fasting, or protesting and we label them as self-proclaimed martyrs. We can't imagine doing the things they do, and we think, I'm not someone who can change the world, I don't want to sacrifice everything, or I'm not that good.

The point is to balance your personal needs, your family's needs, and your community's needs. The goal is not to live the perfect life but to make improvements in your life so that your actions are increasingly in line with your values. (And be sure to forgive yourself when you don't live up to your own expectations.)

Committing yourself to making a difference can be fulfilling, meaningful, and fun. You don't have to move to a cabin in the woods, read dense political theory all day, live in poverty, or walk around with a frown because of the heaviness of the world's problems. Rather than being a sacrifice, working for a better world can help you create a deep happiness beyond your imagination.

Once you have committed to living out your values, the next step is to learn about and take the most practical, effective actions available to bring about the better world you envision. Without adequate information, it's difficult to take effective actions and easy to take actions that unintentionally work against what you're trying to accomplish.

Trap #7: "I don't know enough about the issues"

None of us wants to feel like we're leaping into action uninformed. Because the world's problems are so complex, it's easy to think we will never know enough to act in ways that will really help solve these problems. Make an effort to get quality information about the world so that your actions will actually be effective. At times you will just know in your heart which actions you should take.

In our ever-changing world there will always be more to know, but taking action can actually help inform you about the issues you care about. When you become involved, it connects you with others who care about the same issues and creates numerous opportunities for learning.

Trap #8: "I don't know where to begin"

In fact, you have already begun. You already act in ways that take others' wellbeing into account, whether you lend your mower to a neighbor, jump-start a co-worker's car, or let a car change lanes in front of you on the freeway.

Just start where you feel the most comfortable. Maybe pick an area in your life where you are already taking some actions. Then work up to actions that will be more challenging. Or start with the action that would be the most fun, the one you could do with a friend, or one that will give you the most fulfillment. Identify actions that are important to you and that are realistic for you to take on. Be open to challenging yourself, but don't overwhelm yourself with unrealistic expectations. If making the world better isn't fulfilling for you, you won't keep it up very long.

Trap #9: "I'm not an activist"

Building A Better World -- One Person at a TimeWhen many of us think of social change, we imagine environmentalists in tie-dyed shirts blocking logging trucks or gas-masked rebels facing off with lines of riot police. Not wanting to get involved in such intense actions or to be associated with what the media portray as irrational or radical protesters, we don't get involved. In reality, people of all professions, backgrounds, interests, and lifestyles are involved in social change. Lawyers, teachers, autoworkers, computer programmers, cashiers, and clerical workers are among the many people making a difference in the streets, in the office, in their communities and at home.

You can be yourself and fulfill your commitment to a better world. You don't have to follow some pre-designed path for making the world better. You don't have to change who you are in order to live out your values. In fact with your values at the forefront of your life, you're actually being more true to yourself. This book [The Better World Handbook] provides you a range of actions with which to carve out your own niche. Be creative, forge your own unique path, and translate commitment into action in your own way.

People all over the world are living out their vision for a better world. Many people are simplifying their lives, buying less stuff, working less, are giving back more to their community. Concern and knowledge about the environment has been spreading for the last 30 years, and recycling has become a widespread habit. People are taking time to learn about other cultures and appreciate diversity. No matter where you turn, you see individuals doing their part. You are not alone in building a better world.


Beware! When you start living your life more in line with your values, some conflicts may arise. Your actions will sometimes threaten others who haven't put as much thought into how they want to live their lives. They may even try to stop you from making changes in your life because they do not want to examine their own existence in the world. Accept this -- it comes with the territory.

It is also common to take on a self-righteous attitude when you have strongly held values. This attitude is destructive to the goal of a better world. People do not want to be around someone who lives life to show others how wrong they are.

If you have an understanding of the beauty and the complexity of life, then you will always attract people who are yearning for peace and fulfillment. Understand that you are no better than anyone else; you are just someone trying to live life the best way you know how. Find out more at: 

Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New Society Publishers. ©2001, 2007.

Article Source

The Better World Handbook: Small Changes That Make a Big Difference
by Ellis Jones, Ross Haenfler, and Brett Johnson with Brian Klocke.

Specifically designed to reach people who normally would not consider themselves activists, The Better World Handbook is directed toward those who care about creating a more just, sustainable, and socially responsible world but don’t know where to begin. Substantially updated, this revised bestseller now contains more recent information on global problems, more effective actions, and many new resources.

Info/Order this book (new edition/different cover) or download the Kindle edition

About the Authors

Ellis JonesEllis Jones has been teaching students to make a difference in the world for the past ten years. He taught environmental education to local school children and, after receiving his Master's Degree in International Peace Studies from Notre Dame, spent two years in the Peace Corps teaching Panamanian students and teachers to care for their rainforests.Ross Haenfler

Ross Haenfler emerged from the straight edge punk rock scene to study and participate in social movements. He teaches courses on U.S. Social Movements, Nonviolence and the Ethics of Social Action, Implementing Social Change, and Self and Consciousness.

rett JohnsonBrett Johnson has been a dedicated member of the environmental and simple living movements for years. With courses such as Self in Modern Society, and Social Conflict and Social Values, Brett enlightens students about economic and racial inequality and the increasing role of advertising in our lives.

Brian Klocke is a passionate activist in the field of social justice, having taught students about corporate ethics, race relations, gender issues, and the most pressing global problems that we face at the end of the millennium. His current research focuses on how corporations shape and control our modern culture.