John-Paul Flintoff

What can one person do?

Extract from chapter 1 of How To Change The World

Tolstoy as a young man in military uniform How can I, one individual in a world of billions, hope to change anything?

There are many reasons why this kind of defeatist question comes so easily to us. They include the way we have been brought up, a lifetime of putting up with things that frustrate or dismay us, and painful memories of failed attempts to Do Something.

But the fact remains that we are all making a difference all the time. The real problem is that, if we’re only affecting things unconsciously then we are probably not producing the effect we would wish for.

Some people may find it hard to believe they are making a difference all the time. In which case, it may help to abandon the global perspective for a moment and zoom into our daily human interactions – in which we spend every moment either deciding what must happen next or going along with somebody else’s ideas. Either way, our actions are all purposeful, and all produce effects. This is hardly the stuff of history, you might argue. Certainly not compared with Julius Caesar invading Britain, Genghis Khan sacking Baghdad and Christopher Columbus discovering America. That’s how many people understand history. “The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” wrote Thomas Carlyle.

But the “great man” theory of history has been on its way out for years. Nowadays, we recognise that those men couldn’t have done what they did on their own. And we identify historical significance in hitherto overlooked episodes.

The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (above, in as a young man in military uniform) was one of the first to observe that history should more accurately be considered to consist of the combined effect of the many small things that ordinary individuals, do every day: “An infinitely large number of infinitesimally small actions”.

As Tolstoy saw it, we are making history from the moment we get up in the morning till we go to bed at night. And it’s not only the things we do that make history. It’s also the things we don’t do. That’s obvious when you think about, say, voting in an election or not. But taken to its logical conclusion it also goes to show that we are making a difference even after going to bed: because we are sleeping instead of (say) working all night on some earthshaking political manifesto, or patrolling the streets to feed the homeless.

And that’s fine, by the way: we all need to sleep. But Tolstoy’s insight requires us to recognise that we are all responsible for the way things are. “We are each absolutely essential, each totally irreplaceable,” says the Native American activist Leonard Peltier. “Each of us is the swing vote in the bitter election battle now being waged between our best and our worst possibilities.”

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