Yesterday I attended a luncheon put on by Seattle’s excellent Plymouth Housing Group, an innovative non-profit working to end homelessness in the city. Malcolm Gladwell — staff writer at The New Yorker, author of Tipping Point and Blink, blogger, and public intellectual extraordinaire — was the keynote speaker. (He was invited in large part thanks to his influential piece in the New Yorker arguing that problems like homelessness are "easier to solve than to manage.")

Opinions about Gladwell are mixed and deep-rooted. For my part, I think he’s great. He basically lives the life I dream about: someone who takes obscure academic research and buried historical anecdotes and popularizes them for a broad audience. (And it could have been me in his shoes, dammit, if only I lived in NYC and were, uh, smarter. And more imaginative. And a better writer. Damn you Gladwell!)

Anyway, his talk was on social change. Stripped of the anecdotes, the basic thesis of the talk was that social change has three somewhat unexpected features:

  1. It almost always happens faster and cheaper than anybody predicts. See: Berlin Wall falling.
  2. It is typically brought about not by people with great political or economic power, but by people with great social power — "connectors," as he calls them. These are folks who are part of an unusually large number of social circles, who can bring disparate groups together.
  3. It usually happens after a seemingly intractable problem has been reframed. The example here was the spread of seatbelt use in the U.S. For a long time it was a “government meddling” issue. Then a bunch of child-restraint laws were passed, and little Johnny started asking mom why she didn’t buckle up, and it became a “family responsibility” issue. In a matter of just two or three years, seatbelt use rates soared from 15% to 65%.

I suppose the application of these insights to the environmental problems we face today is so obvious as to need no explanation.

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One thing that shifted a bit in my thinking is that … I think I’ve been preoccupied with getting the big political and economic forces of our time behind, say, tackling climate change. I’ve been somewhat dismissive of the “change your lightbulbs” school of activism practiced by, say, Laurie David. Gladwell’s made me reconsider that a bit. Of course it’s impossible to predict where and when sudden change will take hold, but for that very reason, any attempt at change, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential, is worthwhile. Much food for thought. I hope to return to this in future posts.

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