It’s really easy to be discouraged by the state of the world. Social media is a doomscroll, the news is, by design, almost entirely negative, and everyone seems on edge.

Not to mention the fact that the problems we face seem huge and entirely intractable. I make the case here that we need systemic change above all else. But where does that leave the individual? Apart from sleepless and anxious?

In the past, I’ve advocated taking up a citizen science project as a way to make a difference. But today I’m going to back up a level, and describe a method by which you can determine how best to apply your particular skillset to the problems we face. Let’s dig in.

  1. Scan the headlines and make a list of some big, hairy problems. These could include public health, food, renewable energy, climate change, water quality, housing, poverty.
  2. Which of these issues bothers you the most? Which of them do you feel is the most critical or most important? There’s no right or wrong answer here. Let’s be real: these are all critical problems that needed to be solved yesterday. You could make the case for any of them. What we want here is what calls out to you. Try to pick only one.
  3. Once you’ve picked an issue, start reading a bunch of articles about that topic in particular. Get an idea of what the scope of the problem is and what the specific roadblocks are. Look at it from as many levels as possible: the international level, national, regional, local. So for example, if the issue that calls out to you is the fact that insect populations are declining, try to figure out what factors at each level are causing this to happen.
  4. Write a point form paragraph that gives you a ‘state of play’ summary. So, to go back to our insect example, reasons for decline include: habitat loss, pesticide use, climate change, light pollution, and so on. Who’s responsible for each of these problems at each level?
  5. Now spend a few minutes imagining a better version of the future. What does that look like? The obvious answer in our example is: a world with more bugs. But get detailed again. What does that look like? Fireflies at night, meadows full of flowers, the sound of crickets in the autumn? Live there for a while, in your head. Build that world.
  6. Now you have Point A, where we are, and Point B, where we want to be. (Or bee!) Now set your brain to thinking about the steps that will be required to get us from the present to the desired future. What has to happen locally? Regionally? Nationally or at the global level?
  7. Take a deep breath. Remember that this isn’t going to happen overnight. But it will happen if you start taking steps in that direction. I know it’s overwhelming. Breathe again.
  8. Now take a personal inventory. What are your skills? Are you a master meme maker? Do you excel at Excel spreadsheets? Is photography your jam? Maybe you’re a lawyer? Pretend you’re writing a resume here (because you are), and list allllll of your many skills. No time for humility here. Brag.
  9. Now, go do a web search for people who are tackling the issue you care about. Because here’s the most awesome thing of all: you’re not alone. I know it seems like no one gives a damn and that everyone is blindly marching straight into hell right now, but I can assure you, that’s not true. In fact, hundreds of thousands of people just like you are out there, fighting the good fight.
  10. Join one or more groups that’s specifically working on what you want to work on. Ask how you can help. To return one more time to bugs: there are a number of organizations, from Monarch Watch, to Rotary International, to the David Suzuki Foundation who have started organizing people to plant pollinator gardens in their yards and in their communities. If housing is your thing, you might find an organization in your community dedicated to social housing or a state level group working on better legislation. You are not alone.
  11. Don’t forget to donate, if you can afford it. A monthly automatic donation helps provide stable funding for organizations that need it.

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