Fighting for Social Good on All Fronts

By Hannah Bristol

How do we use the skills and opportunities we have to make the world a better place? Middlebury students revisit this question time and time again, from conversations in the dining hall to the “Careers for the Common Good” blog from the EIA. Hudson Cavanaugh ’14 has explored this question over the past two weeks in his column, “Warm Glow,” but his simplification of this question into pure economic terms neglects some important elements of this discussion.

The world in which we live is inherently complex and full of inequalities. Some work to better this world saves lives directly, like the expansion of medical care, and some indirectly, like working to mitigate the impacts of climate change. In the long-run, climate change will lead to extreme weather events, crop failure, and rising sea levels that will cost many lives and threaten many more, but in the short term, medical care has a greater impact.

Thus, while donations with the goal of immediate lives saved are undoubtedly important, working towards a more equitable and sustainable world requires both short and long-term investments. The benefits of these investments are difficult to measure, for they operate on a longer time frame and are therefore discounted; however, they are no less important.
Moreover, individual passions are indispensable in creating a long-term model for change. We often talk about exploring our passions, acknowledging that this love allows us to work harder than otherwise possible and sustain energy over long periods of time.

As Michelle Obama often said on the 2012 campaign trail, “real change is slow.” Perhaps the hardest lesson I’ve learned from engaging in climate activism is that real change is also exhausting. Passion spurns the determination that allows me to keep working. know I wouldn’t be able to put as much into investment banking as I can into political and environmental organizing because I wouldn’t feel the same gratification.

Cavanaugh addresses the idea of marginal utility of job decisions and accounts for morality; however, there are many nuances in this argument. While his example, Jennifer, who pushes JP Morgan toward social responsibility, may be working to push an unjust institution into socially responsible practices, her impact could still be overrun by what I would consider a net negative impact from investment banks. The Koch brothers donate money to environmental organizations like the Nature Conservancy and to cancer research; however, they make their money in the oil, gas and chemical industries and use much of it to lobby for lax environmental regulations, leading to cancer-causing contamination. They definitely do not break even on damage from their industry, despite their philanthropic habits. For an individual like Jennifer, her influence only can extend so far. Creating the large scale, systematic change required to dismantle the oppressive system reinforced by her employer requires a much greater movement with both internal and external pressure.

We see this dichotomy on our own campus with divestment. Our College educates many students who go off and do good in the world, often in environmentally friendly fields. But these efforts are hindered by the fact that our endowment invests in fossil fuels, allowing these companies to further maximize their profits by exploiting our planet’s resources with little regard for the social cost of carbon. We are not morally exonerated from investing in fossil fuels because we have a strong program in environmental studies. Indeed, that program should serve as a strong reminder for why we must divest our endowment and put our money where our mouths are.

Even if everyone were to give money in the most short-term cost effective way, paying careful attention to the ethics of their employer as well as the ethics of the organizations to which they are donating, we still need people on the ground working tirelessly to distribute malaria nets or vaccinate children. Change requires time as well as money, and in many cases, time can be more difficult to give.

Just as we cannot value the life of an American over the life of anyone else, we cannot simply treat people as numbers and base decision solely on cost-effectiveness. What is the point of saving a life if you cannot provide other basic human rights and needs like access to a livable environment free from containments? We must work together to create a safer and healthier global community, and this is a multi-faceted project. We do not want to eradicate guinea worm only to find that we have raised the global temperature beyond a salvageable threshold. Working to increase gender equality and education opportunities may not specifically save a life, but it will increase economic opportunities and quality of life for many future generations and could save children who are not yet born.

So do what you love and incorporate social responsibility into all aspects of your life.  In the long run, following your passions will sustain you far longer than working in an industry for the sake of opportunity cost and will allow you to maximize your total good. We need all pieces of the puzzle — both short and long-term goals, effective and fulfilling giving practices, and time and monetary donations. Creating lasting global change takes time and effort on all fronts, and there is no single solution. We can only do the most we can in a responsible and thoughtful way to comprehensively address the injustices that surround us both abroad and at home.

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