Beyond the Starfish: Creating Systemic, Lasting Change in the New Year


In his book, But Will the Planet Notice?, economist Gernot Wagner shares a parable humanitarians have heard many times. It’s the oft-told starfish story in which a pragmatic man tells a boy rescuing beached starfish by throwing them back into the sea that he can’t possibly make a difference given the thousands of starfish on the beach. As the boy throws a starfish back into the ocean, he responds to the pragmatist by saying, “I made a difference for that one.”

This story is a reminder to all of us that in the face of great odds and much injustice, suffering and cruelty, doing something – anything – to help individuals does indeed make a difference. And yet, in the face of such daunting and pervasive problems as alarming rates of species extinction, global warming, a growing human population and all that this forebodes (even greater disparities between rich and poor, more people without access to clean water and enough food, depletion of resources, more pollution, etc.), and truly unimaginable cruelty and the killing of one trillion animals every year for food, it’s time for a better parable.

Wagner offers a new ending to the starfish story, one that we’d do well to spread with the same enthusiasm with which we’ve shared the original starfish parable (he points out that a Google search on the first line of the starfish story brings up 26,000 results). In this revised conclusion, Wagner has his pragmatist – in reality a wise man – reply to the boy with this question:

“Have you ever considered why these starfish are washing up on the shore?”

Wagner goes on to imagine a scenario in which a fisherman is using dynamite to kill fish so he can skim them off the surface. The starfish wash up on the shore as collateral damage. If the boy wants to make a difference, the wise man suggests, he needs to stop the fisherman. But by now the boy is tired after all the effort of throwing starfish back into the ocean, and hungry, too. “Spying the fisherman pulling up onshore, his boat full of fish, he says ‘Oh, please, can I buy some?’”

Wagner’s new parable offers a critical message for our time, one I’ve written about in my book, Most Good, Least Harm: We must work for systemic change. It is not enough to make choices for individuals that are kind and generous and good; we must also be wise and complex systems thinkers who address problems at their root and who work to transform unjust, cruel and destructive systems into ones that are healthy, sustainable and humane for all.

This is a more complex task, but not actually a harder one. The energy it takes to help individuals is enormous, and while we must never stop devoting some of our time toward this worthy end, our efforts won’t amount to very much if we aren’t willing to invest a larger portion of our time in the root causes and root solutions. Putting out fires alone will never save the world, whereas a combination of fire prevention as our core effort, with emergency fire fighting as a necessary response to conflagrations, may do the trick.

And at the same time, we need to ensure that we are consistent. The hypocrisy revealed in Wagner’s new ending is pervasive among many of us humanitarians who, like the boy eating fish while rescuing starfish, may tirelessly rescue dogs while eating pigs, or buy products not tested on animals as well as slave-tainted chocolate, or give to the homeless shelter while perpetuating systems of inequity.

In this new year, may we each pledge this: to the best of our ability, may we model a message of compassion and justice toward all (people, animals, and the earth) while working to change the systems that perpetuate injustice and cruelty, using the skills and knowledge we currently have and pursuing those skills and knowledge we’ve yet to cultivate.

For a more humane 2012 and a wise populace of change agents.


Related Stories:

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Non-Human and Human Animals: More Similarities Than Differences

Occupy Yourself: Action is the Antidote to Despair



Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and dynamic resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education, and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given a TEDx talk on humane education and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.

Image courtesy of jacQuie.k via Creative Commons.

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Brianna L.
Past Member 3 years ago

Thank you :)

Winn Adams
Winn Adams3 years ago


Belinda W.
Belinda Weikel3 years ago

Thank you for the article.

Waltraud U.
Waltraud U.3 years ago

Systemic change should be from one day to the next . To manage .....

James G.
James G.3 years ago

Yes, systemic change is not harder than trying to solve symptoms. It's easier. However it's still tricky because we're all tuned to ignore systems and focus on symptoms. Hence this most important area of work has been routinely overlooked and barely attempted over the past 40 years of sustainability efforts - by campaigners, academics or institutions.

Everyone interested is welcome to take a look and comment on a set of systemic change proposals, designed like a 7-lever key to unlock the change that could still turn things around if we act fast.

Gloria H.
Gloria H.3 years ago

The game is about over, this is our last shot to do the right thing. The clock is running. Steady now, focus and give it your all.

Dave C.
Dave C.3 years ago

I am only one, I can't do everything, but I can do something..... Edwin Hale (to paraphrase)....

We Care2ers HAVE and CAN do a WHOLE LOT!!!!

My daughter and I were just discussing the very sad story about elephant and rhino poaching....not to condone at all, but she did point out that unfortunately these amazing animals being poached are being done in countries with great poverty in many cases.....and perhaps there are poachers just trying to have a little money to opposed to the bosses who are just greedy, greedy, greedy......maybe we have to figure out how to help the impoverished in these places realize how to avoid poverty in other ways rather than destroying the wonders they are blessed to have but not realize....

Michele G.
Past Member 3 years ago

One trillion animals killed every year for food. Appalling.

Laurita Walters
Laurita Walters3 years ago

Wow. Sounds good. I hope we can live up to your proposal.

KARLOLINA G.3 years ago

Thank you