On a recent flight, I watched the movie “Big Miracle” based on Operation Breakthrough, a rescue effort to save three grey whales trapped in the frozen Beaufort Sea near Alaska in 1988. I remembered that rescue operation. Although I was an animal activist and humane educator, I did not join the millions of people who were ardently following the rescue attempt.
I found the rescue’s price tag (around $1 million) alarming, because I knew what 1 million dollars could do for animals, for humane education, and for creating a more humane world for countless individuals. I also was irritated by the irony that whalers and governments that harm marine mammals (my own and Russia’s) were suddenly coming to the rescue of three whales. Of course I wanted the whales to survive, but it unsettled me that so many people were suddenly passionately concerned about three whales, even though they thought nothing of eating other sentient animals produced in modern day factory farms on a daily basis.
How funny then to find myself crying during “Big Miracle,” completely riveted and deeply moved that Russia and the U.S. would cooperate to save the whales, and desperate for a good outcome. Such is the power of individuals and stories.
Most of us find a compelling story a strong motivation to help. We respond more to a single child needing food (and open our wallets accordingly) than to a widespread famine. We are more likely to donate to an animal shelter that may save a few hundred animals a year or a new school which might educate a couple of hundred students than to a humane education organization whose work could save tens of thousands of animals or reach tens of thousands of children in that same year. This has always frustrated me, but I also understand it. I, too, am motivated by a single story, an individual whose life I can save or help. It’s why I’ve donated to sanctuaries and sponsored poverty-stricken children.
As I watched “Big Miracle,” I found myself softening around the high cost of trying to rescue those three whales. I came to understand that the human inclination to connect to individuals is a key component for most of us to be able to extend our compassion and live more humanely in general. For many, it may take an individual to open our hearts, which in turn may open our minds and help us to examine our choices wisely and consistently. That’s the goal: not simply a few saved lives, but many transformed people willing and able to think and act creatively and effectively to make a lasting and widespread difference.
As long as rescuing one leads to this goal, I’m all for it, even at a high cost. The trick is to ensure that it really does lead to more consistent compassionate choicemaking and to efficient and effective changemaking. We must recognize that our resources (both in time and money) are limited, and that we will need to choose how to have the greatest impact for the greatest number.
This is why, while I will periodically support the rescue of a few with my dollars, to have the biggest positive effect that I can I will use most of my resources and my time to work to change systems. In my case, I work to transform education, so that a generation will have the knowledge, tools, and motivation to become solutionaries for a better world for all.
Image courtesy of dfletcher via Creative Commons.
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