why do you care; or, if you don’t, why not?

Joi Ito, in one of his thinking-out-loud style posts, wondered about what it is that makes people care:

What is really striking to me and something that I’m trying understand is the process that people go through to reach a higher level of caring for human beings outside of their immediate circle. I think that this process holds the key for some of the important contributions that technologies can make.

This struck me as being a fundamental question. It seems utterly — viscerally — obvious to me that human need on the other side of the world, or down the block, matters to me; that it affects me, that I must respond to it. By way of rational explanation, I offer two observations. One, I’ve been up and down a bit through my life, and it’s not hard for me to see myself in pretty much any lousy situation; and I know that it’s all too easy to end up in the shite through no fault of your own, and fault doesn’t matter much anyway when you just need a hand. Two, I am always better off if those around me, whether next door or across the world, are better off: it means they are more able and more likely to lend me a hand if I should need one, and less likely to try to elevate their situation by climbing over me. In the long term, over many generations, sharing is the only real security. In the short term, over one lifetime say, that doesn’t really hold. There are plenty of assholes living well on other people’s sweat, and since I don’t believe in any form of life after death I don’t believe they will ever pay any material price for that. The price they pay, though, is in quality of life. I don’t believe you can be happy without awareness, and once aware you cannot escape empathy. Or to put it another way: like Honest Abe, I feel good when I do good things, and that’s my religion; and I don’t see how anyone can be really happy any other way. Money and power and all the trappings thereof are no substitute; not even close.
I didn’t always see the world that way, though, and it got me to wondering how I came to have the Weltanschauung I now do. About then, kevin of bastish.net joined the conversation with a careful exposition of his own journey into caring. It neatly describes my own, and so I reproduce it here with his permission:

1. Ignorance
—-Blissfully unaware of problems and plights of both neighbors and those thousands of miles away.
2. Awareness
—-Heard something on the news. Know it’s not good. Think “Someone should do something about that.”
3. Superficial action
—-Start making easy changes, that don’t affect my lifestyle. Requesting paper bags instead of plastic. Recycle bottles. “Adopt” a poor kid in Columbia. Begin to feel “I am good”, yet continue with my own irresponsible patterns of consumption, make decisions based on my own wants, rather than how they will affect other people.
My Tipping Point
3.5 Relatively satisfied with own economic / social condition
—-Realize that I don’t need to be rich, that my “quality of life” is not based on how much money I have, that I don’t need to own what TV, movies, and blogs tell me I do. Begin to have less-quantitative values. Spend less time trying to get richer, begin to have more time to read about both local and global issues.
4. Deeper awareness
—-Aware of how my life-style decisions are effecting other people in a negative way. Begin to seriously think about global / local inequalities and what it really means.
4.5 Dissatisfied with own condition as an irresponsible-consumer.
—-Realize that my superficial actions are worthless, no matter how many times I re-use a plastic bag, it doesn’t help if I am using it buy sweat-shop goods at Wal-Mart. In order to make change, I have to change my lifestyle first, because it is my lifestyle that promotes global inequality.
5. Despair
—-Overwhelmed with the enormity of the situation, and the impossibility of changing my behavior, yet remaining a member of a society that doesn’t share my values, and puts enormous pressure to put myself first.
6. Find examples / community
—-Begin reading, searching, eventually find a community and examples of people who share my values.
7. Resolution / Search for answers
—-If they can do it, I can do it too. Resolve that I will make consumer decisions based on a “first, do no harm” approach.
Research, research, research. What are the effects of my decisions? How much do I need to consume? What should I avoid? What can I cut out? What can I use as a substitute?
8. Implementation on a personal level
—-Live own life according to the information I am finding. Strive to make good decisions. This is a semi-active approach. While I am actively changing my own lifestyle, placing my wallet vote, I am not doing anything to actively influence others to make large scale changes.
9. Despair
—-Plagued with increased awareness, filled with despair that for every good choice or sacrifice I make, there are hundreds of thousands of individuals who don’t care, who are working against a sustainable, equitable earth, who can nullify a years worth of my sacrifices, with a single trip to the mall.
10. Implementation on a local level
—-Activism on a local level. First, setting an example to those around you by living in a way that promotes your ideals. Devoting time and money to help local institutions influence local policy.
11. Implementation on a global level
While I am not there yet, I have recently applied to a couple graduate programs regarding policy making for sustainability and global equity, in the hopes that I can use what I learn there to implement more wide-spread changes and influence more than my friends and family.

I’m just starting on #10. On a global scale I’m not sure what I can do, besides supporting worldwide charities and being politically active here in the US (Anyone But Bush ’04!); but that’s a start, and perhaps other opportunities will present themselves.
So to return to the point of this post, I’d like to hear from anyone reading this: do you care? If so, why; if not, why not? Answers on a postcard in Joi’s comment thread, of course.