The Ripple Effect
The Major Consequences of Minor Actions
The “ripple effect” is an abstract metaphor to describe how our actions (or non-actions) reverberate throughout the physical and social world. It is a common metaphor in social science literature, however it has never been properly defined and expounded as a useful concept beyond the turn of phrase. I believe it can be studied successfully using systems, cybernetic, and network theories and models of the globalized world.
Moreover, simply as a literary metaphor, it has underutilized potential in the public ‘global village’ discourse. The mere suggestion of it as a measurable concept may turn off scholars as it implies a sheer incalculability of effects. We are, after all, talking about actual multi-dimensional ripple effects in social systems, not a tranquil pond.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t make contemplating our own actions any less important or constructive, especially in the context of the continuing collapse of the global and local into one another. Given the poignancy, utility, and currency of other related concepts such as the ‘ecological footprint’, ‘carbon footprint’, and ‘water footprint’, the ‘ripple effect’ should be considered for empirical development as a metric for one’s social impact on the world.
Sometimes there are directly observable consequences to our actions, but for the most part the effects of our daily routines are unseen in any intelligible way. We see global environmental devastation and social strife on the news but we remain completely dumbfounded as to our contribution to these effects, and we’re at just as much of a loss to know how make a difference for the better.
While the risks we face are systemic and seemingly beyond our control, on some level one must reduce society to its individual unit: You. To this effect, risk theorist Ulrich Beck writes,
“Whatever propels risk and makes it incalculable, whatever provokes the institutional crisis at the level of the governing regime and the markets, shifts the ultimate decision-making responsibility onto the individuals, who are ultimately left to their own devices with their partial and biased knowledge, with undecidability and multiple layers of uncertainty.” — Ulrich Beck
Here it would seem that our ripple effects are so incalculable that it would be an encumbrance to stop and consider them. Decision makers are expected to do their job with incomplete information. Consequently, they aren’t held accountable when shit hits the fan. This leads us to make decisions and take actions with a sort of indifference or amoral conscience. More specifically, the complexity of it all engenders a sort of wilful ignorance. Along these lines, the famed sociologist Max Weber wrote,
“In the great majority of cases actual action goes on in a state of inarticulate half-consciousness or actual unconsciousness of its subjective meaning. The actor is more likely to “be aware” of it in a vague sense than he is to “know” what he is doing or be explicitly self-conscious about it. In most cases his action is governed by impulse or habit.” — Max Weber
Thus, the maxim knowledge is power is largely incomplete. First of all, it is more accurate to say that knowledge is power when applied, but highest formulation and most noble would be to say true knowledge applied correctly is conducive to power that is constructive, and thus, more good.
Finally, it is not complete unless we reflexively understand the positive or negative effects of our individual power and reform our action accordingly. Thus, Weber’s point highlights the importance of individual reflexivity. By that I mean, we need to continually learn how we create ripple effects are, and what the outcomes they produce.
In the global village in which we now live, we must appreciate the effects of our actions on both the micro and macro scales. Our mere participation in society has consequences across the globe. Sociologist Norman Long writes,
“particular social interactions and decisions have a ripple effect on more distant social arenas, or over time create emergent sets of relations that form larger-scale systems or fields of action.” — Normal Long
This is only becoming truer as global integration increase and technology shrinks temporal and spatial aspects of the globe. Every individual shares culpable for problems we co-create and the burden of living together. We need to take responsibility for ripple effects we send out, causing the current crises, even though its difficult to see how. As Ulrich Beck writes,
“who in a legally relevant sense ‘causes’ pollution, or a financial crises, is difficult to determine, since these events are the result of interactions among many individuals.” — Ulrich Beck
Taking responsibility begins with a sociological imagination, and continues with expanding ones awareness from their physical reach to the entire earth. It is virtually impossible to disassociate ourselves from the negative effects and byproducts of our levels of consumption and destruction, but this abstract metaphor takes us a long way to becoming aware and finding ways to critique our own relationship to the world.
It’s worth mentioning too that we can’t talk about ripple effects without also talking about the butterfly effect, tipping points, and negative externalities.
The ripple effect should be distinguished from the ‘butterfly effect’, a term from chaos theory, which stipulates that a small action in a complex system can be amplified and produce large effects elsewhere in the system. The ripple effect may have more relative application in considering the aggregate effect of individual actions.
Therefore, global problems such as pollution, poverty, corruption, systemic ignorance, which are caused by no primary actor, can be explained by the ripple effect, as based on the aggregate empowerment of individuals. Another related term is the ‘domino effect’ which implies Newtonian transference of energy in a linear system.
A tipping point is also different in that it can refer to crossing thresholds, achieving critical mass, or virality. When something reaches a tipping point, the returns on the action can be unexpectedly and unpredictably large, as other facts in the system catalyze and react with the input(s). In the context of sociology, a tipping point indicates a rapid change in behaviour of a group, be it positive or negative. Might I say that we need to reach a tipping point in how we consider our ripple effects.
In economics, a negative externality is a cost incurred against a person who had nothing to do with the transaction that created it. (Air) pollution is the typical example. There are direct individual consequences to this (people die from exposure), but more important is the abstract aggregate effect. Anthropogenic climate change is the ultimate catastrophic result of the billions of little acts of pollution.
Civilization is deeply interconnected, and all our actions send ripple effects into the world which produce aggregate devastation. Inequality, climate change, racism, war, poverty, terrorism, collapse. For all of these things the complexity outdoes us, and we can’t allow it any longer. We must understand our ripple effects or create none at all.
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