A new book Connected: The Surprising Poer of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives (2009, Little, Brown, and Co) has some important ideas for social change organizations. Create networks! If you really want to bring about change, don't just send out information in the form of newsletters, web sites, or magazines, create networks! You've probably heard something about the ideas of Christakis and Fowler — the news stories announce the fact that if your friend loses weight, you are more likely to lose weight. If your friend's friend is happy, you are more likely to be happy. In other words, emotions and actions spread. As I've said for many years (I heard it from someone and I like it) we become like the people we hang around. When I was a community college administrator I was a much stuffier person than when I was hanging around with faculty. I always used this as cautionary advice to people, telling them to be careful who they hung around with.
But it's just as important for social groups to understand. If you want people to behave differently, form groups and work with the leaders of the groups. If you want people to be more altruistic, select an altristic person as leader and give him or her information about the importance of altruism. If you want people to act more sustainably and reduce their carbon footprint, form a group and encourage the members to bring about changes. They are more likely to do this when they talk about the changes in their group than if you just give them their information on an individual basis.
What this says to me is that simplicity circles are very important! People are much more likely to live simply if they are in a simplicity group. Further, the effect will be even wider because each of these people is a member of other groups and they will affect their members.
We've always known that there are certain things that happen more efficiently if people act together. The authors use the example of putting out a fire. If you have people running to a river and carrying back buckets of water to a burning house, they are not as effective as the group that forms a line and passes the water along.
Further, it's clear that cooeration is part of our nature and has resulted at least in part, from evolution. There are just certain things done better if done with others — like fighting wild animals or predatory groups.
But we have forgotten all of this in the US. Our ultra individualistic tendencies have made us ignore the importance of groups. Now happiness research is showing that people who have strong social ties are both happier and healthier. Again, it seems like common sense, but we don't seem to pay attention to things in this culture until the academic researchers pronounce that something is so. The true test is that we must begin to act on this knowldege by not only helping to form social networks but by creating a culture that brings people together. We need more public spaces and festivals as well as shorter working hours and less commuting in private cars. We need to quit encouraging competition and making rich people into celebrities. The best thing we can do is create wealth equality, because inequality encourages people to be out for themselves and to put greed ahead of caring.
Ultimately, we need to create a culture with more time for social ties.