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Humanitarianism Is Not Enough

Why the "starfish story" needs an update.

Zoe Weil
Source: Zoe Weil

There’s an oft-told parable about a child rescuing beached starfish by throwing them back into the sea. A pragmatic adult walks by and tells the child that given the hundreds of starfish on the shore, throwing them one by one into the ocean can’t possibly make a difference.

Tossing a starfish back into the water, the child responds, “I made a difference for that one.”

This story is meant to serve as a reminder that in the face of large-scale suffering and destruction, doing something—anything—to help individuals does indeed make a difference.

And yet, given such daunting and pervasive problems as escalating rates of extinction, the climate crisis, human population growth, racism, war, and the cruel treatment and slaughter of one trillion animals every year for food, we need a different parable than the starfish story for today’s world. And we need to do more than be humanitarians. We must also become solutionaries.

A solutionary uncovers the causes of problems, from societal systems to deeper psychological motivations and worldviews, that lead to the creation and perpetuation of local and global problems. Then a solutionary looks for effective leverage points and devises solutions so the problem does not persist.

If solutionaries encountered hundreds of starfish on the shore, they would surely throw as many as they could back into the ocean, but they would also ask, “What caused the beaching of these animals?” Then they would investigate to find out the answer and address the problem at its source, so that (assuming the beaching wasn't caused by a storm) next week, next month, and next year, starfish weren’t dying on the shores.

In my humane education workshops, I share examples of solutions people have developed and ask participants to assess their “solutionariness.” One of these examples is about humanitarians tackling two pervasive problems: food waste and hunger. Volunteers collect food that would otherwise be discarded by restaurants, then bring it to food pantries where hungry people can find a meal.

This is laudable, meaningful, and good work. But is it solutionary?

Through the rubric below, we offer a scale to assess how solutionary a solution is, from "emerging" to "developing" to "solutionary" to "most solutionary."

Zoe Weil
Assessing solutions on a solutionary scale
Source: Zoe Weil

Using the rubric, where do you think the solution I’ve described above falls?

During my workshops, most participants say it’s “emerging.” The reason they give is that the solution does not address the causes of food waste or the causes of hunger, a core component of a solutionary solution.

At one conference I spoke at in New York City, a woman in the audience said that she volunteered at one of the local food pantries, and they had to discard food because more was donated by well-meaning humanitarians, bringing excess food from restaurants, than they could give away.

At another conference, an audience member wondered if such a program could backfire, with more restaurants relieved of the worry of disposing of food waste, and more citizens relieved of concerns around inequity and poverty, thus potentially perpetuating both problems over time.

Not everyone thought this solution fell into the “emerging” category. One imagined that, if brought to scale, the solution could truly solve these problems. Which is to say, assessing solutions for their “solutionariness” is not a science. This particular workshop participant agreed that the solution would never address the causes of the problems, but he felt that it was still a potentially great solution.

So while there are no absolutes when it comes to determining how solutionary our volunteer and charitable efforts are, the process of carefully examining how we spend our time and money on creating positive change is very important.

We must never stop devoting some of our efforts and resources on humanitarian efforts, yet the goal of significantly diminishing suffering will likely remain thwarted if we aren’t willing to invest a larger portion of our time in solutionary thinking and action for long-term systemic change.

When we think about the starfish that the child rescues in the famous story, we generally assume the animals survive when they return to the ocean. But if the story were based on reality, that outcome might fall into the category of wishful thinking. If a big storm hadn't caused the beaching, it’s likely it would have been associated with poisoning, blasting, dredging, trawling, or the ocean had become hypoxic due to fertilizer run-off, in which case, the starfish would need more than a toss into the sea to survive.

In other words, the starfish need solutionaries working strategically and effectively on their behalf. And so do people, other animals, and the ecosystems that sustain life.

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