Acting Collectively

I find myself thinking a lot these days about the difference between individual and collective solutions to problems.

As a lifetime martial artist, I believe personal responsibility is important, especially in a crisis situation. But personal responsibility does not necessarily mean individual solutions; rather it means that you take action in a situation instead of wringing your hands.

It can, for example, mean you follow the evacuation plan out of a disaster area. Or that you organize your neighbors to deal with a disaster. Or that you follow public health recommendations about things like wearing masks and getting vaccines. You take personal responsibility to behave in a useful and collective way.

But in the United States, we all too often take the attitude that all problems are individual, not collective, with the “you do you” approach to the pandemic being only the latest example.

A couple of weeks ago I did a lot of driving on California freeways, which made me extremely aware of how building a society around cars takes individualism to an extreme. We have this whole network of high-speed roads, driven on by people with varying degrees of skill in vehicles of all sizes and in all conditions of repair.

Individualism only goes so far in that situation. Even if I’m doing my best to drive safely and responsibly, there are only so many options to protect myself on a six-lane highway clogged with cars if someone else is driving like an idiot or even just has a tire blow out.

43,000 people died due to traffic “accidents” in the U.S. in 2021. (I put “accidents” in quote marks because I read Jessie Singer’s There Are No Accidents, a book that points out that many of the deaths and injuries we put under that title are caused by policy decisions. I wrote about it here.)

I wonder what our life would be like today if we had put the same amount of money that went into motor vehicle infrastructure into rail systems.

Rail is collective; cars are individual.

Or take allergies.

Lyz Lenz had a good essay on allergies in her newsletter “Men Yell at Me” a couple of weeks back.

Our approach to allergies is very much “you do you.” Figure out what you’re allergic to, take these drugs, do these treatments, clean your house and linens this way.

To some degree, that can be helpful, but as Lyz points out, allergies are increasing and the causes are not individual.

I happen to be allergic to tree pollen, primarily “cedar” (various varieties of juniper and similar trees). Turns out a lot of trees are producing much more pollen these days, likely due to climate change. I certainly can’t fix climate change on my own.

Air pollution is a similar problem, one that cannot be solved individually. High levels of particulate matter in the air aggravate my sinuses, just as an example. What’s an irritant for me can be life-threatening for people with asthma, not to mention those with COPD or other lung conditions.

The pandemic has made it very clear that indoor air quality is also a big problem. For one thing, the level of carbon dioxide in a room is a useful proxy for determining the risk of spreading airborne viruses like Covid: the higher the CO2 level, the greater the likelihood that the people in the room are breathing each other’s lung secretions. High carbon dioxide levels can interfere with people’s cognitive abilities as well.

As an individual, you can buy a high quality air filter to address viruses and pollutants or put in a high quality heating/cooling/ventilation system to keep the carbon dioxide levels down, but that’s not cheap and it doesn’t help you in any place besides your own home.

It’s not something any one person can fix in public buildings, schools, office buildings, or even multifamily residential buildings.

I stayed in several hotels recently — both a fancy conference one and some run of the mill motels — and was surprised to find how high the carbon dioxide levels get in a hotel room with just two people in it. In most hotels, you can’t open the windows to solve this problem, which is what we do at home.

Conference meeting rooms full of people push the carbon dioxide to a frightening level of over 2,000 parts per million. Outdoor levels are at about 450 ppm, to give you perspective. At outdoor levels, you’re much less likely to inhale someone else’s germs. You can also think more clearly.

Public health is supposed to provide collective solutions to health hazards and contagious diseases: tests, vaccines, contact tracing, mitigation methods. It’s not like going to the doctor to get specific treatment for yourself; it’s doing as many things as possible to keep as many people as possible from getting sick so that things don’t continue to spread.

When public health is reduced to “you do you” alongside the occasional plea to get the vaccine, we’re left with individual solutions. And personal responsibility, important as it is, can only go so far when you don’t have a lot of information.

Historically in the U.S., people don’t stay home or take precautions when they’re sick, even if they’re sick with a contagious disease. If they don’t feel so bad they can’t get out of bed, they go out and do things, spreading their virus around.

We have become so accustomed to going out in the world when sick and contagious that we don’t even think about it, which is why we are constantly dealing with viruses of all kinds.

I remember sitting in the office, stuffed up on DayQuil, dealing with work that “had” to get done. I’d probably caught the virus from someone I worked with and was likely passing it on to others. I mean, I remember that I was always joking about how my coworkers’ kids would get sick and then my coworkers would get sick and then I’d get sick.

And since most of us didn’t know until recently how many viruses are airborne, no one even thought about masks.

By the way, we had good sick leave policies at that job. I’m pretty sure I mostly used mine for doctor’s appointments and the occasional mental health day (chosen carefully for a day when I didn’t have any deadlines). I can’t think of anyone who ever used all their sick days. I can think of lots of people working sick.

The one thing the pandemic has made clear to me is that we have the tools to minimize the spread of contagious disease. But those tools require a collective approach. We need building codes that require ventilation. We need good sick leave policies for everyone. We need public health agencies that put out useful information and have enough staff to do their job well.

We need to take personal responsibility for the well-being of all.

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