Victimless Crimes and Victorless Battles: Why Drug Use Should Be Legalised 

The war on drugs is in reality a war on people

(Transform Report, p. 17)

Over the last century, drug use has been subject to harsh prohibition and criminalisation in Western societies. A global War on Drugs, with the USA in the forefront, has for a long timed pushed a moralistic discourse portraying drugs as dangerous and drug users as criminal undesirables to be shunned at all cost. Despite much resistance, it seems as if the tides are turning: drug use, especially in terms of cannabis, is being increasingly decriminalised, medicalised, and legally regulated. In this blog post, through ten different points of view, I’ll try to make the case that all drugs should be decriminalised [1], or better yet controlled through legal regulation [2].

[1] ‘Decriminalisation’ refers to “the removal of criminal penalties for personal drug possession, with production and supply remaining illegal” (Transform report, p. 4) 

[2] ‘Legal regulation’ refers to “the controls that will be put in place on the production, supply and use of the drug once it has been legalised” (Transform report, p. 4) 

#1 — The Policy Perspective 

Prohibition and criminalisation of drug use is counterintuitive on every level—it implies punishing those who already struggle, and it drives drugs into the black market, where regulation is impossible, and where much worse crime including exploitation and human trafficking are commonplace. At the black market, everything becomes more dangerous. By keeping drugs illegal, the black drugs market is allowed to thrive.

This despicable truth has not been recognised by policy makers, however. Back in the 1960s, the UN called for a ‘global prohibition regime’ on drugs. It took them half a century to finally admit that this regime have had ‘unintended consequences’ in UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s World Drug Report (2008). And, finally, the 2015 version of the same report basically called for a global decriminalisation of all drugs!

The US has been a driver in the War on Drugs, with an ultra prohibitionist policy toward drug crime. The ‘War on Drugs’ itself was started as discourse by Nixon in the early 1970s, and propelled policy wise by Reagan a little later. To summarise this war on a few keywords, it has included racial profiling, extreme sanctioning of drug possession, and mass incarceration of low-level offenders. In fact, one of Nixon’s advisors has admitted that the War on Drugs was a project motivated by racial prejudice to begin with. 40 years and over a trillion dollars (!!) later, the US were left with a booming private prison industry, more poverty, more drugs (which are purer and cheaper than ever before), and more drug users.

Arguably, however, this war has taken a turn in the last few years, with Barack Obama’s 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, and the introduction of not only Harm Reduction strategies, but also decriminalisation, medicalisation, and legal regulation of cannabis. This has been a success, in so far as it hasn’t contributed to significantly more drug use or other related issues. In general, decriminalisation and legalisation of drugs elsewhere, like in Portugal, Colorado, and the Netherlands, have not led to more drug use, just like harsher criminalisation strategies usually don’t lead to less use.

#2 — The Socio-Cultural Perspective 

The criminalisation of drug use and addiction has contributed to a permanent manifestation of the drug user as a moral inferior in public imagination. While dependent drug users first and foremost need some form of help or guidance, labelling them as immoral, undesirable criminals doesn’t do much good in bettering the situation. In fact, it could be argued that this incentivises further (and heavier) drug use as a means to cope with the inflicted stigmas. It must be understood that drug use (and especially dependence) is a symptomatic response to an underlying cause, which is often rooted in psychological issues. While most of us perhaps don’t wish to think badly of addicts, it’s difficult not to given the way drug abuse is portrayed through conventional discourse and popular media. In the US, this has taken form as systematic racism. Fuel is further added to the fire with front-page headlines spreading moral panics of teens dying after a puff of cannabis or one pill of ecstasy. While rarely accurate, these messages contributes to an ‘us/them’ framing of drug users as ‘folk devils’; as evil actors in society.

#3 — The Moral Perspective 

Prohibition contributes to a worldview wherein drug use is immoral, bar none. This has become a default categorisation that isn’t being readily questioned. Arguably, the reason why drug use is understood as immoral is because it’s illegal in the first place! We live in a culture where getting piss-drunk every weekend is borderline universally accepted, and even celebrated, while all forms of illicit drug use is demonised. This is rather paradoxical.

#4 — The Structural Perspective

Criminally sanctioning drug users means to punish those who already are ‘losers’ in society. Given that personal drug use is, more or less, a ‘victimless crime’, this is absurd. Punishing people for dealing with struggles in the only way they know how makes very little sense. It certainly won’t help them out of their struggles. And when it comes to casual, non-dependent recreational drug use, enforcing criminal sanctions involves the risk of pushing users ‘further down’, toward a path of more dependent use.

This is structurally suboptimal because such policing is expensive. The state, then, essentially spends a lot of money and resources hunting down and punishing people who only (potentially) inflict pain or suffering on themselves; while losing money to the black market on the other end by allowing drug trade to exist outside of legal, regulated frameworks. To give a very simple example, confiscating an individual’s drugs is counterintuitive, because s/he will always find a way to acquire new drugs, despite potentially having to struggle more to do so. In this way, confiscating drugs leads to a larger net sum of drugs acquired from the black market. Simply put, drug confiscation fuels the drug trade.

#5 — The Pharmacology/Health Perspective 

This is perhaps the least discussed and most radical argument for loosening drugs legislations, but the evidence is clear: drugs just aren’t as bad as people think. Yes, a lot of people die from drugs; either from overdose, from the effects of intoxication,   from dependence development, or from adverse health effects. However, the main reason why illicit drugs harm people is because, well, they’re illicit. In fact, drugs become much more dangerous when confined to the black market.

First, because they aren’t regulated. People don’t know what they buy from shady dealers. Festival-goers, for instance, are often tricked into buying ‘bath salts’ (which can be incredibly dangerous) under the guise of e.g. MDMA.

Second, given the lack of quality control, street drugs have often undergone several altering processes. In most street drugs there’ll be lots of fillers, which can consist of virtually anything. This makes the drugs much more dangerous.

Third, it is impossible to know the potency or purity of an uncontrolled drug. This is particularly concerning when it comes to young clubbers and partygoers who might not have much experience with drug-taking. However, this highly unpredictable variance can lead to overdoses even among the most experienced users.

Fourth, prohibition affects the mode of administration or consumption of drugs. Heroin users, for instance, often use non-sterilised equipment and non-clean water, in addition to re-using or sharing needles. This is incredibly dangerous, and contributes to the spread of HIV/AIDS and other blood borne diseases, which constitute one of the main heroin risk factors. The current HIV epidemic in Russia, where infected users aren’t even allowed enroll in treatment programmes, illustrates this. From a public health standpoint, Harm Reduction strategies are therefore crucial to a human drugs politics.

In the end, risks are always present and relative. To take an extreme example, we don’t ban peanuts even though people die from food allergies every year. While humans technically cannot overdose on cannabis, we can overdose (and die from) caffeine, and even water—not to mention alcohol, which can kill you in half an hour if you consume enough.

Moreover, to exemplify, heroin in itself isn’t very dangerous. Rather, it is the conditions under which heroin is administered and used, as explained above, that makes it so addictive and incredibly dangerous. In fact, heroin, like most other drugs, have medical properties, and can thus be used to improve health. If you’ve had a surgery with anaesthetics, you’ve been given heroin. People who undergo major surgeries are put on high doses of very potent heroin for extended periods of time in hospitals without becoming addicted or suffer ill consequences because of it. In the US, medicalisation procedures have found a wide range of new therapeutic uses for cannabis, e.g. as a low-risk, highly effective chronic pain reliever. Another example is ketamine, which is undergoing trials for depression treatment. This cannot be stressed enough: more often than not, it is the conditions under which drugs are used that makes them dangerous, not the pharmacological properties of the drugs themselves.

#6 — The Legal Perspective 

Legally sanctioning drug use is incredibly resource demanding. Filling up prisons, funded by tax-payer money, with low-lever drug offenders just isn’t a very productive use of the criminal justice system (as demonstrated through the failure of the US War on Drugs). There should be bigger fish to fry.

Inspired by the Scandinavian justice system, which is arguably the best in the world, I believe that imprisonment should work to rehabilitate and re-build people, making them fit to re-enter society as complete citizens again. When prison is used for deterrence and punishment, criminal networks form, and inmates leave prison with renewed identities as criminals. Additionally, drugs tend to flourish within prisons.

It should be recognised that even the crime committed by drug users to fund their habits is necessitated by the illegality of drugs. If drugs were regulated as legal substances this criminal activity wouldn’t be necessary.

Criminalising drugs facilitates a black market which is incredibly difficult for any justice system to dealt with. In prohibitionist societies, we create problems and then try to fix them, rather than preventing them in the first place. It’s like trying to chase one’s own shadow: it doesn’t work.

#7 — The Market Perspective 

Black market drug trade puts money into the hands of criminals. As demonstrated through recreational cannabis legalisation in e.g. Washington, Colorado, California, and in Uruguay, controlled legalisation of currently illicit drugs creates a market economy that can be regulated and managed. Evidence shows that this has not increased consumption rates. This would leave the drugs trade somewhat similar to the alcohol trade—however, as I personally support strict regulation of alcohol (as in Norway) through state monopolies and regulation of access, advertising, pricing etc., I believe the drugs market should follow a similar strategy. In other words, it would be crucial to legalise psychoactive substances under state (and not private) control.

#8 — The Normalisation Perspective 

In Western societies, recreational drug use has arguably become more or less normalised. In other words, drug users do not any longer form distinct subcultures, but exist in unison with non-drug-users. There is less stigma attached to drug use, and people are more open about their encounters with drugs, as exemplified by e.g. Barack Obama and David Cameron both admitting to past drug use. Moreover, so-called ‘study drugs’ seem to become increasingly ingrained in the education landscape. While the extent of this normalisation varies depending on both geography and the substance in question, the role of knowledge production and consumption through the internet has led to more informed younger generations who might question the dominant discourse surrounding drugs more-so than in previous generations and decades. If this thesis holds true, we might be moving toward more liberal drugs policies by default  through a generational paradigm shift as a new generation of politicians and policy-makers get in power.

#9 — The Liberty/Idealism Perspective

I’m a little hesitant to suggest this, but I will do it anyways: we need to be wary when considering to overrule individuals’ agency and personal choice in regards to what they put into their bodies. While I’m generally for state intervention, the question of personal freedom must be considered. In fact, for some people, even dependent drug use can be beneficial, insofar that it helps them deal with life. Because drug use is generally a symptom of a cause, or a means to an end, deciding that someone would be ‘better off’ without, say, their heroin habit by default would be to undermine their personal agency in determining how to cope with their difficulties. There are always going to be people in society who struggle, and, for some people heavy drug use might actually be a way of coping. For these individuals, criminalising their coping mechanism doesn’t seem very ethical.

#10 — The Rationality Perspective

Finally, and most importantly, the bottom lines is that prohibition is simply backward and irrational. A Transform report suggests that drug policy needs to protect the young and vulnerable, reduce crime, improve public health, promote security and development, provide value for money, and protect human rights. Prohibition achieves none of this. While experts and policymakers continue to push decriminalisation and even legalisation, politicians who don’t know better, who have been fed the same bullshit moral panic discourse throughout their lives, keep pushing for prohibition and criminalisation of drug use and drug users.

In the end, the War on Drugs has shown—through its absolute failure—that we don’t need to be hard on drugs, we need to be smart about them. We need to be rational, not idealistic. We need to listen to the experts. A drug free society is a utopian ideal, and one that we don’t want. This needs to be recognised. I personally believe that controlled regulation, following a system akin to alcohol regulation in Norway and cannabis regulation in select US states, would be optimal. However, before we get there, let’s look to Portugal, where personal consumption of psychoactive substances were decriminalised back in 2001 along with the implementation of encompassing Harm Reduction and treatment programmes. By holistically responding to the ineffective prohibitionist policy, Portugal managed to revamp their justice system and create a much better and healthier drugs landscape. 16 years ago, Portugal set a standard the rest should be able to follow.

There is still resistance, however. While he has previously stated that “we’re losing badly to the war on drugs” and that “you have to legalise drugs to win that war”, Donald Trump’s administration seems to be ramping up the drug war yet again. This drug war is also harshly fought in South-East Asia; and particularly terrifying is Duterte’s targeted mass-murdering of drug users in the Philippines. Moreover, in the UK, the emergence of New Psychoactive Substances has pushed broad reaching generic controls.

Nevertheless, all things considered, there has been a ‘quiet revoution’ in drugs politics on a global scale, characterised by a surge in decriminalisation, medicalisation, legalisation, and Harm Reduction efforts all over the world. Hopefully this rational approach toward widespread substance use will continue to grow in reach.

– Johannes

My Beef with Veganism: moving beyond vegan idealism for a more sustainable world 

Q: How many vegans does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None. Everybody knows they can’t change anything.

That’s a ‘vegan joke’, one of many I could find online, and, while I don’t agree that vegans “can’t change anything”, this joke encapsulates what I want to address in this blog post: the problematic mindset often imbued in vegan activism.

People seem to hate vegans—not really because of their veganism, but because of their activism. This is a pity, because the original goal and premise of veganism—to “exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose” —is very positive; something we should all aspire to follow. There is, however, a more problematic side to veganism that isn’t sufficiently addressed.

This article is not a critique of any single strand of vegan activism, nor of veganism in itself. It’s a reflection on the ways in which veganism as a phenomenon has come to be understood and portrayed in our society today, and how these might be misguided, misleading, and, regrettably, counter-productive. It’s a suggestion for a new framing, a new focus, for future meatlessness.

Veganism has come to acquire multiple meanings. First and foremost, the term describes a set of (primarily dietary) principals to live by, as in the definition quoted above. But it is also the term for a social movement and a certain mindset. These understandings of ‘veganism’ as a concept need to be recognised to fully make sense of it as a phenomenon—on the one hand, it’s a lifestyle; on the other, it’s a mode of activism.

When I refer to veganism in this article, I refer to all of its components; I refer to it as a phenomenon, as a whole; as the picture of veganism that has been painted in my mind (and probably others’) by the many streams of vegan activism that are so omnipresent in today’s western society.

We should all agree that, as a concept, veganism is nothing but positive. No-nonsense, bullshit-free, sincere veganism, that is. However, I do think there are reasons to question some of the activism and morally simplified mindset that tends to follow veganism.

Before I explain further, let me give some insight into my own relationship with eating animals.

Up until a couple of years ago, I ate a lot of meat, dairy, eggs. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that I would go out of my way to consume animals. I was an athlete, and I thought I needed animal protein to stay fit and healthy. A meal without animals wasn’t a meal, it was a snack. I didn’t know what I know now, although I thought I knew it all.

In my second year of university, I decided to experiment: what if I didn’t eat meat? I had watched some YouTube videos and read some articles about veganism and the environmental impacts of animal agriculture and the meat industry. As I got more inspired and more educated, I slowly started phasing animal foods out of my diet. I didn’t feel any different physically—no ‘perfect skin’, no ‘endless energy’; nothing like that. But I had done something I never thought I’d do, and I felt absolutely fine. Mentally, it felt good to make a change for the positive; to be more mindful of my consumption habits.

Today I’m still an omnivore. I eat fish more often than I should (although I try to make sure it’s wild caught). I still eat meat on special occasions, when I’m offered it at someone’s dinner—and, I must confess, when I crave the occasional burger. But I don’t buy meat to cook for myself anymore, and I haven’t done so in a long time. I don’t consume dairy, except for the rare piece of cheese or a little butter. I rarely consume eggs, perhaps unless they’re mixed or baked into something else. I’ve started ordering from the vegan or vegetarian menu at restaurants more often than not.

On a daily basis I think it’s fair to guess that I consume less animal products than the average vegetarian.

I’m becoming better. And I’m enjoying the ride. But I have no plans of ever strictly limiting myself to the confines of veganism, vegetarianism, even pescetarianism. I hope you’ll understand why at the end of this article.

The very crux of veganism is that it’s a reductionist approach to creating a better world. It quickly creates a very binary conception of human morality. This is unfortunate.

Veganism swears by the notion that vegans are better than non-vegans. To simplify a little—if you’re vegan, you’re a good person; if you’re a meat-eater, you’re a bad person. It sets up a neat little hierarchy; you climb the ladder, from omnivore to pescatarian to vegetarian to vegan, all the while excluding and eliminating foods and behaviours. With every step of the ladder, you become a better human being. While I won’t state that this is wrong per se, I think that this represents a partial and flawed understanding of food consumption.

Because there is so much more to one’s morality than the food one chooses to eat. First, social, cultural, historical, economic, and environmental factors play part in consumption and need to be analysed as a backdrop for any individual’s choice of what to eat. Second, while veganism is largely about consumption, morality is also about production; what good people produce in this world, what they give back. Simply put, it’s impossible to judge people’s morals based solely on what they eat, wear, and buy.

Moreover, veganism is an ideal—not a reality. Not in our contemporary world, anyway. What I mean by this is that being a so-called ‘strict vegan’ should be seen as an ‘ideal type’, i.e. the purest form of diet/consumption, not the possible reality of all human diets. A belief in collective veganism borders to perfectionism. Unfortunately, most people have bigger fish to fry (pun intended!) than to conform with the utmost ideal, the perfect.

Veganism is therefore an end result, and not the process. And it’s the process we should focus on. It’s the process that matters.

In many ways, veganism has become a Western ideal. If you’re a student in London and you don’t consume animal products, you’re a vegan. Perhaps you eat quorn burgers and quinoa. If you’re a farmer in rural Bangladesh or Zimbabwe or Brazil who don’t consume animal products, you’re poor. Perhaps you’d eat meat every day if you could afford it.

In the shape and form it has now taken, veganism depicts a reality that is skewed, partial, and self-centred. It has become the face of a booming industry that cares more about making money and sustaining people’s self-image than saving innocent animals. It has become a manifestation of perfect health, of perfect ethics, of perfect worldview. As a phenomenon, veganism includes the commodification of ethics, of moral, of health.

In the end, veganism is also an industry, a corporate machine.

When Bill Gates is portrayed as unethical, a bad person, for advocating meat consumption for malnourished people in poor developing countries, I think ‘veganised bias’ has gone too far. It represents a distorted, Western-centric worldview; one that seems to increasingly have penetrated—and, I would argue, corrupted—the logic and nature of veganism itself. When people get richer, they eat more meat, and the planet suffers more.

Should we (in the so-called ‘First world’) tell them (in the so-called ‘Third world’) not to eat meat because we screwed it up ourselves? Can we deny them that privilege when we consume so much meat ourselves? Again, this is an example of reductionist thinking. It’s complicated.

For most people, veganism simply isn’t sustainable, no matter what people say. 

First, there is the nutritional side of things. While veganism undoubtedly can be a healthy diet, you need a certain level of knowledge in nutrition to ‘do it right’. That requires time, effort, and education; not to mention willpower and determination.

There are plenty of vegan junk-foods and unhealthy meat substitutes available. Therefore it’s easy to adapt an unhealthy diet as a vegan. Moreover, when one is constantly short of foods to select from, cravings for what can be eaten (I’m looking at you, sugar!) often become worse. Once on this path, it’s worth to note that vegan branded foods tend to be much more expensive than ‘regular’ foods—hence the “…but I can’t afford it!” arguments.

So, the issue here is that while veganism can be healthy and sustainable, only a very few people will be determined enough, and have the knowledge needed, to achieve this. Believing otherwise is wishful thinking.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, there are the social and cultural side of things. It’s at restaurants, dinner parties, at grandma’s table, and while travelling that vegans are really being put to test. In theory, it’s easy to ask for a vegan dish at a restaurant (or order that one, non-appetising-sounding vegan dish on the menu), stick to potatoes and veggies at the dinner party, or avoid tasting local (but meaty) delicacies while travelling.

In reality, it’s not that easy. We want to conform, we don’t want to make a fuss. We don’t want to disappoint grandma. We want to enjoy ourselves. We want to be respectful and try new things. Hats off to those who manage to work their way around problematic scenarios such as these—but it would be naive to expect everyone around you to manage the same.

Add to this the enormous amount of meat we’re already consuming in the Western world—in fact, Americans eat 120 kg (264.5 lbs) of meat EACH a year, which amounts to more than staggering 37 billion kg (81.5 billion lbs) in total (!!)—and you know the tide will be hard to turn.

And so there aren’t a lot of vegans or vegetarians in the world today. It’s simply too hard to sustain for most people who try. While figures do vary, in Western countries, 2-10% of the population are vegetarian, while 0.5-2% are vegan. That’s not a lot.

In the UK, there are now more than 500,000 vegans—a statistic that has increased by 360% in the last decade. While this might seem like a big number, it’s less than 1% of the total population. Less than 1%. 88% of these live in urban areas, where it’s (presumably) relatively easy to sustain the diet due to a larger sortiment of vegan foods available.

The high increase in vegans in the last decade is thought to be largely because of social media activism. As a teenager said in an article from The Guardian: “On Instagram, people make veganism look like a very desirable lifestyle”. I think this is a good point—but there are two issues. Firstly, it targets only a certain percentile and demographic of the population. Secondly, this notion emphasises the ‘want’ to be a vegan because it has become seen as a ‘desirable’ lifestyle—in other words, the motivation for change is not necessarily for a ‘greater good’ but for more selfish reasons. This, then, feeds into the aforementioned veganism industry.

We need to make sure that removing animal products from our lives isn’t about looking good in the eyes of others, about heightening our own self-perceptions, about being trendy. Perhaps paradoxically, I believe that creating the concept of ‘vegan’ and ‘veganism’ as an isolating factor, a ‘purity’ against the ‘filth’ of animal consumption, can be counterintuitive.

My point is that we’re far better off with 50% of a given population cutting their consumption of animal products in half, than with 5% of the same population trying—and likely failing—to be vegans. The animals are better off, the environment is better off, our health is better off.

To be a ‘strict vegan’ (which, by the way, shouldn’t be a term), you need to have a very good understanding of food; what it’s made of and what it does to you. To be a healthy vegan you need to make sure you eat a balanced diet and get all your nutrients. Being perfectly healthy as a vegan is perfectly possible, but it’s also demanding. If veganism is something you care about to the point that it fills your life, you’ll be able to be a healthy vegan. If you’re like most of us, i.e. you care about animals, the environment, your health, but these concerns lie only next to other interests, being vegan is difficult. Reducing your intake of animal products, on the other hand, needn’t be difficult at all. Besides, it’s more sustainable in the long term.

Veganism is, at its core, about removing, minimising. When you remove too much too quickly, you lose faith, you lack motivation. If you care about the environment, removing animal products from your diet won’t make a difference if you simultaneously increase your general consumption of marketised goods. Reducing the amount of animal products you consume must therefore be part of a broader shift in mentality—and that takes time.

If the goal is to kill, torture, bother fewer animals, we need to stop the industries that govern the production of animal products; i.e. (primarily) the meat, dairy, egg industries. How do we do that? By not creating a large market for animal consumption. In other words, by reducing our consumption of these products. This will create less demand, thereby reducing the scale of these industries. Supply and demand, that’s all it is. The fact of the matter is that a few vegans here and there won’t do much to slow down the production of animal products. They’re raindrops in an ocean of meat-eaters. A general reduction in consumption of these products, however, most surely will.

And I think we’re moving in the right direction. We’re learning more about the consequences of animal consumption and the benefits of lowering it. Apparently, 2017 will be the year of ‘flexitarianism’. I think that’s great—as long as we don’t lose sight of the big picture and get too self-obsessed in the process.

So—let us stop preaching ‘zero tolerance’ for animal consumption, and start preaching awareness and change. Gradual change. Let us educate our peers instead of shaming them. Let us not look at animal consumption through a reductionist lense, but as one part of a vast mosaic of social, cultural, historical, economic, and environmental factors contributing to our individual and collective world-views. Let us focus on the process rather than the end goals. Let us be realists and not perfectionists.

We need to move beyond veganism; beyond binary categories of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food consumption. We need to integrate rather than isolate vegan values into a broader and better practice of consumption and production.

Personally, I’m very comfortable having reduced my intake of animal products to, I would estimate, 25% of what it used to be (at least in the everyday). If I ever felt that veganism needed to be my ultimate goal, I don’t think I would’ve changed anything in the first place. It would’ve been a battle, and one that I wouldn’t have been motivated or ready to fight.

But people pick their battles every day, and for most people whatever they put in their mouth isn’t one of them. So why make it a battle to begin with? 

So, in 2017 we don’t need a world of vegans. We need a world of conscious human beings who are reflective of our environment, our health, our treatment of animals; people who are willing to act and eat according to their moral compasses, and who are motivated to keep learning, keep educating, and keep improving themselves and the world around them—without employing a grammar of moral superiority and inferiority in the process.

It is with this mindset I believe we can create a healthier and more sustainable future for our people, our environment, and our animals.

— Johannes 

New Year’s Reflections: why 2017 should be the year of the small things

“Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light”  (Albus Dumbledore)

We’re facing another year, yet again. I personally like to think that a new year can be a marker for a new beginning; an opportunity for positive change. And that’s needed. In 2017, I think we need to return to a focus on small-scale happiness; on the ‘small things’ of our everyday lives.

On a global scale, 2016 has been troublesome, there’s no doubt about that—it’s been the year that democracy failed, fear prevailed, and death conquered. As if that wasn’t enough, it’s getting warmer; we’re choking our earth with fumes, we’re drowning our earth with melting ice. The sum of these parts become increasingly evident, real, materialised, at the brink of 2016—we’re balancing at the edge of a cliff, looking back at the path that got us there; its uphills and downhills, bends and corners.

At least this is the situation we’re told that we’re facing. But hasn’t this long been part of our reality? Was 2016 really a tipping point, or was it just that we didn’t start freaking out before now?

We’re all a little older, and, hopefully, a little wiser. We live and we learn. Amidst worldly turmoil and desperation, fuelled by media seeking both profit and attention, our micro-scale everyday lives must go on. We all experience different realities through our different lifeworlds. Going into another year, I think it’s important to acknowledge and cherish the joys of our everyday lives—the ‘small things’, as it were.

Despite the current state of affairs, the citizens of the Earth are much better off today than (pretty much) ever before. There’s less poverty, more wealth and resources, less war (believe it or not). We’re somehow moving forward as a species. But we seldom acknowlege this. One of the ‘issues’ nowadays is that we can see and understand much more of what’s happening far away than ever before.

We think the world is going under because all the horror that has previously been hidden behind the veils of time and space is now readily available to us, whenever it happens, wherever we are in the world.

I don’t know where the concern lies—do we know too much or too little? Technology and social media have shaped people’s access to news and knowledge in a way that has created strong bias. In our (arguably) ‘post-factual society’ with ‘post-truth politics’ (one of the more notable debates that have shaped 2016, following Brexit and the US presidential elections), people seem to care about hard facts much less than emotions and selective interpretations of them. Human induced climate change is perhaps the most prominent example of this: the facts are clear—backed by 97% of the planet’s climate scientists—yet some of the most powerful people in the world argue against it.

People don’t change for society; they expect society to change for them. People create a narrative in which they themselves are not the ones shaping society, but society is shaping them. People dismiss climate change because they don’t want to change their behaviours (“I’m not harming the environment, but these restrictions limit my freedom. Therefore climate change is fake”). People blame immigrants for societal failures because it gives them an outlet for their frustration, it solidifies their concerns (“We’re hardworking tax-paying citizens, we’ve done nothing wrong, but these immigrants steal our jobs, our freedom; they’re criminals, they’re terrorists”.) When there are problems we tend to look for culprits rather than solutions.

We’re spoon-fed information from all over the world every single day, regardless of source. It’s a lot to take in; it can be overwhelming. And it’s (almost) always biased, in one way or another. We all analyse the world surrounding us, but we wear different glasses. We see different things.

We care more about what’s close (or what seems close) to ourselves than what’s far away; we care more about what we identify with than what we do not; we care more about the current than the past or the future.

We’re selective in our sources for news and knowledge. The surge in production of fake news has further problematised this trend. Internet has made this selectivity possible.

We choose what to remember and what to forget; what to know, what to neglect. People hear what they want to hear, read what they want to read, not what they ought to. This is natural, it’s our instinct.

More than ever before we have the power to determine what we consume; we choose specific sources music, films, TV, entertainment, news, and so on, from enormous libraries of never-ending information—and so, we produce the world  that we see through our actions, but we understand the world through consumption. As such, we’re all very biased in not only the knowledge we produce, but also the knowledge that we receive.

And so, we create our own worlds.

Because of this over-saturation of knowledge sent our way, the happenings around the world become both more vivid and more distant. It can be difficult to identify and fully grasp the meaning of far-away conflicts, until, of course, news media are covered by a very graphic image of a dead child on the beach, or an injured boy covered in ashes and dust. These images make us care because they stimulate our emotions; they remove some of the perceived distance that we feel. They make distant horrors more real to us than a wall of text ever could.

The paradox here is that while people have a lot of knowledge (in fact, today the average 16-year-old knows more about the universe than Galileo ever did!), this knowledge might be misguided; and while most of us certainly don’t know enough to have educated opinions about important issues, we have the platforms to express ourselves and to gain support for our claims. We know too much and too little at the same time.

The only thing that we truly know and understand, is our individual lifeworlds, our intimate everyday lives. In the end, we tend to be mostly concerned about global affairs because of their perceived impacts on our own lives. Humans are egocentric beings.

When we’re bombarded with tragic news stories and images of war and inequality every day, it’s difficult to know what we should feel. Should we be sad because this or that is happening, or should we be grateful that it ‘didn’t happen to us’? Should we grief for them, or cherish and appreciate our own situations? Should we appreciate our own privileged situations because or despite of those of lesser privileged ‘others’? Would that be selfish? Could we do both? How?

Reflecting back on 2016, I’m left with a new realisation of the power of the everyday. In the end, we can’t escape the fact that we all live in our own little worlds, we all have our little everyday lives to tend to. When bad things are happening in the world, it therefore becomes even more important to acknowledge the small things—the morning coffee, the smile from a neighbour, the company of a friend, the warming sun, the pretty flowers, the tail-wagging dog. These seemingly minuscule events and moments matter. And all the small things, when put together, become big things. I think it’s important not to forget that.

Something that we might not consider is that 2016—as every year before it, and every year that will come after it—has also been a year of incredible joy. People have fallen in love. People have been with friends and family. People have consumed their favourite foods. People have seen new places. People have experienced new things. People have overcome their fears. People have smiled to each other, they have patted each other on the backs, and they have said nice things about each other. People have lived their lives, in which there are always ups and downs. This, of course, is very obvious, but it’s also easily neglected in the grand scheme of things.

I don’t want to seem bigoted, however. I’m a privileged individual, and that’s something that I’m very grateful for. Relatively speaking, my life is (or at least ought to be) ‘easy’. That, of course, doesn’t mean that I don’t have my own struggles and battles, as we all do, but that these problems are minuscule, almost non-problems, compared to what so many others in this world have to deal with on a daily basis. That is something I become more mindful of with every passing year.

However, there is happiness and sadness in everyone’s lives. We’re often told that money makes you happy, that the lack of it makes you miserable. We decide who’s privileged and who’s unprivileged, and thereby also who’s in the centre (‘us’) and who’s in the margins (‘them’). We’re constructing a narrative in which ‘we’, the privileged ones, are the heroes that will save the poor and/or miserable, the other.

It’s important to show concern—to donate money when we can afford it, to be friendly to the environment, eat less animals, stand up to those who do evil. However, it’s arguably even more important to be sincere about doing good. That’s the only way we can create sustainable happiness, a sustainable human consciousness.

We tend to donate money not because we truly care, but because we want to feel good about ourselves, because we’re told to do it, because we can share it on Facebook afterwards. It’s just very difficult to really sympathise with someone or something that’s very far away, that doesn’t affect our own personal lives that much. This is also why we’re in shock when there’s a terror attack in France, Belgium, Germany—but don’t even blink when another bomb detonates, claiming the lives of hundreds, in a faraway, non-Western country. I think we can be a bit naïve sometimes; and that’s difficult to acknowledge.

However, what produces happiness is not what we tend to think does. We think we know ourselves better than we actually do. We think of happiness as a result of something, as “if I do this or that I’ll be happy”. In other words, we think that happiness is produced by ‘doing something’; that you go from unhappy to happy through a certain action. This is usually not the case. For instance, after having saved up for a new iPhone for a year, all of that excitement is usually gone in a matter of days, or at least weeks, after having purchased it. Of course, a certain level of wealth and possession can increase the likelihood of being happy, but for most of us, the feeling of happiness relies on other factors. It relies on the small things.

I’m not saying that war and conflict don’t make people unhappy. They do. They create sadness, misery, anger, hate. Very few people, if any at all, gain happiness from conflict. What I’m saying is that the typical Western construction of what constitutes happiness is, if not wrong, at least misguided. The result is that people spend their lives chasing a happiness that might not exist. They’re searching vast rooms for what exists only in the corners: the small things.

The ‘small things’ are product, part and parcel, of the everyday. Going into 2017, I think the best thing we can do to make this world a better place—at least a little bit better than the previous year—is to be more mindful of the little joys of everyday life; and to do our best to contribute to others’ experience of these joys.

When there’s so much turmoil going on in the world; so many potentials for negative emotions, it becomes even more important to recognise these small things. For most of us, life goes on, despite war and conflict ‘elsewhere’—that’s just how it is and will always be. And it might be naive to say so, but I think that’s a good thing. Life goes on because it needs to.

But the macro is the sum of the micro; the system the sum of our lifeworlds. It all starts with our everyday lives—we don’t ‘consume’ our everyday lives, we live them, we are them. We need to create positive meaning for ourselves and for others in our own little everyday bubbles because it’s the only thing we can truly do ourselves.

We need to produce small-scale happiness. It should be the starting point, at least, toward something bigger. When the world is turbulent—which it will always be, to some extent—it’s these small things that we can hold on to; that can keep us sane, and happy. And we need that.

So, in 2017, return your neighbour’s smile. Say ‘thank you’ and ‘have a good day’ to the cashier at the supermarket. Simply put: do your best to communicate your appreciation for others. I think that’s what it boils down to, and it’s something we can all do. If everyone treated their neighbour as their friend, in good times and in bad, this world would be a better place.

We could, and should, all do more to improve the lives of those who struggle—donate, volunteer, engage. Something we can all do, all the time, however, is to improve the lives of those around us, those with whom we’re in direct contact with.

We’re all tiny droplets in a vast ocean. If we can make the lives of our peers a bit better, we enable others to further that very process; it’s called the ripple effect. So, in the darkest of times, help your peers turn on their lights, so they can help others to do the same. Heck, it’s what we all need to do; to do the small things.

Yes, 2016 has been a problematic year for many—but so was 2015 and so will 2017 be. 2016 was also a year of joy, of love, of change. Like any year, any time, before or after. Lived life in itself is always a negotiation of the good and the bad (and, sometimes, unfortunately, the truly ugly). A new year can’t be a fresh start for the world in its entirety because global affairs are always ongoing. But it can serve as a motivation for individual action and change.

Going into a new year, let’s not get too caught up in representations of a world that is doomed, that is falling apart. Let’s appreciate the simple joys of everyday. Let’s make 2017 the year of the small things.

Happy new year! 🙂