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Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)

That are two influential ideas in society today that impede social and environmental progress. Although different in form, the result is the same: paralysis. The two forms are well-known: the first is a type of naïve and misguided optimism that the general situation will improve thanks to the invisible (but, assuredly, benign) hand of the “free market.” The second is a fatalistic view that everything is going and will necessarily go sour regardless of anything that people do to improve the situation. Several slogans help bolster this view: All politicians are corrupt; the system has an unstoppable dynamic towards destruction; and the individual person is powerless.


The context of this pattern is in the air we breathe for it is the conventional wisdom that is found everywhere. It is unlikely that there are situations in which this pattern could not be used.


Meliorism is the word for the underlying orientation that underlies almost all social change work. It is belief that human beings can be active -- and effective -- agents in the social sphere and that their activities can help promote a better future.

If people believe that their actions are meaningless, they will almost invariably avoid actions with explicitly meaningful consequences. Thus, without some feeling of meliorism, our actions are severely constrained -- our intelligence, creativity, and humanity become prisoners in a cage not of our own design.

Meliorism is risky, however, for it places several risks upon its proponents. One is the burden of responsibility to use the power the meliorism explicitly identifies. Disavowing meliorism can preclude a feeling of responsibility. Meliorism also removes people from their comfort zones as it forces them into a world of unfamiliarity. Also, there is a funny hybrid of hubris and naiveté that often attends meliorist stances: Who, for example, actually thinks that they can restore environmental quality, stop wars, or, even, help their local community?

Although meliorism implies empowerment it is important to note that in reality we are likely to fall short of attaining all of our objectives. Each of us is fallible and the world is vastly complicated and unknowable. Pretending that everybody in the world is waiting to join your campaign or that no opposition to your ideas exists is folly. The intensity of your effort is unlikely to solve in a year a problem that has been building for centuries.

(Interestingly enough, some social movements have been initiated by people who were motivated solely by the necessity of telling the truth. Is there any contradiction between these actions and the actions that are explicitly endorsed with this pattern?)

Pattern graphic (c) Reed Schuler, World Social Forum, Mumbai, India, January, 2004.


A type of optimism that is pragmatic, cautious and humble must flavor our work. We can’t build a better tomorrow without some faith that at least some of our good intentions will ultimately yield good results.

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