The Virtues of Incrementalism

I came across a cartoon the other day. Maybe you’ve seen it too. This is my re-drawn version of it, to give you the general idea. A guy pulls up to a burger place in a big gas-guzzling car. Smoke pours from the tailpipe. He’s about to take his order, but then he draws back: “No plastic bags for me. I care about the environment!”

Big Car Burger Guy is such a dope! He’s an easy target for ridicule. But ultimately I think making fun of him is unhelpful. I want Big Car Burger Guy to swear off plastic. Good for you, Big Car Burger Guy! If that’s all he can do today, then that’s okay with me. He’s moving in the right direction. I hope he’ll do more tomorrow, but I guarantee you that if I make fun of him today, it won’t lead to a better outcome tomorrow.

Let’s go back to the cartoon. It’s funny because if Big Car Burger Guy really cared about the environment, he would… what? Well, let’s see. He wouldn’t drive a car powered with fossil fuels. Actually, he wouldn’t drive a car at all. He’d be on a bike. No, he’d be walking. And he wouldn’t eat burgers. He would eat only locally-sourced vegan food. That he grew himself. Without fertilizers.

Where does it stop? How much change is enough? Who gets to decide who is virtuous and who is ridiculous?

I think of this as all-or-nothing reasoning vs. incrementalism. I know we’re just talking about a cartoon here, but it’s important, because snarky hot-take ridicule is a serious cultural problem. All-or-nothing reasoning says that you either make a great big change or you’re a fraud. But it leads to an unstable situation. We know what lameness is, but it’s hard to say where virtue begins. If I do X, will I still be shamed? All-or-nothing reasoning stops people in their tracks. And it drives away the very people you need to recruit.

Incrementalism, by contrast, is a recipe for action. No matter who you are, no matter where you are, you can always do something. Incrementalism tells you that every little bit helps. Because manifestly, it does! Make a small improvement today. And tomorrow make another one. And then another one the day after that. I’m often mystified as to why we discount incrementalism so ferociously, given that it’s essentially the only way things ever do change. It seems like a flaw in the human operating system.

This tweet is a good comment on what I’m describing.

All I’m asking is that you give incrementalism a little bit of a chance. See if you like it. Maybe you’ll come back for more tomorrow.