Jacques Ellul was a French philosopher, theologian, and sociologist who had one of the more prophetic views of modern society. With conclusions on the dangerous spread of propaganda; of how over-reliance upon technology would ultimately undermine human dignity; and how the colluding of religion with politics made for an uncontrollable, combustible mixture, he was decades ahead of his time.
Americans are largely unfamiliar with Ellul (to be fair, he can be quite dense), save for a summary of his most well-known quote: “Think globally. Act locally.” That quote might get to the heart of the man’s ideology. He could never forget that we are connected to the great, expansive, human family.
An example Ellul often used to make this point was that of a collapsed dam. The structure bursts, washing away a village downstream. Immediately an investigation is launched to find the cause of the tragedy. However, the village elders built their town where they were told it would be safe. The construction workers were simply doing their jobs. The contractor, likewise, was only following the blueprints provided. And the engineer drew the plans based on conclusions offered by the geologists.
So it goes, ending with no one being held accountable for the disaster. Ellul concludes: “In a society like ours, it is almost impossible for a single person to be responsible for anything. Each person carries out an individual task disconnected from the whole.” But this disconnect is an illusion, as no one in a global society lives or acts independent from the greater community.
This integration can also be called the “Butterfly Effect.” It’s possible that a Monarch butterfly flapping its tiny wings in Mexico, will provide the final bit of energy needed to form a hurricane in the Pacific Ocean. Granted, the effect will not be immediate, but there is a connection between the two.
In the face of unprecedented global connectivity, the only way forward for us is to flap our own little wings. Quoting Ellul: “Only on a grassroots level are our actions honest, realistic, and authentic.” When overwhelmed by circumstances, those which we seemingly have no impact, we cannot throw our hands up in despair, uttering the defeatist mantra, “There’s nothing we can do!”
Of course there is something we can do! There’s something you can do! If the Amazon is burning, plant a tree where you live. If you feel the national educational system is a disaster, run for your local school board. If hope seems to be waning in the world, rekindle your own. If greedy corporatism is devouring your creativity and joy, start a balanced, ethical business yourself.
Every global problem is a local opportunity begging for action and service. We must believe – as people of faith declaring that God’s intent is to make all things new – that what we do will matter in the big scheme of things. And with a little perseverance and grace, we may become the final bit of energy needed to change the world.