If there’s one thing people love to do, it’s to count. The impulse, embedded in our language, can be ephemeral — like when we count our blessings — or cautionary — like when we resist the urge to count our chickens before they hatch.
Technology has fuelled our habit. Over the years, we have directed our collective intelligence towards such noble tasks as measuring the number of steps from our office chair to the toilet seat, the number of social media followers gained or lost since posting a clever quip and the number of jumping jacks needed to burn off the cream cake we consumed at breakfast. We may look like sophisticated, worldly adults but deep down we are all tiny children in desperate need of being patted on the back for a job quantifiably well done.
The problem with all this is that some of the best contributions we can make to our collective good are by not doing things.
Climate change and the art of restraint
Not flying halfway across the world for a sun holiday. Not jumping on the bandwagon. Not talking on your phone while driving. Not ordering a takeaway wrapped in plastic packaging. Not losing your temper with your children. Not dropping a nuclear bomb.
This framing is an especially big challenge for the human brain. Celebrating things that haven’t happened requires an imaginative leap we are barely capable of. Contemplating the shape of an avoided event means leaning into an alternate reality more usually associated with science fiction than with everyday life.
In some cases, language offers a shortcut. Instead of saying we are not eating, we use the term “fasting,” implying that our deprivation is an active rather than a passive act. When we don’t react with violence or vitriol, we are showing “restraint.” And when we don’t put our faith behind a single cause or candidate, we are “abstaining.”
Interestingly, agreeing not to do something is how the world has rallied around the biggest challenge of our time: climate change. In 2015, leaders from 195 countries signed the Paris Agreement — a collective commitment not to take actions that would cause global temperatures to increase by more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century. In this case, the activating verb of choice is “limit,” and the consequence of failing is an uninhabitable planet.
Popular wisdom advises us that we are more likely to regret the things we don’t do than the things we do. This may be a psychologically healthy outlook, but when it comes to collective endeavours like maintaining world peace or securing a livable planet, the things we choose not to do may play a bigger role than the things we do.
Bullets that never flew
The challenge is learning to measure the roads not taken. In 2017, the United States made headlines when it withdrew its support from the United Nations population fund. But all the other donor countries and entities did not! Since then, they (and subsequently the United States which rejoined in 2021) have saved 14,139 girls from genital mutilation, prevented 6447 maternal deaths and helped 3,787 women and girls with disabilities access services. This was the value of the status quo which went unreported.
I recently spoke to a campaigner who advocates for people to consider the planet when they plan the size of their families. He pointed to research which suggests that having one fewer child is 20 times more effective at reducing your carbon footprint than other actions like adopting a vegan diet, switching to low-energy light bulbs or giving up your car.
Such an approach may not be effective for everyone. After all, some things, like the love you have for a child are unquantifiable. But numbers are powerful and our interest in them begins at an early age. Understanding the value of what has been avoided may help us to direct our attention toward preserving the things we cherish most. We speak easily about bullets dodged, but it is worth considering all the institutions, efforts, education and diplomacy behind the bullets that never flew in the first place. Recognising that which has not come to pass is a good starting point for counting our blessings.