The Rule of Relative Impact

Caution. Ideas under construction. Participation encouraged.

Short Version

Understand before you decide. If you don’t know much, don’t do much.

Medium Version

For long term and widespread good, the impact of a decision should not exceed the amount of understanding on which it is based.

Rule out alternatives where understanding is relatively low and potential impact is relatively high. It is better to do nothing than to do something with potentially high impact based on relatively low understanding.

Long Version

The rest of this website.


As human beings we are apt to make decisions, and act on them, at unreasonable scales. We make decisions based on what we THINK will be best. And we make decisions with HUGE impacts.

The fact that we have devised machines that can build things and destroy things on huge scales, combined with our individual and combined arrogance that we know what’s best for others, makes for short odds against the sustainability of our species.

Other species have demonstrated the value of reasonably scaled incremental adaptation. Our species seems hell bent on altering our environment at unreasonable scales. And hell bent on killing each other at unreasonable scales. Seems very risky to me.

The risk is a combination of having the means to do things at dramatic scales (think tree cutting machines and manufacturing plants and fighter jets) and deciding to use them. I don’t believe we can change the fact that we have these machines, these abilities. But I do believe that we can change our culture about how we use them.

Unfortunately the necessary culture change requires, well, a culture change. And not only that, the incentive for such cultural change is not material. The incentive is spiritual, ethical, moral. The owner of a tree cutting machine has several material incentives to use it. The only incentive for destroying the machine or getting out of the tree cutting businesses is peace of mind. IF the owner of the tree cutting machine cares about the sustainability of the species and the health of planet, and IF he has a reasonable choice to destroy the machine or change professions and still maintain his individual survival, than MAYBE he will find greater peace of mind by destroying the machine or changing jobs. It’s a long shot.

For the person who wants to do the right thing for the greater good of the species and the planet, and who has the ability, my Rule of Relative Impact provides guidance and encouragement to tread light on the Earth. The Rule encourages us to make sure we really understand the impact of something before pulling the trigger. The Rule provides assurance that if we don’t fully understand an action’s implications, it’s okay not to do it.

And my Theory of Relative Understanding reminds us how little we usually know about the impacts of the decisions we make and it provides a means for evaluating how much we might be able to understand one thing relative to another thing.

The Theory demonstrates that we understand best those things right close at hand. The Rule encourages that we only act on things we really understand. Other species act on these principles and, compared to humans, have very small spheres of influence. And, by the way, other species have much much longer track records of sustainability than humans.

Measuring Impact

The Rule of Relative Impact says that when making a decision we should look at the ratio of understanding to impact of all available choices.

The Theory of Relative Understanding says a lot about how to measure potential understanding of one thing compared to another. How would we measure potential impact of one things compared to another?

How about the number of people affected, by how much, for how long?

I’m not sure about the details of how we would do this (your participation is requested!) but it seems reasonable that if something is going to affect thousands of people over dozens of years (the design of a public building in a city center), that decision has more impact than one that will affect dozens of people over a few days (how short to cut the grass in front of the public building). The number of people affected, by how much, for how long is a reasonable proxy for relative impact.

One shortcoming of this proxy, it assumes that impact on people is all that matters and such a method does not consider impact on other species or other things. Ideally, as true global citizens concerned with truly long term and widespread good, we care about impacts on all things now and into the future.


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