I’m sitting out on the front patio in Grand Bend Ontario, enjoying the beautiful summer weather. Not a cloud in the sky. Reading the Globe and Mail in that leisurely sort of way you can only do in the middle of summer on vacation. In the midst of reading a review of two new books on big oil, (while simultaneously waving at the neighbours as they walk to the beach, I read the following quote:
He offers some aggressive solutions to global warming and the over-consumption of energy. But he tries to sell his ideas by labelling them “grassroots.” I tried to count how many times he used the term, but gave up. It’s one of those slippery, overused words that make an idea hard to criticize but don’t really mean much.
The problem with the “grass-roots” is that often people in the grass-roots hold beliefs that just aren’t supported by evidence or a deep understanding of the issues. Recently a friend told me that she was following a food combining diet, and that the science shows that food in certain combinations of fat, carbohydrates and protein are digested more easily in the diet. Of course, the source of this information is a book, written by some celebrity who is stick thin and living proof that it works. I know from talking with the nutritionists at the university that there is no scientific evidence that shows that food combining is an effective method of weight loss. I hear similar questioning of microwave ovens. At the same time, the switch to organic food has been largely driven by notions that conventional food is somehow less natural. My natural supplements buddies constantly tell me how screwed up Western Medicine is, but generally don’t have any meaningful evidence that their natural products work any better than the drugs that big pharma produces.
So why is “grass-roots” such a powerful pull when it comes to social change? Why do we want to ignore the experts but pay attention to our neighbours? I wonder if we trust people like ourselves more than we trust abstract “experts”. Or if our trust in experts has been so eroded over the past twenty years or so, that we would prefer to trust people like ourselves. I believe that part of our overwhelming desire for better leadership is the result of this erosion in trust. Grass-roots might be a panacea that appeals to most people. Crowds may be wise, but they can also be hysterical.