Solving Problems Upstream

There are two ways we can deal with problems – we can solve them afterwards, or prevent them from happening to begin with.

In an ideal world, we’d love to prevent problems and not have them at all, especially large, societal ones like war, poverty, hunger, and injustice. Unfortunately, however, these ills still very much exist, which is why we’ve created laws, policies and structures to try to mitigate their effects afterwards.

In an agricultural society, where economic well-being was dependent on the natural cycles, everyone was (more or less) on a knife’s edge on their sustainability from one year to the next. At the same time, there would always be some level of economic inequality, and so those who had more resources also had more responsibility to help others. 

We see this dynamic in this week’s portion, Behar, which outlines a variety of ways in which those who are struggling financially can help “reset” the dynamic. Every seven years, the residents of the land are not to work their farms, and all the land becomes public property. Every forty-ninth year, all the land gets returned to its original owners. Not only that, there are also a series of laws about how much land-owners can charge for purchasing their land back, as well as not to charge accrued interest. 

Leviticus 25:35 says that:

“If your kin, being in straits, come under your authority, and are held by you as though resident aliens, let them live by your side.”

The word , translated here as “held by you,” really means “strengthened by you.” And the great commentator Rashi explains the verse as being about the need to provide strength to those who might need it, and thus, be proactive in preventing abject poverty:

Do not leave [them] by [themselves] so that [they] come down in the world until [they] finally fall altogether when it will be difficult to give [them] a lift, but uphold [them] from the very moment of the failure of [their] means. To what may this be compared? To an excessive load on the back of a donkey. So long as it is still on the donkey’s back, one person is enough to take hold of it (the load) and to keep it up, [but] as soon as it has fallen to the ground not even five persons are able to set it on its legs.

In other words, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.. If we can get ahead of a problem, it’s much easier to solve before it snowballs.

In Dan Heath’s book, Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen, he notes that in our results-focused society, we tend to want to measure how many people we have helped or how much money we have given. And there’s value there in measuring effects that way. But as Rashi implied, if we can address the issue “Upstream,” rather than downstream, our precious resources are much more likely to have an impact.

Yet as Heath notes (p.6):

Downstream work is easier to see. Easier to measure. There’s a maddening ambiguity about upstream efforts…[E]ven if you feel confident that your efforts accomplished something, you’ll still never know *who* you helped. You’ll just see some numbers decline on a page. Your victories are stories written in data, starring invisible heroes who save invisible victims.

As we think about trying to eliminate, say, hunger and poverty, we tend to think about the downstream effects we have implemented – food banks, charities, micro-loans, and so on. Those are hugely important – and yet arguably more important are the small steps our society has taken to prevent them from happening in our world that we have done for decades, centuries and millennia, and ones that we can see only in data and long-term trends, such as from the wonderful website called Human Progress, which shows in charts and data that, on the whole, the world is getting better – everywhere, for everyone. We see stories in the news about global poverty and famine, and our heart breaks as we see images. And we should respond, helping provide people with the money or food to get them back on their feet. Yet the often-ignored story is that even into the early 1800’s, nearly 80% of the world lived in poverty. Today, the number of people in poverty is down to 9%. Even into the 1960’s, nearly 37% of the world’s population was undernourished. As of 2018, it had fallen to about 10.5%.

So much of the work that truly makes our world more just and peaceful (even if it is not yet perfect) is work that is under-appreciated, under-celebrated, and under-noticed – and that’s because it is done upstream, rather than downstream. We may not know the names of all those who crafted the laws, created the technological advances, and fought for a better, healthier, and wealthier world for all. But if we follow the trendlines, not the headlines, we can see just how much progress our world has made.

As this week’s Parsha, and Rashi’s interpretation of it, remind us, stopping a problem before it happens is often easier than fixing it once it transpires. And yet, we don’t always know the impact of preventative measures. They may not be easy to see. They may not even be measurable. But those lives, and those livelihoods, will be just as impacted. 

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