The 3 protestors huddled over a corner table at the popular cafe tucked away in a quiet cul-de-sac in the heart of the bustling city. It was a cold windy afternoon. The cafe, not too crowded at this time of day, had become their favorite haunt to debate & plot. The strong aromatic coffee, recommended by the barista, complemented their energetic conversation.

No1, with a long mustache and short-cropped hair, restless & angry, was ranting, “The public is clueless and they don’t bother. The government is unleashing irresponsible policies which are going to hit them hard. Yet, they don’t react or protest”

No2, adjusting his ever-dropping horn rimmed glasses on his nose, agreed, “Yes, this protest we are organizing will help raise awareness”

No1 continued, speaking fast, “Yes, it will be a show of strength. Lets show the filthy politicians & kowtowing bureaucrats that we matter. They can’t make us pay for their mistakes & blunders. They have to reverse their policies and make them more beneficial to our lot. We are a big vote bank after all. We just need to showcase our numbers for them to take notice”

No2 – Before I forget and we go deeper, I want to say that the cafe owner has graciously offered to sponsor our table today. He is happy to see we are regulars here, sometimes bringing in a bigger group of friends. All coffee and pastries, including the cafe special I have ordered today, are on the house.

No3 was leaning back in his chair with brooding eyes

No1 – Something bothering you?

No3 – We can protest, but I am not sure if it will solve all our problems.

No2 – We can’t keep quiet. The policies are draconian.

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No3 – Yes, I agree. But we got a whole host of issues. New challenges keep cropping up everyday. You resolve one issue after another….there seems to be no end to this. Corruption & inefficiencies are everywhere.

No1 – Unless we act and protest, how to stop these? We should do our best and things will work out well, over time. Key is we continue protesting. If we stop, the situation will get worse.

No2, biting into the fig & honey tart, concurred,  “Yes, the corrupt politicians and businessmen will take over the city sooner or later. We should fight them.”

No3 leaned forward, put down his coffee mug, and spoke slowly, “We want to protest against corruption, inefficiency, nepotism etc. in the public sphere. But, on the other hand, we seem to have a hand in perpetuating the same problems we are fighting”

No1 spilled some coffee from his mug as he burst out, “What are you taking about?”

No3 continued, “All of us have day jobs. We are not full-time social activists or protestors. We are engineers, entrepreneurs, bankers and so on.  While we don’t directly contribute to creating these social problems, we don’t stop to think about indirect and second-level effects”

No2, toying with a pastry in his plate, frowned, “Thats confusing”

No3 was getting animated. “Not really. Take the example of my banker friend who is keen to join our protest. He draws a salary from his bank and is a socially responsible citizen. But, in his day job, he provides loans to social irresponsible real estate businessmen who are linked to corrupt politicians. Isn’t he socially irresponsible, indirectly?”

No1 – That’s a very convoluted argument. Everyone needs a job and income. All engineers, bankers & entrepreneurs cannot quit their jobs to become socially responsible.

No3 – I not saying everybody has to quit their jobs. But they need to think and worry about their net impact.

No2 – Net impact?  Whats that?

No3 – Are you a smoker?

No2 – No, and you know that.

No3 – Do you invest in cigarette companies?

No2 spoke rapidly, putting his coffee mug down. “Of course not. Cigarettes are unhealthy & socially harmful. I don’t want to make money by investing in a company which sells cigarettes.”

No3 – Well, you are not selling cigarettes yourself. So, what’s wrong in buying shares in a business selling cigarettes?

No2 – I want to be socially responsible. I don’t want to contribute, in anyway, to the promotion and selling of cigarettes, even indirectly.

No3 – Perfect. The same logic applies to my socially responsible banker friend who, by providing loans to corrupt businesses, is also being socially irresponsible. So, he needs to think about his net impact. Is it positive?

No1 jumped in. “That’s very complex. There is no way to measure one’s net impact. Nobody can know for sure. Going by your logic, No3 cannot invest in many other industries also, like retailing and logistics, as all these indirectly support the cigarette manufacturer.”

No3 – That’s right. We are part of a huge complex inter-linked society. A junior software programmer may just be a small contributor towards building a complex business-critical enterprise software that is sold to a weapons manufacturer. But he is indirectly contributing to the business success of his employer’s client, the sale of more weapons, and towards the possibility of more conflicts, wars & destruction.

No2 – Wow, that sounds fantastic.

No3 – Yea, it is fantastic but true. We are in a consumption driven world. The more we consume, the more is our indirect contribution to the growth of greed, corruption and other evils, which cause the many public social issues we face today.

No2 – You are thinking too much. If everyone starts thinking like you, there will be no progress, no growth, no development. The world will stagnate. Nobody will work on innovations, inventions & discoveries.  Everybody will be paranoid.

No3 – Not necessarily. Things will slow down, no doubt. But, when more of us work towards making our net impacts positive, the world will become more sustainable, more livable and enjoyable.

No1 – That’s utopian thinking. Not possible. Not feasible. How can you make the whole world think like that?

No3 – What do we want to achieve by organizing this protest?

No1 – We want to highlight issues & challenges we face in the society today…raise awareness.

No3 – That is exactly what I am doing right now. Making you aware of the indirect impacts of your actions and decisions.

No2 – But, how is this going to help the society or the big wide world? Just 3 of us worrying about our net impacts will not change anything.

No3 – That’s true. Just like our protest won’t solve all the problems in our complex inter-linked society. As long as the protestors are indirectly contributing to the very problems they are protesting against, there won’t be much progress. We may jump 10 feet, but will be dragged 9 feet back, without us noticing it. The net impact may not be significant…can even be negative.

No1 – That’s a very defeatist attitude and thinking. Are you against the protest?

No3 – I am not sure. I want to fight. But I am also worried about my net impact. Am I directly or indirectly contributing to the very problems we are protesting against?

No2 – You are intellectualizing this too much. Remember our last discussion. We decided its time to act. We have had enough debates.

No3 – Yes, I agree. We can’t keep quiet. We got to do something. But I also want to make my net impact positive. It may take sometime or even a lifetime, but I want to work on it.

No1 – That’s a very noble thought, esoteric and so very long-term. Think about the present? We should be worried about the issues plaguing us and our children today. Now is when we should fight corruption, inefficiencies, irresponsible politicians & bureaucrats, and so on. We must try to make the world better for us and our children. Thats how mankind has progressed, throughout history. Think of all the revolutions & wars. Human progress & development was always through protests, struggles and fights.

No3 – That’s a popular narrative version of history which needs some rethinking. Was there an alternative path to progress which we seem to have missed and ignored? Lets suppose we had chosen to avoid the paths of struggles, protests, wars & destruction, over the course of history. And chosen the slower, more peaceful & sustainable path of progress, could we have done better?

No2 – Well, that’s a big supposition. And, anyway, it didn’t happen that way. Getting the whole world to change to your thinking is impossible.

No3 – I can start with myself. Then try to influence the two of you.

No1 – Your idea of net impact sounds good, but difficult to practice. Almost all jobs I can think of has negative indirect consequences.  Even a small time clerk in a government office or a primary teacher in a village school may be indirectly contributing to global terror or viral epidemics. I can’t starve. I need a job and income.

No3 – That’s true. I am not saying its easy. But, at least, we can be conscious of our choices and actions. We got to start somewhere.

No2 stretched and yawned, “We are heading nowhere. I am full of pastries and coffee. I want some fresh air.  Any of you want to join me for a walk in the park?”

No1, shuffling some papers and glancing at his watch, spoke seriously,  “Lets finish what we came here for. The blueprint for the protest is almost ready. We just need to agree on a few points and we are good to go. No3, are you still with us?”

No3 sat back and murmured, “Yes, I guess so”

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