Podcasting “What Is Peak Indifference?”

A theory of change.

Cory Doctorow


This week on my podcast, I read my recent Medium column, “What Is Peak Indifference?” in which I try to unpack my 2016 theory of change about the role that “self-radicalization” plays in addressing thorny problems.


Many of our most urgent problems embody a paradox: while these problems are urgent (in the sense that they are matters of life-or-death), they’re also part of causal chains that are so long that they’re hard to trace and understand.

Think of smoking: the link between a lungful of smoke and a lung-tumor is separated by so much time and space that there is plenty of room for denial to take hold (especially when the denial is amplified and reinforced by Big Tobacco’s disinformation campaigns).

The same goes for nuclear disarmament, the climate emergency, corporate monopolization and many other serious — even existential — problems.

But because these are problems, ignoring them allows them to fester and worsen. Eventually, the number of people who recognize their existence and seriousness starts to go up of its own accord, without any need for activist agitation or public education campaigns.

What’s the force that radicalizes people to care about these subjects? The festering problem itself. A stage-four lung cancer diagnosis is more compelling than any talk about smoking cessation with your family doctor. Likewise, the wildfire that wipes out your town is more convincing than even the best Greta Thunberg speech.

That moment — when the consequences of a neglected problem visit trauma upon a rapidly expanding cohort of people, turning them from bystanders into partisans — is the moment of peak indifference. It’s the moment where the number of partisans increases of its own accord.

But we can’t rely on peak indifference to spark action, for two important reasons:

I. Trauma makes it harder to think clearly. Losing your town to a wildfire won’t necessarily make you an anti-fossil-fuel crusader — it might just as easily turn you into an ecofascist, advocating for closed borders, violent depopulation and conquest of high-ground to…