There are two things about categorical statements: all of them are wrong, but some of them are useful. And so at one level, I think this piece’s title is clearly wrong: some actions don’t quite make the world better or not, they just kind of happen.
But that being said, it’s clarifying to realize that fundamentally this is a choice that every action you make can be categorized into: either it makes the world more like you’d like, or it doesn’t. Either you’re having a positive transforming impact, or you’re not.
One of the complicating factors on this simple dichotomy is that we all want the world be different in some very big and some very small ways. For example, I’d like to know that I was definitely not having an negative impact on the global environment. I’d also like to be able to get to a conference across the country next weekend without having to rely on only my own muscles (and perhaps a bicycle) to get there. What do I do?
Another great example is that I’d like to look like a Greek god. 5% body fat, big (but not obscenely large) muscles. “Ripped.” But I also like the taste of pies, chocolates, and other unhealthy things. And I don’t particularly like to perform all the exercises (in either their specific motions, or the quantity) required. Plus, as much as I’ve learned to like the flavor of vegetables, I couldn’t stay happy for long on those alone.
So what gets in the way of making this a simple and concise hueristic by which you change your actions and thus simply transform the world is that there are these different time horizons where our desires for world transformation operate. Maybe I’d like to lose 10 pounds, but dislike the feeling of hunger. Maybe I’d like to gain 10 pounds, but just can’t fathom how people eat that much food.
This balancing of all the different horizons of our desires is an art, and a constant dance. Like balancing a stick above your hand, it requires continuous adjustment. Sometimes you’re in a place where your short term desires and your long term ones align. Sometimes you’ve got to put your short-term ones on hold to pursue the long ones, sometimes the opposite. It’ll never feel perfect and natural, but the balancing of it is what living is.