“You begin saving the world by saving one person at a time; all else is grandiose romanticism or politics.” – Charles Bukowski
This is, I think, a typical Bukowski quote. It’s marked with the blatant immediacy prevalent in the drunken mind who found salvation in the bottle. It is at once a procedural truism and a rather myopic false dichotomy.
If you slice time very thinly, the statement “you begin saving the world by saving one person at a time” has to be true. In a deeply linear, causal universe it can’t help being otherwise. Yet, a single decision made in an similarly thin slice of time can just as equally affect millions of people simultaneously. It is intended to be a statement of universal truth but actually means nothing.
Bukowski’s “grandiose romanticism” is rendered inert by any large scale project from building a dam to running a corporation or nonprofit. His striking cynicism is borne primarily from the loathing poetry of a misanthrope. In regards to politics, one can easily point to the struggle for the 8 hour workday or the creation of the EPA as counter examples.
Interpreted in a less critical view, Bukowski might simply be saying that we could all do some good by focusing on the individual. Reaching out and making someone’s life just a bit better. No one is against that but I don’t think it saves the world. You save the world by building smart organizational structures and incentive systems that benefit as many people as possible.
I’ll grant that his writings are, at times, melodic but they are equally suffused with a myopia that is usually just inaccurate. The alcoholism that made him a notable writer also restricted him from accomplishing anything that might have informed that writing with grace. At the end of the day this is a lovely but feeble quote which can’t see outside the bar it was composed in.