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I don't want a brain surgeon who thinks, "Oh, we got most of the tumor, I'm sure that's good enough."

If the alternative is to do nothing, actually, maybe I do want on like that (unless there's evidence doing nothing is actually better than getting almost all of it).

I don't want an air traffic controller who thinks, "Well, one crash a week is better than five crashes a week."

I sure as hell want one that thinks one crash is better than five! After that first one, I DO NOT want one that says "ah well, this week is all shot to hell, just let 'em crash and we'll try harder next week. This was a bad week to give up sniffing glue." I want one that thinks four more crashes is at about five times as bad as the one crash that just happened.

And when it comes to major public issues like global warming, it is well worth asking whether moderate harm-reduction steps are actually going to make a significant dent: whether they actually will reduce harm enough to keep disaster at bay, or are really just a way of making ourselves feel useful while we collectively walk off a cliff.

Well, if the harm reduction is actually reducing harm in a reasonably cost effective way, then it's probably better than doing nothing. If you're saying "it's really doing nothing" then it's not really harm reduction. As long as we're doing whatever we're doing with open eyes and not letting it get in the way of looking really hard for ways of doing even better, I say go for it.

Yes, it's no panacaea. Nothing ever is.

So let's just:
- do whatever we can to make things better
- keep checking to make sure we actually are*
- keep looking for better approaches than we have

* so, when abstinence-only sex-ed turns out to be worse than useless, we don't allow people to get away with continuing to argue that we just have to pray harder 'cos if we did it right jeesus would stop all teh evil sex.


Damn it. All my lovely italicized quotes and unitalicized responses are all just plain text. Yuk.

jeff huckaby

I think you are a great human being...I love you!


Thanks so much! I really appreciated reading this. I tend to be a terrible pessimist, and don't want to be, so it's really nice to have positive reinforcement for how I would like to think. And act. Cheers!

Bill Brent

Hi, Greta -- optimism, realism; yes, I'll take both kinds of cake, please!

I'm posting a link to a related article on my blog in case it's useful to anyone reading this:



I've been reading your blog for some time now, and this post moved me into commenting. I was hoping to quote for you this brilliant quote about how a great writer articulates what the reader has already been thinking or feeling, but I couldn't find it, except out of my convoluted memory. That quote IS your writing. You've manage to say what has been tangled up in my head so many times. So thank you, and keep on being brilliant.


Harm reduction strikes me as a really useful model for people with chronic depression. I have a loved one who tends to become mired in guilt when he can't do everything he thinks he should, and the result is that he often can't do much of anything. But harm reduction sounds like a good way to break out of that kind of all or nothing thinking.

C. L. Hanson

This is only tangentially related, but I love that book "It's Perfectly Normal." That was the item I purchased on my pilgrimage to Good Vibrations in San Francisco, for my (at the time, future) kids. :D


Wow... I always love reading your stuff but this time I just wanted to say Thanks!

I hadn't heard about the Harm Reduction method... and I can really see how it is both practical and easy to incorporate into one's life... It sort of goes along with one of my favorite modes of thought "some is better than none".

Some exercise is better than none, Some writing is better than none, some housecleaning is better than none, some time with my lover is better than none... etc.

Keep up the awesome writing GC, you have a loyal and very happy fan here in CA.


Long time reader, second or third time commenter.....

I've always approached most aspects of my life from this perspective. I just didn't realize it had an actual name...... The More You Know.


It's always strange to hear that a philosophy you've always sort of thought would be cool has a name, and it's always nice to hear that other people think and feel and act the same way.

Very few things upset me more than zero-tolerance mindsets, or defeatist attitudes that say "oh well, it's too late anyway." Whenever I hear either of those arguments from now on, I'm going to point people to this post.

Thanks for writing this.


What a great post, and blog in general. The work I do falls under the harm reduction philosophy, in fact it is completely directed by it. There is one important thing you omitted that I think people should know about harm reduction, and that is "Every positive change is celebrated". That means every little change you make to improve should be celebrated. Even if it's just saying to yourself, "hey, good job on recycling this week", or "yay! the floors are swept", or even "Good on me for using a condom when I blew that guy", celebration, or at least acknowledgement, is a big part of the harm reduction approach.


Greta, this is real talk:

"I hate the idea that optimism is somehow a form of delusion, and that pessimism and cynicism are somehow equivalent to realism. And I don't just hate it because I enjoy being an optimist. I hate it because I think it's bullshit. I think pessimism and cynicism are often just a weak-ass rationalization for being lazy or cowardly, irresponsible or selfish. Realism doesn't just mean being aware of problems and limitations and obstacles. It also means being aware of what can and cannot be done about problems and limitations and obstacles."

I've been trying to get so many of my unmotivated friends to understand this.

I really thought you were going to apply the Harm-Reduction ideas to religion and science. In fact I can't believe you didn't. You know, for example, some creationists want to know EVERY aspect of God, some evolutionists want to know EVERY aspect of evolution, when in reality, neither is attainable, nor is the full knowledge of such subjects necessary for a fruitful life in day to day affairs...

Alexis Kauffmann

Dear, this blog is a vaccine against mental numbness!

Donna Gore


Just came across this and thought you might be interested. It's applying the harm reduction model to addiction.


Hi Greta

I very much liked this blog entry on harm reduction--I stumbled across it because I am the author of the Kishline piece mentioned above. My whole liefe revolves around harm reduction--I hope it is okay to post the URL to my harm reduction site


Thank you! Good thoughts. I spent two decades with someone who had zero tolerance for anything that didn't perfectly fit her views of "right" and I'm still recovering. My current GF is not perfect, thankfully, and neither am I... and it's okay. It really is okay.
Hugs to ya.

Jimmy Crummins

Outstanding article. A lot of good points here. Thought it was well thought out and articulated.


Harm reduction is indeed a very good model in many, perhaps most situations. The fact that something cannot be perfect is a very poor excuse for doing nothing concrete to improve it. However, there are some situations where, in my opinion, you simply have to refuse to cooperate with an atrocity, even if doing so might reduce harm. This is not an easy question.

If I am a medical officer responsible for the health of a bunch of mercenaries who are going to rape the civilians of a city they have just conquered should I give them contraceptives (so they don't bring VD to their victims) and restraining devices (so they do not need to use so much violence)? Or should I simply refuse to have anything to do with this atrocity thus increasing the suffering of the victims?

This is a real issue. Some of the people who helped make the Holocaust happen defended themselves by saying that they treated the Jews slightly (very slightly) more humanitarian than the others. If they didn't do it someone else would do the same job in a slightly more brutal way. Using the "harm reduction" model they claimed their actions were defensible.

When slavery was still an issue there was a very real divide between the "pure" abolitionists and those who wanted to make life better for the slaves. The "pure" abolitionsists argued that by humanizing slavery they implied moral sanction and perpetuated it.

What you are saying is correct except perhaps: "It can be applied to almost any area of life." I say there are many cases where you must refuse to cooperate with an atrocity even if doing so would indeed reduce harm. On issues such as rape or slavery, I believe zero-tolerance is necessary.


Jeffrey Soreff

Very much agreed that harm reduction is
a good goal for broad classes of problems.
What are the implications for what to do
about religion? I had a discussion on
lesswrong with Kaj_Sotala about how
Finland kept religion out of its politics.
One of the factors, strange though it may
sound, seems to be existence of a state
church. As he described:

A prevailing theory is that this acts as a sort of an inoculation against more radical strands of religion. Religion is that traditional thing you grew up with, with neat rituals that bring some comfort and you'll likely believe in at least some of what they say, but that's about it. It's been mostly relegated to the position of "those nice people who provide nice traditional rituals for a few special occasions in everyone's life". And once you're used to the thought of that being the church's function, any church or religion that gets more involved in the daily lives of its followers will seem radical and fanatic in comparison.

evden eve nakliyat

Ulaşım en az iletişim kadar insan hayatında önem arz etmektedir.Amaca göre toplumdaki bireyler hava,deniz,kara ve ya demir yolu bağlantılarını
kullanmaktadırlar.Ancak söz konusu evden eve nakliyat olunca ulaşım yollarında seçim yapmak daha önemli hale gelmektedir.Örneğin evini İzmir'den İstanbul'a taşıyan
bir aile,öncelikle nakliye edilen ev eşyalarının gidilecek noktaya en az zarala ulaşmasının sağlanmasıdır. Yani gidilecek araç ve gereçlerin sigortalanmasıdır.
Bir diğeri ulaşım bedelinin aile bütçesine uygun olmasıdır.Bunun yanı sıra,ulaşım esnasında çıkabilecek herhangi bir koplikasyonda, nakliyat sahibinin
iş bitiminin garantisini müşteriye veriyor olması ve oluşan problemin maddi_manevi sorumluluğunu taşımasıda önemli bir husustur.

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