It's Hard To Focus On the Big Picture
The problem is not lack of concern -- it's scale. Thinking about large groups like "the poor" or "everyone in Africa" or "the whole world" is just more than our teeny, primitive little monkey-minds can grasp. The term "monkeysphere" was coined by David Wong from Cracked as a way of quantifying human relationships. Start by imagining that you bring home a pet monkey. He's your buddy, an individual -- he's got a personality, and you might even dress him up in little outfits. He's an important part of your life and you would miss him if he weren't around anymore. Now, imagine you get four more monkeys. You can picture personalities and outfits for each of them, can't you? They're still all individuals in your mind, and you would still feel badly if one of them was run over by a UPS delivery truck (or FedEx, take your pick!)
Now imagine a hundred monkeys. A thousand monkeys. A million monkeys. That's a lot harder. You probably tend to envision them more as a grouping of anonymous, nameless, faceless primates -- as opposed to unique individuals, each with a personality and an outfit. And it's unlikely that, should all of them die, you would be able to experience a specific feeling of grief for each one. In fact, keep adding to the number, and you will eventually reach a point where you no longer really care what happens to any one particular monkey. How many monkeys would it take before you stopped caring? The answer is called Dunbar's number -- it's the theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom you can maintain social relationships, in which you know who each person is and how each person relates to every other person in the group. Anthropologists place the average at somewhere between 150 to 300 people -- your brain is simply incapable of conceptualizing anyone beyond that 151st (or 301st) soul an actual "person."
Your circle is sure to include friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, classmates, and others with whom you come into regular contact. But it doesn't (and can't) include that one lone guy out in a hut in Ethiopia who is starving to death and covered in flies. That's not to say that when his plight is brought to your attention, you can't feel empathy and concern (and even choose to do something to lessen his suffering) -- but the point is that it has to be brought to your attention. He's not right there on the edge of your consciousness, popping in and out of your mind like a friend or family member. And unless you sign up for some sort of CARE program in which you get letters in return for your donations, he's likely to slide right back out of your frame of reference, once you feel that you've done what you can to help. You're probably not going to think to yourself, "I haven't checked in on Ndugu in a while -- I wonder how he's doing?" the way you might for your sister or college roommate or an old army buddy.
The same goes for people who serve a tangential purpose in your life, but who you only know in a very flat, one-dimensional way. The garbage man. The girl who rings you up at Starbucks. A college professor. You don't picture these folks being full and complete "people," like you or your mom or your best friend are -- with outside lives and passions, job worries, sexual orientations, family issues, hobbies, and fears. They serve one role, one purpose in your life, so you tend to see them as walk-on characters in your drama -- playing a bit part, there entirely to support you in your life.
Seeing Beyond Your Own Nose
Our brains are set up this way so we can develop stable social groupings -- clans and tribes and communities designed to protect members and ensure the survival of the species. However, this mode of thinking is not so conducive to living la vida global. The monkeysphere is at least partially responsible for the holocaust, for genocide in Rwanda, for road rage and global warming and the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. It's harder to get worked up about something bad happening to someone you don't know than someone you do -- and it's even harder to care about mass casualties halfway around the globe than here at home. When an earthquake strikes or a fire breaks out or a twister touches down, what's the first thing you always check? To see where it was, if it happened in a place where someone you personally know lives.
A common question used to illustrate this point is, "Which would upset you more -- your mom dying, or seeing on the news that 15,000 people were killed in a natural disaster in another country?" I experienced both this past year, and I can tell you right now that my mother's death affected me much more profoundly than the huge number of mortalities from the recent Japan earthquake and subsequent tsunami (and that's even after I spent 2 wonderful weeks in Tokyo, where I developed a strong personal affection for the country!) It's not that I don't care about those people -- I just can't care as much as I would if I had a more direct tie to the incident. And it's not just that I'm a spoiled and cold-hearted American -- the Japanese didn't care any more about us on an individual level when 9/11 hit, either. It was too far outside their monkeysphere.
This sort of mental block also makes it SO much easier to ignore our impact on others when we can't see the people who are affected by our behavior. The guy who illegally downloads pirated software sees it as giving the finger to "the man," and doesn't feel at all badly about screwing the big greedy corporations who spend their time screwing consumers. But if he personally knew the programmer who loses his job when market share drops because everyone is getting his work for free off the internet, he might think twice about his next plunder. The homemaker who's in too much of a hurry to correctly dispose of toxic household chemicals at a hazardous waste site would never dream of dumping those cleaning fluids into her neighbor's back yard swimming pool -- but she doesn't even think about the families 30 miles downstream that she's poisoning when she pours them down the drain. And the woman that shops at Walmart doesn't feel in the least bit guilty about the child laborers she's exploiting to get a bargain -- because they aren't really "people," they're the machines that makes her decorated throw pillows and handbags. It's human nature.
I would love to offer you a solution, but there isn't one -- we're evolutionarily hardwired to only take care of those inside the "circle of trust," while distancing ourselves from tragedies and ignoring ramifications outside our monkeysphere. Of course, awareness is the only cure, but you can't force yourself to be consciously aware of nearly 7 billion people all at the same time without going insane. The most you can hope for is to try and treat every decision, every action, every consequence as if it were going to affect someone close to you -- always remembering that everyone out there, regardless of how insignificant that person may be to your life, is very important in someone's monkeysphere.