Pessimists Outnumber Us
Here’s how many people justify shirking their duty, as a member of the human species, to improve life on Earth.
“I don't think we can constructively address any of our major problems.”
People will complain about our problems. But only few will do anything about them. People do what’s fun. It’s fun to complain. But it’s work to organize. Hence problems persist and progress is slow.
Is it true that we can’t solve our major social problems? Really? Change is always happening, every day; can it not be for the better?
Some famous thinkers were more optimistic.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”—Margaret Mead
Anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” In that case, it’s a good thing that progress only requires a critical mass—a number far smaller than a consensus or even a majority.
Witty playwright and geonomist George Bernard Shaw said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”—George Bernard Shaw
As a lifetime environmentalist and science-lover—and unreasonable man—I don't see action as fruitless or inaction as justifiable. Every little positive act we perform helps. Physicists tell us about the butterfly effect. John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, put it like this: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” So do do every little thing you can think of.
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”—John Muir
What about an awful problem requiring an immediate solution? Like thousands of people fleeing the murderous religious fanatics in Syria. Is that an issue that concerned citizens could address? I think so. People could investigate the solutions that openminded people have worked out and that mainstream media ignore. Next, force government officials to acknowledge these solutions. Then gather enough pressure to force politicians to use them.
What might they be? Number one: send emergency aid—water, food, clothing, temporary housing, fuel—to refugees in surrounding Arab nations. Next: send aid to erect permanent shelters in Arab nations that are not crowded.
The refugees now prefer to go to Europe, since Europe is prosperous. However, Europe is crowded and most refugees do not speak German or Hungarian, etc. Further, most refugees tend to bring with them—unconsciously—the same cultural traits that created the situation they’re fleeing, such as their ingrained male/female imbalance. That custom and other differences create a cultural conflict in a Europe that's less religious—despite it being relatively openminded—that could be avoided.
Other measures that we must take are longer term but just as crucial. Especially by Americans. The US has so much clout in the world, you simply can not exaggerate it. And US military power might be the least of it. Look at the influence of American pop culture—music, movies, slang, fashion. Imagine tapping that as a force for good!
Presently, the US squanders its power to do good and does bad (by my values) by starting wars and invading small nations (that usually have oil underground). But the US could forgo violence and use its other powers to do good.
Take the arms trade (please!). Wars don’t happen without weapons and most combatants do not manufacture their own weapons. They buy them from the US and other nations. The US could offer free trade to any country that gets out of the arms trade. Meanwhile, from where do less developed warriors get their money? Often from selling oil. So if the West burned less oil—and used more fuel cells and electric motors to power vehicles—then they would not empower fanatics, arm their enemies, and thereby quit contributing to the slaughter of innocents.
Fanatics have an easier time taking power in places where most people are poor and oppressed by a ruling elite. Yet no society need stay poor. How to develop economically, while not widely known by activists or politicians, is well known in the literature—mainly widespread ownership of land, plus trade not hindered by taxes, tariffs, licenses, and subsidies to insiders (corruption).
Other solutions are well beyond the imagination of those who pay too much attention to mainstream media. Yet they exist. So does the Peace Academy with its insightful ideas. Elsewhere in academia there is the science of social change. The problems (and solutions) are never technical or economic, but always political and psychological. Where there’s a will…
Ironically, while we should be responsible enough to participate in reform movements, our conscious efforts are not the only factor driving change; there are also factors, that no one foresaw, that spinoff positive consequences. The classic example is how urbanization drives down the birth rate, reducing the stress of human population in places of fragile ecosystems. I don’t know about you, but it makes me feel good to know that the world works right, that unconscious, unplanned, unexpected changes are often on our side.
How are conscious and unconscious efforts doing to improve society? Has there been progress? Sure. Violent death is the lowest in centuries. Cultural creatives total over 60 million in America, over a fifth of the population. A half-black became president. Several states legalized marijuana. Gays can now marry. You could add to this list.
In part, it’s a personality type that wins these things—whatever makes the people who work for social justice tick. Also, it’s due to “social drift”—something much bigger than any one of us—but something we can all join. If it’s fun enough to not be seen as work.
Paradigms shift. You can’t stop that. You can only speed them along.
It makes me feel good to know that the world works right, that unconscious, unplanned, unexpected changes are often on our side.
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JEFFERY J. SMITH published The Geonomist, which won a California GreenLight Award, has appeared in both the popular press (e.g.,TruthOut) and academic journals (e.g., USC's “Planning and Markets”), been interviewed on radio and TV, lobbied officials, testified before the Russian Duma, conducted research (e.g., for Portland's mass transit agency), and recruited activists and academics to Progress.org. A member of the International Society for Ecological Economics and of Mensa, he lives in Mexico. Jeffery formerly was Chief Editor at Progress.org.