Richard Parncutt, 2013
Einstein once commented that "Two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity. As for the universe, I am not sure yet." Well that was a funny joke, but the truth is everyone at any age can learn new things and change behavior and attitudes. If you don't believe it, the neuropsychologists will show you how the brain changes (plasticity). It is true that older people learn and adapt more slowly than younger people, but with the right motivation they are still flexible. History can teach us a similar lesson: the French revolution, the abolition of (most) slavery, voting rights for women, the universal declaration of human rights, the Kyoto accord - in all cases humanity made significant progress, and we can expect further such milestones in the future.
Social change is always brought about by groups of people and often anonymous individuals play an important role. It may seem uncool these days to quote President John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address, 1961 in which he famously said "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country", but when you think about it, what other alternative is there to consumerist selfishness? If you belong to the lucky half of the world (healthy, educated, housed, clothed, fed, watered) you will have some spare time and energy to help other half. And in a globalised world, there is little difference between helping your country and helping the world.
That's a good question. If you devote a lot of time and energy to the solution of major global problems you sometimes feel like your effort is wasted. People may listen for a while, but soon they are back to their old tricks. At that point many give up. But it does not take much time and energy to vote for the best politicians and to talk to your friends about the issues. Nobel prizewinner Wangari Maathai gave the following tip in her autobiography Unbowed (London: Heinemann, p. 70): "I emerged as a person who believed that society is inherently good and that people generally act for the best. To me, a general orientation toward trusting people and a positive attitude toward life and fellow human beings in healthy - not only for one's peace of mind but also to bring about change."
following is the closest to universal wisdom that I can find:
responsibility is the real key to human survival ... Altruism is the
basis of peace and happiness ... If you want altruism you must control
hate and you must practise patience ... It is our enemies who provide
us with the challenge we need to develop the qualities of tolerance,
patience, and compassion ... First we have to try inner disarmament -
reducing our own anger and hatred while increasing mutual trust and
human affection ... When you encounter some problems, if you point your
finger at yourself and not at others, this gives control over yourself
and calmness in a situation, where otherwise self control becomes
problematic" (cited from "Words of Wisdom", Margaret Gee Publishing,
1992). It's all very fine to talk about these things, but the real
challenge and the real reward comes when we try to implement them
consistently over a long period of time.