Why bother?

Richard Parncutt, 2013

Richard Parrncutt ICMPC 2012
Do you feel helpless sometimes? I do. The world evidently has existential problems and we in the "top billion" clearly have a responsibility to address them. But can we really do something? Is it worth even trying?

European society is increasingly secular. What can an atheist do for the world? 

Over a century ago, Darwin, Freud and Marx made atheism respectable. Each of them suggested in his own way that gods are created by humans and not vice-versa. Today, regardless of your religion of lack of it, you can agree that responsibility for humankind and the planet earth lies entirely with humans. So we had better start taking that responsibility seriously. That includes voting for politicians who have the courage to think big, and those whose approach is Sustainable, Altruistic, Global and Egalitarian.

Can we realistically expect solutions to the world's biggest problems? Sometimes it seems that people are just too dumb.

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.

Can I really do something? I am just one of millions of people.

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.

How can I help a world that tends to reward selfishness and punish altruism?

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."

Austria is a Catholic country, but Austrians trust the Dalai Lama more than the Pope. What did the Dalai Lama say, actually?

The following is the closest to universal wisdom that I can find: "Universal 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.

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