There are infinite arguments for having either an optimistic or pessimistic view of the future of human beings on Earth. For example, on the plus side, there are more human beings who are happy, well-fed, well-educated, and living without immediate fear of violence than at any other time in history. Efficiencies of mass production and electronic communication have brought unprecedented wealth and information to billions. Every day new scientific discoveries enable us to improve our lives and expand our knowledge horizons. Positive, enlightened values like tolerance, freedom, caring for the environment, and personal responsibility are the on rise, worldwide.
There is just as much ammunition in the pessimist’s magazine. Global warming will likely wreak havoc on our croplands and low-altitude communities. Hundreds of millions still live in abject poverty, without access to clean drinking water and nutritious food (not to mention electricity, education, internet access, and most other luxuries many take for granted).
A great deal of the world’s wealth is controlled by corporations who act with only profit-making in mind, abusing the environment, worker’s rights, and the health and well-being of both communities and customers. Even worse, international organized crime gangs headed by sociopaths operate unchecked, dealing in arms, drugs, and human beings. Our entire economic system is a pyramid scheme based on perpetual growth (which is impossible, at least until we escape the planet) and ignoring externalities (like the environment). Many countries, including our own, seem to exist in a state of perpetual war, and xenophobic attitudes (as anachronistic as they might seem to the blog reader) are deeply entrenched in many communities. Human health in threatened by a sea of chemicals (and poor quality Frankenfoods) of our own making.
Human beings have triggered a new epoch of mass extinction by destroying nearly all of the old-growth forests on land and the great reefs of the sea. Nuclear war is still a threat. And we have zero protection against the ultimate calamity — a large asteroid hitting the Earth (don’t think it can’t happen).
Holding both the positive and negative in one’s mind at the same time is the most difficult path. It’s much easier to take either a Panglossian or nihilistic attitude, as neither requires action. Take your pick: 1) Everything will work itself out, or 2) Everything is hopeless. The true character of the extremist is laziness. The rest of us, who have a more balanced view, are compelled to roll up our shirt sleeves and actually do something to improve the world.
As a thought experiment, I’m going to write three posts in which I will attempt to prioritize the top five global to-do list items for a ten year, one hundred year, and one thousand year time frames. Nothing in particular qualifies me to make such a list, except that it’s a question that interests me. The results might influence the future choices I make about charitable giving, writing topics, etc. Maybe some of you will be inspired to make your own similar lists (which will no doubt be different). The main criteria I’m going to consider will be protecting and improving quality of life for the most possible people.
To-Do List for Whom?
Though I’m not opposed to organizations that operate on a global level (like the United Nations) I’m not an advocate of a single global government. Even if a majority of human beings managed to agree to be governed one way (highly unlikely), it would still be a bad idea. A robust ecology of governmental systems is superior. That way, the next time things get tough (as invariably happens in the course of history), there will be a multitude of governmental systems to test — if many fail then others will persist. It’s the same argument for not destroying all your seed stock just because you’ve found the most efficient strain of wheat. You never know when a pathogen is going to find the Achilles heel of your prize stock (or global government); you always want to keep that ugly, less productive (but much hardier) strain around just in case.
So when I say “global to-do list”, the idea isn’t that some hypothetical global government is going to implement the items. Instead, it could be a single government, or a coalition of governments, or a grassroots movement, or a non-profit organization, or loose network of people organized around a cause, or even a single highly motivated person. Most people aren’t interested in changing the world (they would rather just be told what to do), so that leaves a vast amount of power for those willing to step into the void and lead the way.
The power of intention is the most powerful resource each of us has available to us. Our brains are incredibly powerful biomachines, capable of processing and analyzing vast amounts of information and coming up with brilliant solutions. Most of this power is wasted because we don’t bother to identify problems and come up with preferred realities. Does something in your life suck? Why does it suck? What, exactly, would you like your life to look (and feel) like instead? Do you find your mind resisting these questions? They’re often incredibly hard to answer; they require real mental work. The funny thing is, once you do answer those hard questions, the road that leads to the preferred reality is often not that difficult to map. Once your intention is crystallized (the hard bit) then the amped-up biomachine (your brain) will find all kinds of connections and resources that will assist you in manifesting your preferred reality. Failure is still a possibility — even the best laid plans can be thwarted by powerful external forces — but without intention we are utterly rudderless.
I think the same forces operate on a group level — collective intention is even more powerful than personal intention. That’s the idea behind this list; in order to do anything to improve our collective situation on Earth, we (all humans) have to decide what our priorities are. Obviously, we don’t all need to get behind an idea in order to implement it — it’s more of a critical mass thing.
The List (or at least, My List)
GLOBAL TO-DO LIST, TOP FIVE PRIORITY ITEMS FOR NEXT TEN YEARS
1. Stabilize, de-radicalize, and possibly demilitarize extremist nuclear-armed (and near-nuclear) nations.
Might as well start with something both contentious and extremely difficult. I’m not suggesting that the United States immediately invade North Korea and Iran. In fact, I’m not suggesting any particular course of action — I’m not knowledgeable or sophisticated enough. What is obvious is that human beings can’t afford, on any level, to have a nuclear device detonated in a civilian center, ever again. The costs are too great, in terms of human life, environmental destruction, and the collective toll on our psyches.
How do you deal with lethally armed nations who are, essentially, led by crazy people? A good start would be to do whatever is possible take a little pressure off of its citizenry. In the case of North Korea, people are starving. More food aid would be a good idea. There’s a fine line between exerting pressure on a distasteful regime, and turning that nation into a pressure cooker.
2. Encourage/subsidize intensive polyculture, worldwide.
Global climate change poses severe threats to our food security. Agricultural models based on stable weather patterns may fail quickly, en masse. An alternative to monoculture (growing a single crop, which has a low cost of labor cost but depletes soil and increases vulnerability to pathogens) is intensive polyculture, or cultivating many food sources on a single piece of land, managed in such a way that the farmer takes advantage of complex biodynamic synergies. Michael Pollan describes one such farm (belonging to Joel Salatin) in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
Intensive polyculture enriches and builds topsoil, ends reliance on chemicals, increases productivity per unit of land, and produces incredibly nutritious food. The downsides are that cost of labor is high, and the labor must be highly skilled.
With global climate change, we’ll have less arable land, and all food will increase in cost. We need alternatives to industrial monoculture, and investments we make in education/training, protecting existing farm lands from development, reclaiming unused urban land for agriculture, and generally subsidizing sustainable/restorative farming techniques will pay off in terms of food security, public health, and health of the environment.
The same principles apply to aquaculture. This short video about a sustainable fish farm in Spain presents a fascinating example.
3. Build clean water infrastructure for all.
Nothing erodes quality of life more than not having access to clean water. Vulnerability to disease, malnutrition (from intestinal pathogens), loss of basic human dignity (can’t wash), and loss of time (trekking to get water instead of working or going to school) are just a few of the negative effects.
On the bright side, providing communities with clean drinking water is relatively cheap. Charity:water is doing excellent work in this area. I fully support their efforts, both with my writing and my pocketbook, and I encourage you to do the same. There is no lower hanging fruit, in terms of improving the lives of nearly a billion people, than helping to provide them with clean drinking water.
4. Protect arable land via microclimate control.
We may be well past the point of no return in regards to global climate change. However, there are numerous low cost interventions humans can make to stabilize our local climates. Tree-planting and marshland restoration are probably our best defenses against soil erosion, flooding, and drought. Here are a few interesting examples of proactive projects along such lines:
Tree-planting may also mitigate climate change; the additional trees act as carbon sinks. However I think protecting arable and habitable land is a more pertinent goal for the next ten years.
5. In addition to clean water and increased food security, increase public health via information campaigns and low-cost health supplies.
This is another area where huge gains can be made at relatively low-cost (low-hanging fruit). Hundreds of millions of people live in ignorance regarding how the most prevalent diseases are transmitted or contracted. Quality of life could be improved for many via a combination of information campaigns and low-cost supplies like vaccines, mosquito nets, condoms, water filters, nutritional and caloric supplements, and rehydration formula. The Gates Foundation is doing excellent work in this area.
Wealthier nations could benefit just as much from information campaigns. “Diseases of affluence” like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, kidney failure, and liver failure could all be reduced with basic education regarding sound nutrition (for example, increase sources of vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, increase fresh fruits and vegetables, and decrease refined carbohydrates, vegetable oils, and binge-drinking).
That’s my list. Looking at it, I see that I’ve left out the global economic recession, the war in Afghanistan, U.S. education reform, global banking reform, gay marriage, net neutrality, and many other “hot” political topics. In fact, in many ways my list could have time-traveled from 1970. I’m sticking by my five items though — they’re all of vital importance in terms of protecting or improving the quality of life for the most possible human beings.
What does your list look like? And what is the key underlying value that guides your prioritization process?
Stay tuned for my 100 year and 1000 year global to-do lists.