Dreams of a Better World

As I’ve written in the past, I’m an optimist when it comes to human progress: I’m confident that we can overcome the problems that beset us. This isn’t to say that I think our triumph is inevitable, or even that optimism is the only possible position for a rational person to take. There are plenty of reasons to despair, for those who seek them out. Nevertheless, I think there’s one major, counterbalancing reason for hope, and that reason is this.

Simply stated, our greatest dangers are not external hazards, things over which we have no control, but rather arise from the immorality or inaction of human beings. Just think of all the cases where our only enemy is each other: racism and sexism, secular tyranny and religious theocracy, pollution, war, terrorism, overpopulation, climate change, and environmental degradation. Evils like this are not natural forces that arise of their own accord; they persist because of the inertia of human society, our stubborn self-interest, and our valuing of dogma and superstition over the lives and well-being of our fellow people. Even many epidemic diseases, like AIDS, thrive only because of our actions. If people did not act – whether out of irresponsibility, malice, or simple ignorance – in ways that made their propagation possible, they would swiftly die out.

I won’t deny that changing these harmful attitudes is tremendously difficult – moral progress always is – but it can be done. If our primary enemies were natural forces that could never be persuaded to relent, we would face a much grimmer and more difficult path. But as it stands, natural disasters like floods, hurricanes and earthquakes can destroy individuals and communities, but not humanity as a whole. The only global dangers, the only threats that truly menace the entire human community, are the ones that we have created for ourselves and perpetuate through our actions.

The truth of this statement can be discerned through a thought experiment. Imagine that all of humanity was united in purpose, that all people were willing to do whatever was necessary to put an end to these evils. Take this as a given, and then ask yourself: if this were so, what could we accomplish in just a single generation? The possibilities are almost limitless. We could eradicate AIDS and all the other diseases that depend on us for their propagation, as well as all the ones we have vaccines against. We could decarbonize our economy, end our dependence on fossil fuels, and create a green civilization powered by sun, wind and tides. We could end war and tyranny and establish peace, democracy and justice for every society on earth. We could redirect all the resources and energy that are currently wasted in superstition and sectarianism, instead using them for the common good of humanity. Ending poverty would take significant investments in infrastructure and education and would probably be a multi-generational process, but even that could be done relatively quickly if we had the will.

Of course, this is a limiting case. All of humanity will never be united in this way, at least not any time in the foreseeable future. There are too many squabbling political parties, too many stubborn religions and nationalisms, and too many rigid ideologies battling each other across the memetic landscape. We are too diverse and too opinionated for one cause to ever win everyone’s allegiance. But, knowing what is possible if everyone were to cooperate, the next step should be to ask what is possible with less than that. Knowing that some percentage of humanity will always react with indifference or outright hostility, is it still possible to make moral progress? And any fair consideration of the historical record would have to answer this question with a resounding Yes!

In spite of everything – all the dogmatism, the stubbornness, the selfishness, the ignorance and hate – humanity’s star has been rising, these past few centuries and more. So long as there’s freedom to speak our views and to lobby for change, good causes have been able to win out time and again. As slow and difficult as it is to shift the monolithic block of human opinion, it can be done. That’s why I’m an optimist, and that’s why I dream of a better world. My reason for hope follows the lines of the famous saying attributed to the anthropologist Margaret Mead:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Brad

    Gotta love dreams I guess.

    I picture all of us in a giant ocean, treading water. The constant energy required to simply stay afloat leaves little strength left to actually do anything productive with. We start grasping each other to stay above the waterline when we are desperate or just desirous of an easier time, and everything goes downhill from there.

  • Javaman

    I imagine John Lennon would agree, too.

  • myview

    The institutions we have relied on to rescue us can’t.It is the power of individuals that is our greatest strength and can solve many of the problems you have listed.

  • Wayne K-M

    Adam, your writings have more positive influence on world affairs than you can possibly realize. Best regards,

    Wayne

  • http://www.skepticaloccultism.com/ pendens proditor

    I’m a little less optimistic because crazy is the default state of a human being. One person might be innately less susceptible to cognitive error than another person, but I doubt you’d ever find someone who’s completely free of ego, superstition, bias, or magical thinking from birth. These are the subtle tendencies that ultimately spur people toward racism, sexism, religious fundamentalism, terror, war, etc.

    Overcoming one’s own cognitive handicaps takes hard work and self-discipline. And if there’s anything that’s true of human beings, it’s that the majority of them will always take the path of least resistance. How do you convince someone to go against his own nature? How do you get him to remove his shackles when those shackles feel right and good and imbued with purpose? It’s a very, very tough sell.

    Education rescues many of us today, but for every knowledgeable freethinker there are twenty ignorami who’re more interested in what their guts say than books. The blame for this is usually placed on the education system — if it was only better designed everything would work out fine, they say — but I think it’s more an indicator that educators are swimming against the current. Education may be able to reach a greater percentage of people in the future, but the vast majority? I’m hopeful, but I don’t see how it could happen. As long as we’re still human, crazy is here to stay. One entails the other.

    And even if we do someday transcend ourselves, all it takes is one society-disrupting disaster (like an asteroid hit) and it starts all over again. Because, barring some serious transhuman hacking of the genome, the craziness will have been lurking inside us all along, waiting to be awakened.

  • Obi-Wan Quixote

    secular tyranny and religious theocracy…religions and nationalisms, and too many rigid ideologies battling each other across the memetic landscape.

    This sure reads like intentional fairness on your part, Ebon. Much appreciated.

    With regard to the post, tough call. Could go either way, or anywhere along the middle.

  • Jennifer A. Burdoo

    Ebonmuse, one problem with your concept might be that it suggests that an absolute monarchy would be most effective. Imagine if there was an emperor, or a world dictator, who could say, “do this,” and it would be done. If he/she approved of environmentalism, sound education, science, etc, then imagine the possibilities!

    There are two problems with this, however — first, it promotes tyranny (and doesn’t absolute rule remind you of … religion?) and second, it assumes that the guy in charge knows what he’s doing. Judging from history, you’d only get a good one every other generation or so, and in between you’d have someone utterly incompetent. Democracy helps prevent this, but not enough, because the electorate is easily swayed and we tend to elect the leaders we deserve. This means we need much, much better education; so that people learn to discern and elect leaders who are good for them, not ones who appeal to them. I agree with you that’s achievable, but there’s a LOT of inertia in the way — six billion people and a thousand different groups worth. I suspect it won’t happen for several generations. I just hope by then it won’t be too late. I try to avoid faith, but this is the one thing where I wonder if faith is necessary? The faith that humans will, by their own cooperation, deliberately avoid disaster? Now that’s optimism!

  • Samuel Skinner

    Another problem is they are good at their job, but miscalculation still kills millions.

  • Ritchie

    Well said, Adam! I strongly believe that empowerment and awareness give us every cause for hope, and resent the association of awareness with cynicism.

    But much as I hate to nit-pick, one small passage hit a nerve for me – we could establish democracy and justice for every society?

    Objectively ‘justice’ is essentially a meaningless term. It’s an empty word designed to get an audience cheering, much like ‘fairness’ or ‘freedom’. Politicians in particular love these words because we all know we are supposed to love them, and yet our ideas of what they actually mean may differ wildly.

    Is it ‘just’ to rehabilitate criminals, or to give them the death penalty? Is it ‘unfair’ on animals to kill them for meat, or to deny ourselves the opportunity of eating them?

    A tangental niggle, of course, but generally a very inspiring essay.

  • Chuck

    Call me a pessimist. At this point, I’d settle for universal health care.

  • Lux Aeterna

    What about MAJOR natural disasters, say an asteroid impact or a supervolcano eruption? These could conceivably wipe out the human race too.

  • Alex, FCD

    Brad:

    I picture all of us in a giant ocean, treading water.

    Would it reassure you at all to know that, even if the polar ice caps melted entirely, there would still be plenty of land? We’d still be screwed, of course, but in a non-drowning sort of way.

    Lux:

    What about MAJOR natural disasters, say an asteroid impact or a supervolcano eruption? These could conceivably wipe out the human race too.

    It’s conceivable, but unlikely. Such things do happen, but they happen so rarely that the probability that any species specified in advance will see such an event is vanishing. We only know of one mass extinction that was caused by a bolloid impact (the end-Cretaceous) and, being generous, three caused by massive volcanics (end-Devonian, end-Permian and end-Triassic). That makes four in half a billion years, nothing to lose sleep over. And besides, humans have a very broad environmental range, which gives us a bit of an extinction buffer.

  • velkyn

    I’m of the opinion that indeed it would take something like an “alien invasion” to get humans to realize that we aren’t so different.

    I’m not too worried about the human race surviving because I’m not that convinced this is the best that evolution can come up with.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    I’m not too worried about the human race surviving because I’m not that convinced this is the best that evolution can come up with.

    Hmmm! define “best” in an evolutionary context.

  • Paul

    I’d like some skeptical historian to find some counter-examples to Mead’s idea that only small, committed groups have ever changed the world (even putting aside what counts as “changing the world”).

  • Tom

    Jennifer, some religions may well have sprung up, at least in part, because of the problems you describe. It seems to me that authoritarian gods are a wishful, escapist dream of perfect government: the benevolent, infallible, immortal dictator (in the dim realisation that a dictatorship actually might be the best form of government, if only something vastly superior to a human being can be found to do the job) – unfortunately for those who believe in them, however, such wishful thinking is not sufficient to guarantee their existence. The reason most well defined gods ultimately turn out, after all the unpredicted implications of their original definitions become apparent, to be insane monsters instead of the moral paragons they were supposed (and continue to be alleged, in the face of any contrary evidence) to be is probably because a bunch of imperfect people trying to invent a perfect being, and accurately describe the way it might behave, have virtually no chance of success – and since gods are invariably defined as beyond reproach, you can’t make any subsequent refinements if the people who first dreamed them up made any mistakes.

    The idea is not unique to religion; science fiction has occasionally embraced the concept, the example most readily springing to mind right now being the original “The day the earth stood still,” where it is revealed, if I remember correctly, that the aliens actually have no power over the godlike robots they built to rule over them, and in fact deemed it essential that this be so.

  • ildi

    “It’s conceivable, but unlikely.”

    (Inconceivable!)

    Dude, you haven’t been watching the Discovery Channel! If it’s not the magnetic field flipping, or Yellowstone blowing, or an asteroid exploding just above the earth’s surface, it’s the moon drifting away, or some other calamity… luckily we’re far enough from any star going nova to wipe us out with the resulting EMP, so that’s one thing off the list.

  • valhar2000

    Jennifer A. Burdoo wrote:

    Ebonmuse, one problem with your concept might be that it suggests that an absolute monarchy would be most effective.

    Have you read the article? Adam talks about what would happen if everyone were united and willing to do what was necessary; this is the exact opposite of having one guy whose will is the only one that matters. You simply could not have misunderstood Adam more egregiously.

  • Brad

    @Alex: It was metaphorical actually. (I can’t discern if you’re being facetious or not.)

  • Jennifer A. Burdoo

    Valhar:

    My point was that it’s unlikely that everyone will become united and willing to do what is necessary; this rarely happens in real life except when there is an absolute ruler. I didn’t misunderstand Ebonmuse, I just took his thoughts to a (though not the only) logical conclusion. The point of absolute monarchy is that everyone is united behind its will, whether by reverence or fear. In fact, Thomas Hobbes saw the monarch as embodying the will of the people. What if that was really possible? It may be more likely than absolute democracy where the voters are actually educated — educating a few people (the leader and his advisors) is cheaper and easier than educating millions of ordinary citizens.

    I don’t necessarily consider this a good solution, either. Think of me as a devil’s advocate. :)

  • Alex, FCD

    @ Brad: slightly.

    @ Jennifer:

    In fact, Thomas Hobbes saw the monarch as embodying the will of the people. What if that was really possible? It may be more likely than absolute democracy where the voters are actually educated…[The bolding is editorial]

    Really? An unelected totalitarian monarch who somehow embodies the will of the people (whatever that means) and is competent enough to carry it out without a lot of unpleasant death and destruction is more likely to occur than a decent educational system and free press?

    @ ildi: Homo erectus already survived a magnetic field reversal and they didn’t even have the technology to send B-list actors into space to blow things up, so that doesn’t worry me so much. The whole “moon drifting away” scenario strikes me as a slap in Isaac Newton’s face; how’s that supposed to work?

  • Alex Weaver

    My point was that it’s unlikely that everyone will become united and willing to do what is necessary; this rarely happens in real life except when there is an absolute ruler.

    When has that ever happened under an absolute ruler, outside of the media productions of said ruler’s propoganda department?

  • Justin

    The possibilities are almost limitless. We could eradicate AIDS and all the other diseases that depend on us for their propagation, as well as all the ones we have vaccines against. We could decarbonize our economy, end our dependence on fossil fuels, and create a green civilization powered by sun, wind and tides. We could end war and tyranny and establish peace, democracy and justice for every society on earth.

    I’m not so sure. Some of these things are more possible than others. AIDS has proven to be a sneaky virus, I don’t believe we have the ability (maybe the technology) to have a zero-carbon economy and ending war is a possibility, but some days it seems less likely.

    Otherwise, great article.

    An unelected totalitarian monarch who somehow embodies the will of the people (whatever that means) and is competent enough to carry it out without a lot of unpleasant death and destruction is more likely to occur than a decent educational system and free press?

    Could Hobbes have been referring to the Mandate of Heaven, or a similar concept?

  • Alex, FCD

    Justin:

    Could Hobbes have been referring to the Mandate of Heaven, or a similar concept?

    To my understanding, the Mandate of Heaven includes the right of the people to rebel against and overthrow unjust monarchs; and Hobbes specifically argued against the right of revolution:

    “[If the people] tend to disorder in government, as countenancing rebellion or sedition? Then let them be silenced, and the teachers punished”

  • http://alitheiapsis.wordpress.com/ Aly

    Could Hobbes have been referring to the Mandate of Heaven, or a similar concept?

    Perhaps you are confusing Mandate of Heaven with the doctrine of Divine Rights. The Mandate of Heaven, if I have not forgotten I learned last year, originated in China and, as Alex said, specifically allowed for people to revolt when they felt it was necessary. Divine Rights was the idea that the king had been granted the power of absolute rule from God himself. Hobbes supported Charles I’s (I think it was him) right to rule without interference from Parliament. Both concepts do involve the presence of a divine being.

  • velkyn

    steve,

    you asked
    “Hmmm! define “best” in an evolutionary context.” to my post “I’m not too worried about the human race surviving because I’m not that convinced this is the best that evolution can come up with.”

    It’s not in an evolutionary context. It’s in my context. Humans are often willfully ignorant, intentionally cruel for no reaon, and not the most efficient in biology. If I can imagine something better, I’m sure that in such a universe, evolution might come up with something that improves on humanity.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Humans are often willfully ignorant, intentionally cruel for no reaon, and not the most efficient in biology. If I can imagine something better, I’m sure that in such a universe, evolution might come up with something that improves on humanity.

    Well, we can only be wilfully ignorant and intentionally cruel because we have the intellectual capacity and (apparent) free will to be so. As for inefficient biology, we are “fit” enough to be the most successful large animal on the planet (arguably bacteria are “better” from an evolutionary standpoint than we are, which partly prompted my question).
    So, somewhere in the universe there has evolved an intelligent species that has an incredibly high degree of cooperation and agreement between individuals. Everyone suppresses their individual desires to preserve the good of the species(we are on shaky and controversial ground here already so lets suppose they are a sort of termite like species where a high degree of kin selection operates)so we have Ebon’s mooted society with “everyone united in purpose”. Great, so they have no war, no exploitation (or the exploited are happy to be?), no disease beacause they cooperated on eradication (or do sick individuals just sacrifice themselves?). I’m going say “Hmmm” again, can’t help myself. I don’t think it is as easy as you think to postulate a “better” evolved species. That’s not to say we cannot get better than we are at looking after each other and our environment. In fact we do seem to be developing at least some enlightened self interest when it comes to our planet and our fellowes. I wouldn’t write us off just yet and I for one would be sad to see us go.

  • Danikajaye

    Firstly, I’m new to this site and I am so thankful to have stumbled upon a site with well structured intellectual debate that does not seem to degenerate into the usual mud slinging and name calling that usually accompanies discussion on religion and politics.

    I’m not feeling particularly articulate so here goes the second thing- After reading MANY DA posts today I was considering the practice of prayer and how thoroughly futile I think it is: praying to the whims of a God who I have seen no evidence of. Moving on from there I was reflecting on the diversity within the human race and the conflict that differences in religion, race, sexual orientation and morality (the list goes on) cause. It is …. ironic? that the differences that are the cause of so much pain and suffering are also, conversely, one of our greatest strengths. We are all so different but if you think of all the myriad of problems one person can have you can also think of a corresponding person SOMEWHERE in the world that would have the ability to help them- be it in the form of a skill or monetary or a much needed possession or maybe just being shown a little compassion. We already have all the tools & skills we as race need within us. Why do people feel the need to pray to a “GOD”? Why don’t we “pray” (in a sense) to each other for help? You see it all the time on the feel good news stories where a stranger answers the “prayers” of another person in need. I don’t think that is an act of God, rather that is just humanity at work. We all have contibutions we can make to society whether those are practical, ideological or (I’m lost for my last word). Jeebus was a carpenter.

  • http://helpingthem.co.uk/index.php/topic,114.0 Sandra Knight

    We witness the immense struggle of wildlife to survive in an increasingly hostile, modern world, invaded and destroyed by the human species

    The Human race is guilty of conservational, ecological and environmental crimes. What we are doing to all other species is murder! It is ecocide!

    In less than 100 years of so called civilisation using technology, we have managed to destroy what took more than 3 billion years to evolve. Entire species are being wiped out. We kill everything we touch,have run out of space, land, soil, air, water and landfill sites. The only thing we haven’t run out of, unfortunately, is people. 7 billion and rising fast !

    The main culprit of this ecological disaster is religion, Christianity being the worst, as it keeps the prolific uteruses busy, spitting children out at a fast rate. And when they can’t procreate naturally, in-vitro fertilisation is there, readily available, speeding up the breeding process, revving it up to turbo breeding.

    http://helpingthem.co.uk/index.php/topic,114.0.html

  • Thomas

    After reading this, I must say, I am impressed. This was very deep and precise concerning, what I believe to be, many of the main problems of today’s society. It is hard to envision a world where everyone is at peace. After viewing most of the last 15 years of my life, with the idea of the yin-yang philosophy, I am a firm believer that a balance is found in all things. As you stated, we are making progress slowly. But we are still making progress. I think the most disheartening problem, is when some of us realize our species potential, if we were to work together. We rise together, or fall apart. Those of us who manage to rise together, are usually the small groups that bring progress to our species in some small manner. Though it took enormous effort and work to get there, the purpose was united for a common goal.

    I am curious to know if you have ever seen the movie “Equilibrium”? It’s a fantastic futuristic sci-fi movie about humanity giving up its ability to feel, in order to cast aside emotion altogether and have a very “brought together” community of people. As well, I never read the book or comic, but the story of “The Watchmen” movie was fantastic as well. I really enjoyed both of these because of their portrayal of the world in unity by some means. It’s easier to envision one of our problems, like the ones you mentioned that hinder our progress of rising together, ruining our world enough to force us to work together. Very philosophical in that sense I think. It’s also great to think that a sizable amount of main stream media is able to make movies like these, that seem to be able to capture the people that have an open mind and are understanding of this problem very well. It is like a fueling of the mind to these people. It grips their mind, enabling them to open new doors to thoughts of working together. Like a door for people with intelligence, to take a step further into questioning things.

    Anyways. I am really glad I read your writing. I’ve been having a rough past few days at my job. My manager is doing very strange and moral questioning things as of late. And the stress of not exploding at work is getting bigger and bigger every day. I believe massive lay-offs are on the way, and that the stress levels are going to get even worse at my job. I was looking for a way to try and read something to make me feel better about the world. The only thing that ever seems to work at being able to make me feel better though, is knowing that I’m not alone in viewing the world as an ugly place some days, but you can work to change it.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us,
    Tom

  • http://Daylightatheism.org J. James

    @Justin
    We certainly do possess the technology to do that within generation, perhaps even less. As for getting it all built, I can think of no better kickstart to the American economy than green manufacturing jobs. The sheer magnitude of working concepts is staggering. Just look at the wikipedia page for solar cell, and you’ll see dozens of different types, all so promising it warms the cockles of your heart. Then there are the myriad tidal, the dependable nuclear, fantastic biofuels, effective mirror power, eternal geothermal(yellowstone anyone?), ubiquitous wind turbines, and who knows what’s next? That’s not even mentioning the technology that could make use of these, there are super-plastics and hydroponics towers and super gene-manipulating computers, hybrid blimps for mass transit and shipping ultraheavy loads, and so many others that could have been accomplished yesterday had we simply had the bravery, money and motivation.