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.