Can you (really) change the world?

Many feel the urge to change the world, make it better. But perhaps any effort to improve the world, like making it more equal or egalitarian, is futile and contrary to the ordinary course of nature. The law of the jungle and survival of the fittest seem to be immutable realities. The strong and smart thrive by edging out the weak. It’s a zero sum game. If you win, somebody else has lost. Governments, philanthropists, great men & institutions may try to equalize, redistribute and establish order. But perhaps chaos, disorder & inequalities cannot be abolished completely. They may even be a necessary condition for a thriving vibrant world.

All of us are not rich, intelligent & healthy. Some are better than others. And they claim their pound of flesh, before they give, or even as they give.

Big changes seem to entail big costs. Big philanthropic gifts may come from dubious business profits. Almost all big businesses make big profits by extracting big pounds of flesh. Big revolutions cost lots of lives. The ends do not always justify the means.

We live in a complex world. The costs & consequences of changes and improvements we seek are not immediately clear. Many costs are hidden, latent, spread out in space and time. What looks good to us now may not be so for others in a different space and time. Even well-meant humane & developmental works may have hidden costs and consequences beyond our understanding.

One country’s rise may suppress another country. One society’s improvement in living standards may be at the cost of another. One generation’s pursuit of happiness may harm future generations. The rise of one species may destroy few others. Wealth accumulation by the top 1% of the population may be sufficient to render many millions poor, homeless & starving. Unintended, unforeseen or unplanned eventualities and accidents are more common than we care to admit. Even a regular middle class salaried job (in a bank, factory or school) ultimately polarize the world by indirectly advancing (not always benign) goals of business profits. Many of us don’t pause or bother to think of costs & consequences of our actions.

History teaches that big changes come with big costs. And many a time, the costs are known much later, after a few decades or even centuries. An idea, work, invention or discovery may change the world in the span of a few years or decades, but previously unseen costs and consequences may become evident after a few centuries. The change agent may have died happily, satisfied he had changed the world in his own lifetime. But, subsequent generations may not exactly agree with his ideas or actions.

Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, Mozart, Leonardo Da Vinci, their ideas & actions may have changed the world for the better. But have Einstein, Shakespeare, Steve Jobs, capitalism, the Internet and Google improved the world? We may have to wait for a few more generations or centuries to find out.

How then to change the world?

Perhaps we cannot. The world seems to change & evolve naturally by itself, with or without us, despite (or in spite of) our actions or inaction.

What then can we do?

We can live responsibly, make small & steady improvements to our lives and in our spheres of influence, watch out for hidden and unintended costs & consequences, and hope to make a small net positive impact over our lifetime.

That sounds boring and unexciting. But perhaps thats the only benign way to change the world.

Better to accept it, learn how to do it well, and enjoy the journey.

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