Redefining ‘the system’

What it is and why it’s not failing us

You hear about it all the time. It’s responsible for your failure. It (or the man) is keeping you down. We’re told the system is evil. We’re told it’s hopelessly corrupt. There is no escaping it and the only solution is to destroy it. And it all sounds so definitive, doesn’t it?

But “the system,” as many like to think, is not the government. Nor is the patriarchy, nor is it any group of nefarious actors in shadowy rooms plotting world domination. “The system,” as I define it, is made up of ordinary people like you and me. We are the system.

The individual choices we make everyday help shape that system. We each have a part to play in its ultimate success or failure. If acknowledging there’s a problem is the first step towards solving it, then acknowledgment of past progress is the second step in moving forward. (Translation: dwelling on how horrible the past was or the present is doesn’t change that fact and adds no value to progressing in the future.) Human progress ebbs and flows, but it’s generally moving in a more positive direction overall — if you can’t agree with that sentiment then you probably shouldn’t waste your time reading any further.

To explain what I mean in more detail, let’s look at the issue of linear resource use. I think most would agree that circular resource use is more efficient and beneficial to our existence (i.e. we produce food, don’t eat all of it, and compost the waste so that the remaining nutrients can return to the soil from where it came, thus starting the process over). To illustrate one problem “our system” produces, let’s look at plastic—a non-biodegradable material polluting the planet.

Recognizing that this is a problem, how should we approach solving it?

Some people think the creation of laws to criminalize plastic use is the only way to effect a change (e.g. plastic straw ban). However, I would contend that the effort dedicated to such a ban is inefficient and counterproductive. It’s a prime example of what I mean by dwelling on past faults and the present negative. Ideally, our energy should be dedicated to shifting the paradigm with practically viable alternatives such as compostable plastics. That’s acknowledging that single-use plastic is a problem while taking steps towards a lasting change. It’s a question of where our focus needs to be—should it be on legislation regulating human activity or enabling innovative solutions?

Our efforts should be centered on promoting new industries to produce alternative compostable materials, not wasting time trying to police current plastic usage. The former idea being a more constructive solution with synergistic benefits (such as cutting costs for the food-service industry).

After two separate contentious conversations with some friends of mine, my takeaway is that both of them have a defeatist outlook on the future of humanity because political perceptions cloud their worldview (they’re depressed because their preferred political party ain’t in charge). The naysayers want to deride me for two of my optimistic claims:

  1. That America is remarkably decent, and
  2. The majority of the world has progressed positively throughout the course of human history (the entirety of our existence on this planet).

If I were to propose that the increase in available running water were a net gain for humanity, would you agree? How about the availability of overall resources that support human life, gain or loss? How about the invention of the internet and our ability to disseminate information worldwide in seconds, gain or loss? What if I propose that we—all humans considered—have more privilege now than ever to chart our own destiny? This is not to dismiss that humans have a violent past (or that some areas of the world still struggle with violence), it’s acknowledging that we’ve come a long way. And given that direction, things look mostly good for the future.

Because of our amazing advances in civilization, we have more free time to pursue opulent endeavors. Endeavors which only exist as a direct result of the convenience we’ve created. Without question, those conveniences have led to an unquantifiable good for humanity—and the system at large.

One of my aforementioned friends went to school for over a decade to attain a doctorate in anthropology—a term we humans created during the Renaissance to mean the study of our society and culture. My PhD friend’s claim, with which I disagree, is that human health and violence (the area of my friends’ “expertise”) is trending downward. Imagine having the luxury of going to school for 10 years, without having to learn how to grow your own food, while maintaining the ridiculous position that human violence isn’t “any better now than it was 10,000 years ago.”

My PhD friend contends, “When we expand our definition of violence to include extreme inequality, forced migration, slavery, etc. Then yeah, it is as bad as it has ever been.”

Human violence is as bad as it’s ever been? Really? Who actually believes that? I suppose if you expand the definition of any word to include et cetera, then any argument is foolproof.

The basic necessities of hunting and cooking are no longer required activities for our survival. They’re now commodities to be purchased as sport and/or entertainment (broadcasted over a human-made cable infrastructure, I might add). Modern-day hunting is going to the grocery store and picking whatever you want, while contemporary cooking is pressing a button on a microwave or clicking an app on your phone.

Other people, like my other aforementioned friend, spend four years in journalism school to learn that unjust punishment is dolled out in excess to certain people because “the system” has a bias against people of a certain skin pigmentation or nationality. Anyone who is able to overcome the brainwashing propaganda of journalism school knows that every circumstance requires an analytical eye. No two events are the same. Correlation doesn’t imply causation. And statistical disparity doesn’t necessarily mean inequality.

What’s important to note is that the system—the humanitarian citizenry—provides equal opportunity for prosperity. Your outcome is equal to your input.

I’ve had adamant disagreements with friends before, but this time feels a bit different. At one point when I took a break from the news as a social experiment, my PhD friend checked my privilege (and later apologized for such absurdity). However, the older I get, the less I have time to put up with the “woe is the world” nonsense disguised as a difference of opinion (when reality itself begs to differ). I refuse to enable downhearted delusion. If constant attempts to find common ground becomes futile, then I’m going to begin questioning the value of said friendships.

I have no doubt that regardless of my efforts, the misanthropes will carry on just fine. However, every time I cross paths with one, I’ll work just a little harder to keep the scales tipped towards positivity.

That’s the system working.