Humanity’s most urgent challenge

This article is a response to a question from a friend, asking “What do you think one of the biggest difficulties is that our generation is facing?”

There is no doubt that we are in ways racing to our own doom as a species. The two most obvious threats to our existence are nuclear warfare and climate change. The first would probably wipe out big chunks of humanity and make life miserable for those left alive while the other could skip even that sliver of hope and make the planet too hostile for any human to survive. But neither of these are in my opinion the key difficulty our generation (and future ones) needs to work on resolving, but rather the symptoms of it. Both what we are doing to the environment and what we are capable of doing to one another are the results of institutionalized short-sightedness, and correcting that is the most urgent and possibly most difficult challenge ahead of us.

Unregulated human beings are horribly self centered for fairly natural and evolutionary reasons, which is why we need institutions to make life work in a society. For instance, if it wasn’t for the institution of law people’s anger would more often than not lead to violence, possibly even death, as many would give in to the impulse they get when someone insults them, steals their property or hurts someone they love. Instead the fear of consequences and the trust that the perpetrator will be held accountable, both existing due to the institution of law, make people hold back and suppress that impulse. The more advanced a society gets, the bigger the importance of good, strong institutions becomes.

Today we live in a ridiculously advanced society which through millennia of technological advances has us consuming the planet’s resources at an unprecedented pace. And what does the key institution which dominates the civilized world, business, teach us in this advanced time? A dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow.

Between the stock markets, quarterly reports, growth agendas, mergers and acquisitions, and all the other ubiquitous abstractions of business you are thoroughly institutionalized to worry about how much money is in your pockets right now and how soon you can get more. And if you stop to think about the impact your chase for money might have on the environment, the almighty global competition will make sure someone else has picked that money up before your thought has even been fully formulated.

This form of institutionalized short-sightedness will inevitably lead to our annihilation even if we manage to reduce our carbon emissions today or get rid of all our nuclear warheads tomorrow. Among the billions of people alive today and billions more to come there will never be a shortage of people molded by this institution to put profit over the lives of others and the well-being of our planet. Therefore we must adjust the institution of business (which will in turn affect that of politics as they are closely entangled) to have a much longer perspective than it currently has, and get away from this poisonous addiction to instantaneous gains that it inflicts upon the world. Only when this overwhelming power is under control can we truly begin to solve the issues instead of just pushing them forward.

That is, in my opinion, the biggest difficulty that our generation and the ones after it face.