What Can I Do About The State Of The World?
Small actions taken by many people can lead to profound changes for future generations.
It’s so easy to feel powerless in today’s world. We’re all such small elements in the vastly complex systems that interact to make life what it is on this incredible planet. And now, in our modern interconnected age, everyone is clamouring to be heard; everybody has a voice but there’s so much noise and it’s hard to know what to think or believe.
Yet, on the face of it, we’re living with greater freedoms, privileges and opportunities than at any point in human history. Most of us are living longer, more comfortable lives than our ancestors and Yuval Noah Harari has even suggested that famine, disease and war are no longer the major existential threats to our species that they once were (although Covid has delivered a timely reminder of the fragility of our existence). Now, in theory at least, our basic needs can be easily met and more and more people can strive to achieve higher goals and fulfil their potential like never before.
So why the widespread discontent that we seem to be witnessing across the globe?
Dissatisfaction with the system
The current capitalist system that now controls the majority of the world has delivered numerous benefits that we now take for granted, at least for humankind. However, it has also brought with it many negative aspects which are now becoming more and more evident. By far the most significant of these is the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change resulting from capitalism’s requirements for never ending growth and the extraction and consumption of Earth’s resources. But flaws in the system are also responsible for increasing inequality that is pushing our societies towards breaking point. The divides may be racial, biological, social or cultural but the common denominator is that the system creates a world where everyone strives to enrich themselves at the expense of everybody else. The result is that we’re all too busy biggering and bettering ourselves (to paraphrase The Lorax) to even stop and consider what we really want out of life. At best, this creates a feeling of emptiness inside and lack of true fulfillment in life. At worst, it is manifesting itself in high levels of anxiety, depression and other severe mental and physical health problems that are on the increase around the world.
What can we do about it?
So, is there anything that we, as individuals and small communities, can do to change the state of the world or are we just helpless pawns in this all-powerful system that is careering towards social and environmental collapse? I put out the question on various social media platforms and was quickly inundated with all manner of practical, well-informed suggestions. Here is a brief summary of what I received back:
- Support individuals and groups that you think can bring about change.
- Influence your own network of friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances, with an emphasis on dialogue without judgement.
- Engage in activism and political pressure at every level, including how you use your vote.
- Be aware of your impact on others, on your society and on the planet.
- Be aware of the issues surrounding climate change.
- Develop consciousness about energy usage, energy efficiency and renewable sources of energy.
- Support and invest in companies that are socially and environmentally responsible.
- Make mindful choices relating to travel and transport, including the use of bicycles, electric cars and the avoidance of air travel.
- Make mindful choices relating to food and nutrition with an awareness of where food has come from and the impact of its production on the land and surrounding ecosystems. Many people also recommend adopting a vegan diet.
- Consume less. Where possible, try to reuse, repair and buy second hand. When purchasing items, do whatever you can to minimise packaging and consider how you might dispose of an item at the end of its life.
- Take only what you need. Give more than you take (this point reminds me of the ‘Honourable Harvest' described by Robin Wall Kimmerer in her wonderful book, Braiding Sweetgrass)
- Connect with nature and the more-than-human world.
- Try to step back from the intense activity and ambition of modern life. Instead, make time and space to nurture kindness, patience and understanding. Learn how to do nothing.
- Focus on positivity. Celebrate progress and opportunity rather than shaming everyone into feeling that they are not doing enough.
- Trust that every little bit helps. We can only bring about profound far-reaching change if we all do our bit. On top of this, it feels much better to be actively doing something about the situation.
The replies I received were diverse, passionate, knowledgable and numerous. And I have a very small reach on social media. Clearly there are a lot of people out there who believe that change is necessary, possible and worth engaging with.
The overarching conclusion that I would draw is that the key to changing the system and bringing about profound social and cultural change is the cumulative effect of a wide range of small actions taken by many people. By changing the way we each think and live our lives, we can transform the global culture from the inside out. Then, over time, the system will naturally have to adapt to reflect the new mindset and behaviours (albeit kicking and screaming at first!)
Investment in the future
Such transformative change can start straight away if we are willing to embrace it. However, the present system is deeply ingrained, not only in our built environments and globalised societies but also in the values and behaviours of every one of us who has been brought up steeped in the capitalist way of life. In order to bring about the fundamental change that we need, we must now properly invest in future generations.
Roman Krznaric makes the case for long-term thinking and investment in future generations in his book, The Good Ancestor. He identifies two sides of the human mind that are constantly vying for supremacy: a ‘marshmallow brain' which is fixated on short-term desires and rewards; and an ‘acorn brain' which allows us to envision distant futures and work towards long-term goals. Unfortunately, most modern developed societies are dominated by ‘marshmallow' thinking in everything that they do, from politics to lifestyle choices. Over many generations, short-term individualistic thinking has become more and more hardwired in all of us and the only way we are going to reverse that is by changing the way we educate younger generations growing up today.
An alternative educational approach
Anna Dusseau puts forward a powerful argumentfor an alternative educational approach in her recent book, The Case For Homeschooling. Her argument is that the modern schooling system, in the UK but also other modern developed countries, is not well suited to learning or growth in children. Far from it. Children learn best when they have space to grow, discovering the world, who they are and what they are interested in for themselves. This ignites passions, develops sophisticated, well-rounded individuals and fosters a lifelong desire to learn that will endure throughout that person’s life. The current schooling system is characterised by high levels of competition; rigorous testing at every level; the best part of every weekday spent away from a child’s family with others of only their age (a situation unlikely to be encountered at any other point in a person’s life); most of the day spent indoors engaged with an extremely narrow curriculum of purely intellectual focus. None of this is conducive to growth and discovery in a child. On the contrary, it will only encourage each new generation to slip mindlessly into the workings of the machinelike system. And then many children are whisked off to participate in other activities by ‘well-intentioned adults,’ thus robbing them of their remaining free time that they might use for their own personal growth.
I have two children of primary school age and my experience of the education system in the UK has led me to conclude that this approach to education is no longer fit for purpose, neither in terms of equipping young people to embrace the challenges of tomorrow’s world nor in terms of creating the well-rounded, balanced, confident individuals that will need to do so. For this reason I have taken my children out of school and started homeschooling, and so far they are flourishing. Now their energy levels are sky-high, their thirst for learning is insatiable (something that had really waned for my older daughter over the years at school) and they are truly happy. Who knows how they will develop but, in my opinion, they are now on a path to become individuals who will be able to do something about the state of the world. School felt like a path towards being swallowed up by the state of the world.
We can start to change our ways, and hopefully we can do enough in the short term to avert climate disaster. There are many actions that can be taken to contribute to change in the world and if we all start to adopt new values and behaviours then our cultures will start to transform. However, if we want to bring about fundamental, long-lasting change then we will need to invest in future generations, and that means providing them with an education fit for the future.