The Dilemma of a Do-Gooder

Readers and visitors may have noticed that my general view of humanity’s environmental, social and related problems is that no real solution can be achieved without widespread acceptance that we must change. We must change the way we are living, the way we are consuming, housing, travelling, communicating etc. Prolonging the status quo of attitudes, values and life styles will only provide half-baked solutions. However, I recently have been thinking about this (I still am) and I realized that the problem is even deeper than I had thought in the first place.

I have opposed many “technological” solutions to humanity’s problems (geo-engineering, genetic engineering, nuclear power, just to name a few), among other reasons, because I think that they are only half-baked attempts to avoid the need to change ourselves and our way of living. I must admit that we are really good at postponing the “final solution” (i.e., changing ourselves) by inventing new technologies. But, at the same time, I am convinced that this will have its end. Sooner or later we will have to confront the urgent need to solve the humanity’s main problem – itself.

The question is: what does follow from this conviction? Some, especially so-called environmentalists (and this is where I come from in some sense), are sticking to a kind of messianism: they (we?) stubbornly call their human fellows to change, to become sufficient, good people, to save the themselves, their children, planet Earth, the whales or whatever… When they are proposing concrete solutions to particular problems (take as an example Greenpeace Germany’s Plan B [pdf]), they often build on behavioural assumptions that others call unrealistic non-sense. But is this the right thing to do?

One of humanity’s greatest achievements is our ability to make compromises. This is what it is all about: making compromises. And figuring out how much one is willing to make concessions.

So, the sad fact is that we are very reluctant to change. It is a kind of self-defensive mechanism that we stick to our attitudes and behavioural patterns. Thus, we achieve some stability in this highly dynamic and complex world. To expect that people will suddenly recognize, “Hell, we screwed up!”, and consequently and consistently change themselves – well, this is naive. Very naive, indeed. We live in a time period when we have the knowledge that we have screwed up (think of climate change, pollution etc.) and the communication facilities that preclude the possibility of an “unaware public”. Nevertheless, we are still sticking to our behavioural status quo of consumerism, short-term thinking etc.

So, maybe it is worthwhile to not only appeal to the people’s conscience, reason and emotions, but also to try figure out what can be done under the status quo? In the end, the goal of all this is to make the world a better place to live. For people, those living today and those in the future. Maybe the necessary compromise is the acceptance of Carbon Capture and Storage? Nuclear power? Genetic engineering? Or even geo-engineering? Biofuels? What if sticking to the “messianism” I mentioned above only leads to a worsening of the overall situation?

But there is a problem. With every compromise, with every “technological” solution to humanity’s human-made problems, we strengthen the status quo. And this may be really detrimental in the long term. There is a need for a balancing act – as much compromise as needed, as much messianism as possible. Where is the frontier between too much and too little compromise? I don’t know. Nobody knows, I guess. But one has to decide.

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