How to save the world

It was the 80s. The world was changing fast, faster than at any other time in history. Black Monday had sent stocks around the globe crashing and, as globalization was beginning to crank up, there was a sense that the world was disconnecting, that traditional values were somehow being lost and we were being launched upon a path that had more pitfalls than we could see. That’s when we came up with our plan to save the world.

I was at University studying Chemical Engineering and during a night fuelled by too much coffee and too little sleep, I found myself with a group of friends whose minds were as fried by sleeplessness, flow mechanics equations and thermodynamics and as jacked-up by caffeine as mine, and we came up with a plan. 

What was needed, we felt, was a group of people bright enough to see the bigger picture and committed enough to want to be selfless. Staffing an organization that would provide guidance, know-how and plans for real reforms, we thought we’d get exactly what was needed to kickstart the process that would lead to greater accountability, social responsibility and sustainability, it would make countries place social conscience at their core and change the world forever. For the better. We even had a name for it: TAFFUR (Task Force For Universal Reform).

Luckily we did not go through with it. An entire night’s worth of excited talk where we discussed how such an organization would be formed, who could fund it and how, was thankfully lost in the month-long, pressure-cooker environment of end-of-year exams and endless hours of studying.

I say thankfully because in our enlightened, compassionate, world-changing state of mind we also discussed, in all seriousness, just how, for the good of the world, our organisation would need to have some hefty clout or serious manipulative power in order to enforce its agenda upon those countries and institutions we needed to save. The fact that our plans that long night made Machiavelli look like a convent nun was an irony that was as lost upon us as the wisdom of the quote about good intentions.

Fast forward three decades and whenever I recall that night I marvel at two things: first, how easy it is to do the wrong thing by trying to do the right thing and second, just how redundant such dreaming and planning has now become.

The formula for changing the world has remained the same. You still need committed, bright people who can see the bigger picture and act in a largely selfless manner. And you still have to have an organization of sorts with an agenda and a coercive means at its disposal. Luckily you no longer have to rely on the self-declared goodwill of individuals who have stepped up for it to happen.

The social media environment we find ourselves in has given us the ability to self-organize, connect and create a movement which itself has the power to change the world. Examples abound here, from the U-turn in US economic policy at the beginning of 2012 which went from an austerity to a stimulus package, to the check of the SOPA and ACTA bills to the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Arab Spring.

Commitment and smarts (the ingredients needed to form my world-changing organization in the 80s) now come free of charge thanks to our connected world. We are no longer operating alone, confined in the silo of our own heads, wondering if there is anybody out there feeling quite the way we do. Thanks to social networks the online world has been reduced to a global village criss-crossed by self-created support networks. In the process we have each become as committed and clever as the number of people we know and interact with and the quality of the information we can access online, make us.

In a way, back in the 80s, on that caffeine and sleep-deprivation fuelled night the bunch of us gave voice to something that was needed: the breakdown of silos of authority, the reduction of secrecy and unaccountability and the creation of drives which had specific common-good oriented goals in mind.

I believe that people are intrinsically good but we are also inherently stupid when operating alone. The cautionary tale of The Tragedy of the Commons is only made possible when everyone of its participants operates independently of everyone else.

Luckily, alone we no longer are. The world is changing. And we are now making the change happen.

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External Links

The Tragedy of the Commons