Whose Job Is It To Change The World?
Even the most optimistic of people among us will admit that the world is far from perfect. To suggest otherwise would be either naive, delusional, or a combination of the two. Don’t get me wrong, I like to think of myself as a ‘glass half full’ kind of person, but I think optimism is more useful when it comes to believing in social change rather than failing to realise that it’s necessary.
Like it or not, it doesn’t take long for us to look around and realise just how much of a mess we’ve made of living on this planet. Hunger and malnutrition are the biggest health risks worldwide, but most developed countries are facing an obesity crisis. The current planet temperature is only 5 degrees warmer than the last ice age, and it’s set to rise another 2-6 degrees in the not so distant future. On top of that, the richest 1% of the global population own half of the world’s wealth. It’s hardly ideal.
Social Change Agents
Of course, it’s highly likely that if you’re reading this, you’re not struggling with extreme poverty or malnutrition, and you’ll probably be dead before the planet’s temperature becomes too much of a problem. The thing is though, does that really make it any less important? I’d like to think not.
I also like to think that a lot of people agree with me on that. Sure, you’ll have some people that really aren’t too bothered because the problems won’t ever affect them. But, there’s certainly a second group of people that want to do something about these issues even though they probably won’t ever enjoy the benefit of doing so. Let’s call these people ‘change agents’. Granted, that makes them sound like some sort of underground spy fraternity, but I think anybody who sets out to change the world deserves a cool title, so it seems fair to give them one.
Again, I’m sure most of us would recognise that these types of people exist. We could probably name a couple if we spent a few minutes to really think about it. If you’re anything like me, you probably (whether you like to admit it or not) take these people for granted. When I think about the issue of global warming, I know damn well that I’m probably not going to do an awful lot to tackle it in my lifetime. Yes, I try to conserve energy as and when I can, and I’m certainly conscious of the problem, but I’m still relying on some clever people in lab coats to suddenly sort it all out. All I’m really doing is buying them some time to do so.
If Not Us, Then Who?
This really got me thinking. Does this mean that it’s not my job to worry about climate change, because somebody else may be in a better position to do something about it? What about all the other problems in the world. If you walk past a homeless person in the street, are you kind of saying that it’s somebody else’s job to help them? When you think about the child labour that might have made the products you buy, is it somebody else’s job to boycott and protest against that company? If we’re being completely honest, I’m sure most of us would probably admit that this is how we approach most of the world’s problems. It’s not that we don’t acknowledge the problem, and it’s certainly not that we don’t care about it, it’s just we feel confident that there are other people out there working hard on fixing it. For the most part this is probably true, but does that make it okay? And secondly, are there enough change agents to actually solve the problems we’re facing?
“It’s not that we don’t acknowledge the problem, and it’s certainly not that we don’t care about it, it’s just we feel confident that there are other people out there working hard on fixing it.”
The one thing that I’m sure we all realise is that if everybody on the planet adopted the ‘somebody else will do this’ logic, then we’re all going to die pretty soon and live miserably in the meantime. Okay, some people will no doubt be fine, but if we were to take some sort of global average of quality of life, it probably wouldn’t make for great reading.
With that in mind, we should probably consider ourselves fortunate that these change agents exist, because so far they’re the ones that are keeping us afloat. And afloat is quite literally what we will be if we continue to let the ice caps melt and raise the sea level. However, just because a certain group of people are taking it upon themselves to do a job, it doesn’t mean it’s their job to do. This is incredibly important.
“just because a certain group of people are taking it upon themselves to do a job, it doesn’t mean it’s their job to do”
I’ll admit, it would be very convenient if I could somehow conclude that actually all of the world’s problems are somebody else’s responsibility and so we can just carry on as normal until they’re all sorted. But I can’t do that. Whether we like it or not, we share the responsibility, and it’s everybody’s job to become an agent for change in the world. However, and this is crucial, we need to realise that it doesn’t work like that in practice. If we’re actually going to get anywhere, we need to be realistic.
Yes, technically we all have a responsibility, but the inconvenient truth is that only a handful of people will actually strive to do something about it. This leaves us (as wider society) to do two things:
1) Create incentives that make people want to be change agents.
2) Create the opportunities that allow them to be.
“Yes, technically we all have a responsibility, but the inconvenient truth is that only a handful of people will actually strive to do something about it.”
One of the few things that we seem to have grasped quite well is that people respond to incentives. If we incentivise the things that we want to encourage and disincentivise the things we want to discourage, then we’ll probably be okay. That’s why we have laws after all.
The problem is, while some people will strive to change the world regardless of the incentives available to them, others could be inspired with the right motivation, and we haven’t really figured that out yet. Most of the incentives we provide as a society are financial, but the behaviours we are incentivising as a result are not actually that desirable. Look at how profit works in society. Profit is the incentive for businesses to cut costs and push boundaries, but time and time again they have done so in an irresponsible way.
Therefore, when we think about creating change, we need to think about creating systems. Systems that reward the behaviour we actually need. If we want people to be climate scientists, then make the training cheap and the salaries high. Attaching the reward to the right behaviour is crucial.
In terms of the second point, it’s the job of everybody else to support those who are doing the jobs we all can’t be bothered to do. If business leaders are trying to change the world, we need to be buying from them so they can continue to do so. If politicians are changing the world for the better, we need to vote for them. We can’t do much more than that, and that’s something we should just accept and work with.
It’s very tempting to get lost in the notion that we all need to take responsibility for the world’s problems, and that’s because it’s true. However, with the best will in the world, it’s probably not going to get us very far. In reality, only some people exists as true change agents. They’re the ones that will actually push boundaries, break down barriers, and create a future that’s good enough for us to keep surviving.
That doesn’t mean that the rest of us can get off scot free though. We have a part to play in this process, it’s just a slightly different one. By working to establish systems and reward structures that bring out the best in people and maximise the number of change agents in society, our job is just as crucial.
Hi! I’m an author and blogger within the fields of social impact and responsible business. I believe that businesses can be a force for good in the world, and this website contains my thoughts on how that can work.