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Change what you can

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Serenity prayer by Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr

For a long time now I am astounded by humans investing much time and effort in changing things they cannot change and leaving things they can change unchanged.

We are facing many environmental and social problems. Many can be traced down to how we organize economic interactions. We have created an economic system which is based on the hedonistic tendencies of humans to feed the economics unsatiable and unsustainable hunger for growth. In order to grow humans exploit people and nature.

While I do think that the economic system is core in solving the environmental and social problems humanity is facing, I have to point out, that at the end of the day it is not the fault of the economy. The economy is man mad. Here the word men made may really be correct. I wonder if women would create such a system. Though, women are for sure not exempt from tendencies that could bring about exploitative behavior. Women are nevertheless usually attributed with caring characteristics and care, some argue, is what is lacking within the current economic system. Anyhow, I am digressing…

Nature is not man made. Nature is bound to natural laws that cannot be changed. I would also argue that humans are bound to natural law. Maybe the natural laws to which humans are bound cannot be pinpointed that exactly. Though, I would say that there is a specific bandwidth that allows humans to thrive. We need shelter, food, social interactions, etc. These basic needs cannot be taken out of the equation. When we think of resilience science, nature does also thrive within a certain bandwidth. Nature within a specific state can handle a specific amount of stress, before it tips to another state. When we add the human component and the fact that humans are dependent on the provision of natural goods and services to satisfy their needs, it may be that a different natural equilibrium does no longer allow the provision of the services and goods humans need. Nature keeps everything in balance. I would say this is the ultimate law. Sure, one can push nature to the limits and even over the limits, but nature will find a new equilibrium. The question however is how does this new equilibrium look like and does this equilibrium permit the existence of humans.

I suppose humans have experienced nature as a limiting factor. We still do. If there were not the adverse effects of our actions we could have whatever we want! While in the western world the limitations are mostly related to luxury goods, as in us not being able to fligh to London for a shopping trip because it is bad for the climate, historically the limitations have been more substantial. Malthus famously warned that population growth will be limited by the agricultural production. Thus, there was the real threat of starvation. A threat which, by the way still exists for many people. Which is a shame and for which there is no excuse! Though, humans invented new agricultural technologies and could increase the agricultural output. Nature has been defeated. More technological innovations followed. Arguably the use of fossil fuel carriers was another big step. Nations were struggling with energy provision, forests were cut down and throughout human history the shortage of wood was a problem for the maintenance of political and military power.

Human ingenuity seemed to have made human superior to nature. We could break the shackles of nature and break free of the limitations nature imposed. Though, we know that this is not true. Well, we know it, but we do not want to accept it. Our ingenuity shifted problems in time and space and made the problems bigger than they were before. The use of fossil fuel per se is not the problem. The problem is the magnitude of its use. We use more than nature is able to handle in terms of pollution. Now we are working on shifting towards renewable energy sources. Though, here we realize that we are (not yet) able to produce enough energy from these sources. Even if we could we are creating another problem. We are shifting the problem of limited recourse from fossil fuel to raw materials needed to build the energy systems. At some point these limits will force us to shift again.

Based on these technologies humans have created thriving societies. But this was not only possible due to resource (over)exploitation. The exploitation of humans has been necessary as well. Here again, I would like to highlight that this is not a practice developed by capitalism. Slavery is an old concept. A concept which has never been abandoned. Though, it has to be highlighted that the better one is at exploiting people the more wealth one will be able to accumulate. In the capitalist era humans have for sure managed to excel at human exploitation. It is what we like to put a blind eye towards. But it is a fact, that my wealth is based on the exploitation of other people. It is based on people working in sweat shops to produce cheap textiles, in factories to produce cheap electronics, in resource extraction and agriculture to provide all the cheap products we enjoy every day. May I ask the reader to think about how often this fact is present and part of considerations when buying something?

We need to solve these and many other problems we have created. There are certain things we cannot change as they obey natural laws. Yet these are exactly the things we try to change. Geoengineering is one example, that aims at altering the environment. Some ideas that belong to this category are quite extreme, such as blocking sun light. And of course, there are many other less extreme ways technology should help us out. The whole potpourri of green technologies belongs in this category. I argue, no matter which technology we are using, we will always only shift the problem in time and space. To solve the problem, we have to address the root cause.

So, what is the root cause? I think it is not necessarily the economic system, but rather parts of human nature. This is as the economic system was created by humans. Thus, the economic system has been created to serve some aspect of human nature. Accordingly, humans may need to change. Humanengineering might be needed. I read a paper about it, suggesting that such ideas should be considered. The ideas presented in that paper ranged from engineering people’s preferences to making humans infertile. I was fascinated by that paper. Not because of the suggestions, but because it shows one thing very clearly. The perceived inability to change. Humans are pictured as unable or unwilling to make the right decisions. And as humans are too weak to take the right decision, we may have to pimp humans.

While the idea of humanengineering sounds crazy, we are on something here. Why are we using technology to change? Why are we not changing the variables we can change? Ourselves and the systems we created to organize human interactions? For sure there are path-dependencies. This means that the decisions we made in the past influence the path ahead. Yet, how we organize human life can be changed up completely. How we organize human life does not underly natural law. One important part of organization is the market. Scientists have for a long time tried to show that the market obeys some natural law, that it is mechanistic, that it can be predicted and steered. Though, it cannot as the main player is not a rational selfish machine, but a flawed perfect human being.

I have no answer to why we are not changing what we actually can change. Though, I suppose changing what we can change starts with recognizing the difference between those things we can change and those we cannot.

Jamieson, D. (2007). "When Utilitarians Should Be Virtue Theorists." Utilitas 19(2): 160-183.

Daniels, P. L. (2010). "Climate change, economics and Buddhism — Part I: An integrated environmental analysis framework." Ecological Economics 69(5): 952-961.

Liao, S. M., A. Sandberg and R. Roache (2012). "Human Engineering and Climate Change." Ethics, Policy & Environment 15(2): 206-221.

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