Millions of years ago, your guppy ancestors crawled out of the mud, looked around and said “this will do.” A bold, but understandable decision. Prehistoric Earth was f***ing dope.
Fast forward and you’ve built everything. You have Michael Bolton, Google, Dorito factories, and baseball.
And yet so much of what you’ve built hasn’t been for humanity at all, but at it’s expense. You continuously degrade the only planet you’ve got, you are level zero at delaying gratification, and you treat each other like shit. As far as you know, you are the only advanced civilization in the universe – is this really the best you can do?
Here’s what I think…
- You don’t understand the Tragedy of the Commons;
- You lack clear perspective on the meaning of life;
- You put your own wants above others’ needs;
- Your default life plan is debt, which means trillions of hours are invested in survival instead of vigorously pursuing your highest potential; and
- You let a Minority of Dicks set the agenda for everybody.
Important: It takes a certain audacity to address humanity. If I were you, I’d be like “this guy writes snappy intros, but WTF does he know about anything?” Frankly, not enough. I’m a former lawyer, current consultant and investor. I’m good at taking a tonne of information and synthesizing it into something concise and actionable. Living in both Western and Eastern cultures gives me perspective on how it all fits together. I’m probably a 6/10 on qualifications to write this, but not enough of the 7+ crew are speaking up.
I guarantee this letter will shift your perspective on humanity and the part you play in it. If not, you can send me hate mail. This letter is meant to be constructive, and it comes from personal reflection – I’m guilty of some of the “bad behaviours” too. The sections are short and incomplete because this isn’t a book.
Let’s get into it…
The Tragedy of the Commons: AKA, Why You Are Burning Down Your House
If you were the only person in your house, you wouldn’t burn it down. But when you all get together, it’s like a crowded frat party bursting to turn your bro-mansion into a bonfire.
That’s the Tragedy of the Commons: an economic theory that says when you get a personal benefit from common property, and the corresponding loss is distributed across a group, the common property is consumed at a faster rate.
In the case of humans, the Tragedy of the Commons is pushed over generations, which is exponentially more destructive because you are sharing the loss over a near-infinite number of descendants. You take a personal gain and our most important property, Earth, gets burned to the ground.
Humanity is divided on climate change, and you mostly fall into four groups:
- Folks that believe climate change is real and are doing something about it;
- Folks that believe climate change is real and do nothing;
- Folks that believe climate change is not real and are wrong; and
- Folks that aren’t decided one way or the other and are just trying to get on with it.
Fact: Climate change is real, and it’s one of the scariest things your children and grandchildren are going to deal with. Who cares? You’ll be dead.
I care. Maybe someday you’ll have another planet on which to eat Chipotle, but right now you have exactly one. Every single thing you do affects your survival. If you drive 60km to work so you can have a yard, if you turn on a heater before putting on a sweater, if you can afford sustainable products and buy cheap junk anyway, then you are contributing to the problem. You get the benefit, and our great grandchildren take the loss.
I’m not a hemp-knitting enviro-warrior; I believe some consumption is necessary. The utility of cars, for example, can be higher than the environmental cost. But surely you don’t all need to be sitting in traffic.
Now let’s talk about something a little different…
A Meaning to Life
The last 5000 years of human history are mostly defined by technological advancement and war. One of your ancestors was actually the first person to instigate war, probably because he wanted someone else’s stuff.
A side effect of war is that you lose the people and time you could otherwise be investing in answering questions, like: “what should we all be working on?”, “what is the meaning of life?”, and “what existed before the big bang?”
And even though many of us think about the meaning of life, we don’t have much agreement on an answer. Inspirational quotes would have you believe it’s “to live”; some folks say it’s “to find God”; and another contingent claims there isn’t much meaning to any of this nonsense.
I believe we do have purpose; we are here to create a humanity worth carrying forward, and then push it to the furthest limit we can. This is an everybody job – we need heroes, sidekicks and a critical mass on the world’s most pressing issues. Anything less is failure.
Your Wants Are Less Important Than Other People’s Needs
China has some of the highest levels of pollution we have ever seen. I believe in 15 years it’s going to have the highest cancer rates we’ve ever seen too. All because millions of folks think it’s rational to sit in traffic, keep up with the Zhangs, and buy fancy Gucci bags. I lived in Beijing for years, including 2013 when the Air Quality Index topped 755+ on a scale that normally goes to 500. New York City, comparatively, is generally below 70.
China’s economy is fueled by engineered demand and excess supply, and it now has a complex problem: their government managed to pull an unprecedented number of people out of poverty but at the expense of meaningful values, e.g., aspiring to consumption instead of sustainability, and a Culture of Entitlement that falsely believes you deserve a certain kind of life.
It’s not just China.
Every day you make choices that prioritize your wants above other people’s needs. You choose to waste money on junk food that is killing you, when a significant population is starving for nutrition. You want extravagant weddings, overpriced brand names, and more knickknacks when people are fighting to keep their families alive. Your internet is bubbling with hate for women, when half of humanity needs our love, respect and support.
You’re not all bad. Some people are reading this who dedicate their resources to helping other folks out. You are awesome. For some of humanity, the above examples don’t apply or you exist in some sort of neutral territory. But to an extent, if you are compliant you are complicit.
There is a gross dichotomy in the world, when so many of us can indulge in excess because so many others have almost nothing. You can call that capitalism, but if you were born on the better side of it then you can choose to be better than the system.
I’m not championing a socialist utopia. You can be individualistic, satisfy some of your wants and help others with their needs too. But with an emphasis on helping others.
How You Spend Your Day & Your Obsession With Debt
Humans in the developed world share an interesting quirk: they finance their lifestyle on debt. Not all of you, but it’s a comfortable majority. And if the only reason you aren’t in debt is because your parents paid your way through school, I’m including you here on a debt of gratitude.
Debt is not by definition terrible; but it is always obligation. If you student loan your way through school, you are starting your career from a financial net negative. After, once you’ve paid off your school debt for a while, you go ahead and buy a house that is more than you need. And now you’re locked into a certain kind of life.
Work can be good for you. Work can stimulate learning, connect you to like minded folks, and be a platform for positive change. But if your main purpose of work is to pay off debt you should never have taken on, then you are investing your life’s purpose in paying back a bank. Is that really what you want?
So many smart, well intentioned folks spend their entire day toiling on blargh. You wake up wishing you could go back to sleep, blargh your way to the office, stare at a blargh all day, and occasionally have a blargh meeting. Eventually it’s the weekend, and you have a couple days of Netflix before going back to another week of blargh.
Now imagine a different kind of life. Imagine bursting awake with the energy of a thousand fiery suns. Imagine that instead of working to pay off debt, you are working on progressing humanity (or your unique life’s purpose). Imagine that decades from now, just a moment before your death, you can look back and say you helped humanity reach it’s maximum potential.
Important: There are millions of folks that labour on relatively small functions to make our entire system work. There is nothing wrong with doing good, honest work and providing for your family. However, every one of us can find ways to improve our personal finances, quit servicing debt, and contribute to our communities.
A Minority of Dicks
We can look back at the lives of medieval peasants and wonder why they tolerated backbreaking oppression. In Grade 10 History, Mr. Walker shared one of the most insightful answers: those peasants just didn’t know there was any other way. That same thing is still happening, only we’ve exchanged shitty monarchs for an invisible oligarchy.
A Minority of Dicks have too much influence on humanity’s agenda; their governments serve false ideals, and their corporations build cheap, disposable junk that is toxic for you and the environment. Because, profit.
Most of this letter blames humanity for its woes, and holds you responsible and accountable for your own behaviour. To be fair, it’s really hard to go against the default path because you are working against a trillion dollar machine that wants to keep things the same.
You don’t have to be a medieval peasant. There is another way to live, and you can individually and collectively achieve it by consciously directing your votes and money away from the Dicks. You are their source of power, and if you take away that power then you can put it behind folks with good values.
Okay, enough of well-written fluff…
What You Can Do Today to Make Humanity Better Today
Here is a non-exhaustive list of steps you can start taking right away:
- Stop buying stuff you don’t need. FYI you can live out of a backpack and be pretty happy. The number of socks you actually need is somewhere between zero and one pair;
- Quit buying into planned obsolescence: low quality stuff that breaks in a few months. Instead, invest in a few quality items that will last for years;
- Buy a house only if you can actually afford a house. You can buy with a down payment you borrow from your parents, but if that’s your only option then you can’t really afford it;
- Explore remote work opportunities, IMO, the vast majority of white-collar folk have the ability to work from home at least some of the time;
- Learn, aggressively. Read the history of the world, breathe psychology and absorb science. Intend to understand the issues we are grappling with;
- Let go of the Culture of Entitlement. Aside from fundamental rights and freedoms you are entitled to pretty much nothing;
- Be nice to people;
- Donate your resources to a charity that will use them effectively;
- Aggressively pay off any non-strategic debt. Find ways to earn more and save more so you can refocus away from paying back the bank;
- Take better care of your health. Get quality rest, do light exercise and eat real food. Self-inflicted poor health is an unnecessary financial and tax burden;
- Find more ways to share. Get a roommate, carpool to the grocery store, borrow your neighbour’s lawn mower, use the library, give away your extra clothes, host a potluck.
Does all that seem too micro? Remember what the better dancing Michael said, “If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change.”
But if you still want to do more, the next section is about repositioning your life plan.
What You Can Do With Your Life to Make Humanity Better
Humanity exists on a continuum. On the scary end is extinction, and on the other extreme is permanent universal harmony. Our collective goal is to get as close to harmony as possible.
This means that if you want to contribute to humanity you can do it in one of two ways:
- You can pull us further away from extinction; or
- You can push us toward harmony.
Not every extinction event is within our control; hypernovas are f***ing scary. But we can stave off many of the grim possibilities by developing sustainable energy, sustainable business practices and sustainable agriculture. Working on any of these is a safe bet you are making a positive contribution to humanity.
The harmony side isn’t as well defined, but you could sum it up as “do good.” Promoting equal opportunity, fighting human slavery, and creating positive arts and culture could all fit.
Neither category is limited by expression. You don’t have to be an eccentric billionaire with a master plan for solar energy. You can be writers and teachers that educate others, you can be engineers and workers that build the technology, you can be the mail person that delivers it. Every incremental contribution you make counts.
One Last Thing
Humanity, everything you do matters. You are cosmically relevant. You have the power to make Earth awesome and to search the stars. And we are still building the baseline, everything you do today can ripple into the future for millennia.
As far as you know, you are the only advanced civilization in the universe. The improbability of your existence is infinitesimally small. The fact that you are reading this on a light-up piece of metal that your species has produced is ultimately f***ing insane. You have the ability to create so much good on this planet you call home, and you’re all in this together. This is not an individual indictment, but a collective call to action. What we need is a humanity that we can be proud of, but it’s not going to fix itself.
What are you going to do?
Thank you to Ethan for reviewing drafts of this essay, and he gets full credit for the last paragraph.