Solving collective action problems is what society does

I taught an introductory undergraduate course in environment, society, and sustainability this past term.  We look at big-picture environmental problems from a mostly-social-science perspective.

Early on, we started to compile a list of collective action problems of all kinds which society has already solved.  I  hope in subsequent years to develop this into a useful online site communicating and animating them: Stay tuned!

As can also happen in the McGill School of Environment’s first natural science course on global environmental problems, some students found the course depressing. The goal of education is empowerment and inspiration to think and act, so hearing that our articulation of the problems we face and the future we have in store had left some feeling helpless was not good news.  Next year we will include a day on the evidence for the power of activism and leadership, but this year I responded rather late simply by writing the following (on behalf of me and my coinstructor):

Neither Kevin nor I are pessimistic about the world!

Many people would rather not understand how things work and how they are working, and your taking the step of doing so is already a positive step for the world.

Please go back to our early exercise on MyCourses to see how many collective action problems our society has solved, simply because we came to understand them. That understanding in each case led to taking the appropriate action. There is actually nothing better (more satisfying individually or more beautiful, socially) than people coming together for collective problem solving!
In countless ways, the world is better now than it ever has been. It is true that many things are likely to change — both good and some bad — in our life times. But that just means that life is full of opportunity to make improvements in whatever that trajectory is. From that I gain comfort.

Personally, I also gain comfort from how endlessly beautiful the natural world is. Even as things change, the cycle of life, the cycle of seasons, the landscape, wildlife, the complexity and unity of it all, being and moving outdoors — all those things I know
are always going to take my breath away with their beauty. They are not going away! The natural world is, in many many ways, very robust. The human world has been, in many many ways, only darker in its past than it is now, when knowledge, rights, and justice are pervasive and there is a growing (and necessary!) sense of global unity that is like the coming of age for our species.

environmentI also know that in such a large world, I cannot make a big difference. So we should not expect that of ourselves. We should try, though, to be part of all the solutions we see — and in effective ways only. There are many people doing that, and there are countless ways to contribute, including through every discipline.

If you are ever feeling down about our prospects as a society or community of species, or your role in helping them, please visit http://www.mcgill.ca/counselling/home which has some great upcoming activities (especially during exams) for de-stressing, as well as more detailed support for keeping one’s perspective bright.

We did not mean to paint an unhappy picture of the world. Rather, our aim is to show that by putting our heads together, we can solve very complex problems! We knew that from science and engineering and space exploration, etc, though human-mediated problems can be another level of tricky.

Keep to your studies, and pursue the work in life that you are going to enjoy day-to-day, in its details. Then you can find a way, within that discipline, to be doing good.

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