Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Need for Hope

Based on recent election results and the approval ratings for George W. Bush, there may be as many as one in four people who have such a low tolerance for social uncertainty that they are threatened by anyone who is markedly different from them. If the fraction is indeed this high, then to function, a society must find ways to minimize this uncertainty that do not adversely affect (and, preferably, positively affects) the remaining three-quarters of its population. One way to do this is to offer credible hope for a better future.

Hope, like the faith that enables religious behavior control (another approach to increasing predictability in the social environment), diminishes fear by focusing people’s attention on a set of positive conditions that they believe are attainable. Especially in times of great uncertainty for everyone, stress can be reduced by assurances that no matter how hard things are, they’ll be better in the future.

Unlike promises of eternal life, hope is testable. That is, real-world outcomes prove whether hope is justified. A leader who offer hope must therefore be competent enough to achieve results, or risk losing this important tool for maintaining a manageable level of stress among followers (unmanageable stress can lead to violence and poor health, especially among the sensitive quarter, who at a bare minimum might be induced to overthrow the leader).

In the big picture, global stress will undoubtedly increase as critical natural resources become more noticeably depleted and the effects of waste exponentially degrade quality of life. This stress is likely to be a key factor in total population collapse if we don’t radically alter our consumption patterns and fix the damage we have caused to the biosphere. To deal with this stress, hope should be anchored to a realistic vision of a better future whose details can be reasonably derived by everyone, along with the actions they can take to achieve it. Since the process of living must be changed, this might be aided by creating a set of stories (akin to religious teaching) that provides guidance about how we should deal with each other and the rest of the planet in this new reality.

The quarter of our population most sensitive to change may be viewed as scouts by the rest of us, warning of the need for cultural infrastructure that supports our collective physical adaptation to a variable world. Dismissing their agitation as a deviation from acceptable behavior would be, in this interpretation, potentially suicidal (besides being outright disrespectful of an integral part of humanity).

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