There is a famous quote by Margaret Mead, which has been a rallying cry for social and environmental activists for many years:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

I disagree with this statement. While it has served as a motivator for many individual activists, to keep them going when times proved difficult – when no one would understand reason, or when they were the subjects of repression – it is based on a flawed understanding of change. The change that Ms. Mead describes is not real change, and the reason for this is that it can revert. Real, enduring change, the type of change for which activists should strive, is evolutionary change, meaning that there is no possibility, at all, that it can change back.

Even the greatest successes that activists have achieved, including that ethnic and racial minorities, and women, should not be subjected to discrimination, and that humanity must desist from destroying the planet’s natural ecology, are fragile (and incomplete!). Were groups who are opposed to these advances able to obtain power to such a degree (as they continually strive to do), that they could influence the attitudes of coming generations, such advances could be reversed. Indeed, given enough time, even a return to legalized slavery is not out of the question. (Legalized slavery, in a variety of forms, still persists in many societies around the world.)

Real change requires more than a few committed individuals; it requires a critical mass of the entire human population, so positive attitudes and values are passed from generation to generation with no possibility that they can ever be lost. Of course, this is not to say that such attitudes and values are not first developed and propagated by individuals or small groups. But what generally happens is that once the values become more widespread, and legitimized somewhat in the society’s legal structure, then the cause is dropped. It is believed that change has been successfully accomplished. However, this is not the case. A critical mass has not been achieved, and a significant opposition still resists the advance. In other words, the effort has been suspended before the battle has truly been won.

Humanity, right now, is at a turning point. As a species we are evolving rapidly, and this has been enabled by widespread literacy, which itself has enabled the extension of education, in all manner of subjects, to everyone. One consequence of this is that we want to be equal. Indeed, we now understand that we have the right to be equal. Since we are all able to learn, and since we are all essentially the same (we are humans), we have concluded that we should all have the same opportunities in life. Therefore, social structures that prevent this, which guarantee that certain groups receive advantages, are viewed as historically obsolete. They must be eliminated. Differences in life condition, if they exist at all, should be tied to personal merit, not birth.

Another consequence is that we recognize that nature – all the species of the natural world – also have rights, and that we must work to ensure that they, such species and their rights, foremost among the latter the right to survive, are preserved. In another words, we, as the de-facto stewards of the planet, must design and implement an overall social structure that guarantees that we, and other species, enjoy conditions through which we both can continue to evolve.

Unfortunately, we are also following another, destructive route, which is threatening the entire planet’s natural balance and which has also legitimized social dictatorship and inequality. Virtually all the social institutions that we have invented and that form our social structure, including spiritual, governmental, educational, economic, and communications institutions, directly or tacitly support this route.

This is the change that we must accomplish: a complete revision of our entire social structure, beginning with our underlying values and extending to our network of social institutions, including the relationships between such institutions and individuals. As should be obvious, we will not get there through the efforts of only a few individuals. We are all responsible for the course that we take; we all must choose.

Which way will we go: to the perpetuation of life and the evolution of new life, or to extinction and death?

You decide.

(Closing note: When individuals or small activist groups save lives, of humans or other species, they have of course accomplished real change. But in almost all cases the system that put these lives in jeopardy remains in place, and could easily be activated again. What we are seeking is real, systemic change. Also, individuals and small groups lead evolutionary processes, but evolution itself is not accomplished until their advances become the norm.)

© Roland O. Watson 2005