On Poverty, Inequality and Human Nature

Yesterday I had the pleasure to spend the afternoon with Dr. Judith Rodin of the Rockefeller Foundation at an intimate gathering organized by the IFTF for the launch of their global forecasting / brainstorming platform Catalysts for Change. Through the platform we united forces with participants all over the globe to help millions find their paths out of poverty. It was awe-inspiring to witness so many brilliant minds committed to helping our brothers and sisters born into poverty, and it gives me great hope for a better future for humanity.

However, it also made me sad as I came to the somber realization that we are not nearly as kind and compassionate as we imagine ourselves to be. While many proclaim that poverty is a failure of capitalism, this is simply another attempt to shift the blame away from ourselves so that we may preserve humanity’s self-image as quintessentially good.

Simply put, the underlying cause of poverty is our collective ability to ignore the suffering of another human being.

Poverty is a failure of human nature, that is it. Nothing else is a factor but merely another symptom of our inherent lack of “true” compassion. You (and I) know very well that there is incredible suffering around the globe yet we go on with our lives. We spend our money on frivolous things while millions starve and we conjure up problems out of thin air (not rich enough, not pretty enough) instead of focusing on the greater challenges faced by humanity.

A wise person knows to judge character based on actions instead of words. If you were to judge yourself on what you have actually done to help those in need, how would you stack up? Maybe you donated some money, or maybe you even donated some of your time but with all due respect, it all amounted to a drop not in a bucket but in an ocean. If we were biologically wired to care, to truly feel compassion, we would be on the streets overthrowing any form of government or financial system that would allow poverty to endure.

Actually, that is not completely true. If we were indeed biologically wired to feel the pain of those in need as if it were our own, it would be inconceivable to us to bring into existence any form of social structure that would provide the conditions necessary for poverty to exist in the first place.

We cannot blame the government, and we cannot blame capitalism because those were not imposed to us, they are our inventions and they reflect our natural values – both evolved from us, not the other way around.

I was born and raised in Brazil and at an early age I learnt to avoid making eye contact with the poor and keep on walking. I learnt to ignore the poverty around me to go on with my life. It wasn’t until my late teens that I came to understand that the people I was ignoring were just like me, they had hopes, they had dreams. The difference is that I had a shot at making my dreams come true while they didn’t.

We must accept our shortcomings if we want to overcome them, we must embrace the idea that “current” human nature is flawed and that the “current version” our species may not deserve the great power and responsibility bestowed upon us by our ever advancing technology.

The great blind watchmaker of nature has groomed us for survival, not for kindness and certainly not for planetary stewardship. Truth is that our lack of “true” compassion is the underlying biological cause of every single war ever fought. 

In order to become worthy of our place in the universe as a sentient species, we must accept that simply “human” may not be good enough. We must become smarter, wiser and most importantly, we must develop our compassion to levels beyond what our current biology will allow.

Luckily, our civilization already carries the seeds of moral greatness as we are able to dream about freedom, justice and unbound love. At this time we merely lack the biological machinery to fulfill those dreams.

It seems to me that the future of compassion is post-human.

1 comment

  1. Kit Webster   •  

    While I agree on many of your points I do not agree that humans are inherently non-compassionate, rather products of design, more nurture than nature and there is room for change. It is currently happening but not fast enough.

    The worst I have seen recently is regarding the way the Chinese sap bile from bears stomachs, they go to the extent of sewing a metal plate onto the bears stomachs to stop them from committing suicide from the pain.

    There are advocacy groups that put out campaigns that plead with people to support causes, but this just kind of pleading seems so vastly disproportionate to the amount of injustace that is currently being enflicted.

    What we really need are complete paradigm shifts that force us to transform our sociological standards. I believe there are ways to do this. One way would be to start some sort of agency that publically promotes multinational corporations and their philonthropic effots. See it as advertising for the company. Personally I would be much more inclined to purchase a bottle of coke over a pepsi if I knew that coke had transfered its signage advertising budget for just one day into some kind of cause for good. Once the multinationals get on board that every company underneath them will be forced to adapt and cashflow will have a direct correlation to good will.

    There are so many variables also in this chaotic world. One individual who lives in Africa on 50c a day might consider themselves lucky they can eat, yet we consider ourselves lucky when we get a new iPhone.

    Change needs to come and intelligent people like yourself are required to make it happen, to envisage methods and concepts to awaken our society. In the same way you are able to build your precise contraptions, you can also muster up new ways of affecting change for good.

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