The human intellect is capable of fostering rapid technological change, and human beings are also capable of rapid changes of heart. Until 1920 American women were not allowed to vote in U.S. elections, nor could they participate in most democracies around the world before the 20th century. Fifty years ago African Americans were relegated to separate water fountains, restrooms and schools across the southeastern United States. Just a few decades later, the citizens of the United States elected an African American president.
Human cultural norms and our consensus definitions of fairness can, apparently, turn on the proverbial dime. And we don’t always wait for crisis to change our minds. The abolition of slavery and the endorsement of equal rights for women and minorities were introduced to our society as mere ideas. And those ideas changed our society.
The Bishnois, a Hindu sect residing in the deserts of northwestern India, have lived for 500 years according to a strict set of principles designed to protect their environment and the living things that share it. “Bishnoi” means “29” in the local dialect. The sect follows a set of 29 specific rules and they adopt “Bishnoi” as their surname. Their rules are both specific, as in, “Do Not Cut Green Trees,” and general, “Be Compassionate to All Living Things.” Ingeniously, they have designed a lifestyle around environmental protection. The 600,000 Bishnois build their homes of mud and thatch their roofs with a plant that no local animals eat. They avoid using electricity, automobiles or plastic. They farm and sell simple arts and crafts. They’ve maintained their simple lifestyle in modern India’s booming economy with remarkable ingenuity; ingenuity employed in the pursuit of an ideal.
So far, as a species, humanity has mainly worked on its expansion. That’s been our big project. Our innovations have made possible a rapid expansion in the quantity of human life on earth. But the same technological foundation is used, with equal facility, to improve and sustain the quality of human life. Just as the wheel, the internal-combustion engine and the computer have carried us across every continent and into outer space; our knowledge and imagination provide us with health, comfort and myriad sources of joy. For our quality of life, contemporary society owes a lot to modern sewage treatment, aspirin, indoor plumbing and, arguably, the Internet.
Today humanity tends to focus on its traditional agenda, creating more energy and more food. We’ve demonstrated our talent for those projects and we enjoy exercising our ingenuity in familiar ways. The evidence suggests, though, that supporting human expansion won’t be our main project in the future. Our ingenuity will be required on some new projects.