Like many of you, I have been musing about the importance of this new year for our younger generations. It led me to think about our tendency toward self-delusion as we kick possible solutions to today's problems down the road. Below are some ways in which I think we delude ourselves.
In this new year, humans are playing a high-stakes game for the world's future. In the current social and intellectual climate, Americans only hear promises of easy fixes from political, corporate, educational, religious, and scientific institutions. Unvarnished facts indicate that it is time to shed wishful thinking and embrace realism. See the myths below:
1. 2012 Will Change Earth Forever: Publishing and media industries made a fortune purveying baseless prophecies about the hazards of 2012. Believers will be distracted until December 31. Whatever the impact is on our planet from a galactic line crossing, it has gradually affected us for centuries as it approached and continues as it moves on.
2. Big Government is the Problem: The size of government, per se, is irrelevant. Size depends on the benefits (security, support, and regulation) desired by its citizens. In a self-established democracy, people assume government will benefit all fairly, but some who benefit most from its functions seek to avoid paying their fair share and, instead, call it "too big."
4. God Always Protects Our Planet: People who assume that humans are protected by their god do not worry about the impact of their activities on the ecosystem. But our experience shows the universe works on a principle of cause and effect. If we close our eyes to artificial damage to natural systems, we may create a Mars-like future for Earth.
5. The Earth is Self-Adjusting: The Earth has endured natural cataclysms over billions of years and adjusted itself to serious geophysical shifts. But in recent history, unprecedented population explosions and new technologies have interrupted long-wave, atmospheric cycles that provide a weather balance necessary for human survival.
6. Individuals Can Succeed by Themselves: While one can die alone, one cannot be born or survive alone. The notion that each person is master of his own fate is a myth. A society with too much individualism fails to progress and breaks apart. One with too much central control will also smother its creativity and cause its innovation to decline.
7. Drugs and Machines Give Health: In an over-drugged society, all the body's natural systems eventually atrophy, creating the need for more artificial fixes. Technology can help diagnose and repair our bodies, but only proper exercise, diet, and mental peace insures healing and long-term maintenance. Advance prevention is the safest route.
8. The United States is an Exception: Americans believe that they are immune to the law of cause and effect that determines the rise and fall of nations. This sense of "exceptionalism" leads people to avoid examining the actual results of their decisions and absolve themselves of any responsibilities. Recognition of truth can come too late.
9. Military Dominance Guarantees Peace: The U.S. military establishment is larger than all the others on Earth, yet new enemies pop up every day. There is some correlation between the two. Real peace arrives when all societies are free and healthy. The military's role in a democracy is to deter threats to itself, not to fix faults in others.
10. Religions Save the World: Religion was created to help individuals feel that they have a niche in society and in the universe. It provides inner comfort and offers rituals to help us through rough times. But when it is used to accrue personal, political, social, or financial power over others, it destroys the integrity of believers and creates social strife.
11. Magical Thinking Creates Reality: New Age and spiritual entrepreneurs have promised us for decades now that solving our problems requires only wishing. Think the thought and there it is! While thinking positively and using our imagination motivates and guides our problem solving, actual results depend on human action in a real world.
12. eSkeptics Speak for Science: Fundamentalists in science are like those in religion -- they attempt to force yesterday's beliefs on anyone who questions their dogma. In every age, those with vested interests in the status quo are fearful that a new discovery will threaten their hierarchy. Real science is open to considering and testing all new ideas.
My hope for 2012 is that most of us can first shun magical thinking and blaming others for all wrongs, and then assume our share of the responsibility for solving the challenges we now face. Let us work together with friends and neighbors to improve the world closest to us, and then move on to help others beyond our community. When such new circles overlap, we will have created a new society.