Humans, as a species, no longer struggle to survive. We survive. Arguably too well. We inhabit almost every corner of the globe and have figured out how to survive in climates that should kill us. We have engineered buildings so that we can live on top of each other by the hundreds and therefore squeeze our communities into smaller spaces. We have managed to increase food production to feed the exponentially growing population. We no longer live under the threat of extinction. We are survivors.
The Outdated Question of Our Survival
Well, statistically we are. I’m sure many of you have raised a wagging finger, “But what about the millions of poor–starving and dying of malaria–or the constant wars broadcast 24 hours on cable news?” I’m certainly not ignoring this. I’ve seen starvation with my own eyes in Uganda where a boiled egg was a treat for the students of our school when the school chickens produced enough eggs. I saw it with my own eyes in Guatemala where people dig through the city dump looking for items to recycle and leftovers to eat. I’ve seen it in the US where soup kitchens have lines around the corner.
But there can be no doubt we are making progress on these fronts. Even in the poorest areas of the world, life expectancy has increased dramatically in the last century. Countries with the worst life expectancy now, have higher life expectancy than countries with the highest did decades ago. Since we have solved the problem of producing enough food for everyone, the question we face now is how to distribute that food justly. The fact of the matter is violence has declined. Don’t believe me? Ask Steven Pinker. The situation is improving, but we are, unquestionably, still dealing with violence and hunger and disease.
The problem is that species survival does not require survival of every individual. A certain amount of individual selfishness by the strong regarding resources benefits the species as a whole because it ensures that at least some will survive. This tendency, even if unconscious, makes sense in an age where humanity’s survival was not certain. But we no longer live in that age. Yet we act as if we do. That is why a too many of the resources are being squandered by the powerful, when they could easily be shared.
Species Survival to Individual Happiness
From a species perspective, we’ve come to a point in history when it is no longer necessary to struggle to survive. But at an individual level, so many do struggle. Too many don’t survive.
How do we address this discrepancy? If species survival is no longer our main objective, how do we refocus our survival energy? Shouldn’t that energy now go to the survival and happiness of all members of our species–to addressing systematic violence, hunger, and preventable disease. None of these problems are going to be solved if we remain in individual survival mode. We can and should reorientate ourselves from survival of the species to survival and happiness of the individual.
Human Rights: A Cornerstone of Humanism
This is fundamental to humanism. When people ask me what humanism is, and I get asked a lot, I tell them that fundamentally humanism is about happiness. Humanism tells us that we, every one of us, has the right to be happy and to pursue what makes us happy, assuming of course, that that pursuit does not impede the happiness of others. Beyond our own happiness, it is our responsibility to aid others in pursuing their happiness.
Currently, there is catch. The catch is, it’s hard to pursue happiness when you are too busy pursuing clean water, nutritious food, and adequate shelter. Securing basic survival needs is fundamental to fostering happiness. So our first step as humanists is to secure basic human rights for every member of our species. Then we have the foundation for happiness for every member.
This a call to reorient ourselves–from pursuing survival to pursing happiness, for every single human on this planet. This is by no means a call to requiring people take up the label “humanist”. I am not proselytizing. The idea to reorient to survival of all comes to me from my humanist foundations, but it is not exclusively humanist. Nor should it be. But I do want people to switch off survival of the species mode.
Survival is outdated. We have survived. It is time to thrive.
The more people who reorient to survival of all the easier it will become. The obstacles that hinder global clean water initiatives and systems to get food to the people that need it will become less steep.
Don’t get me wrong. I do not think this is an easy utopia. It will be difficult. It might be impossible. But there no chance unless a few of the brave embrace the switch in the beginning. Then others will not be so afraid in the future.
Wendy Webber (Yale University; the Pathfinders Project) Wendy Webber is a graduate of Yale Divinity School, where she was a founding member of an atheist, agnostic, and multifaith community that continues to foster interbelief dialogues and initiatives. Currently she's traveling the world with Pathfinders Project, which aims to create a permanent Humanist Service Corps. Wendy writes about religion, atheism, and interbelief primarily for her blog and State of Formation. When she is able, she plays tennis, takes photos, and enjoys offbeat museums.