“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”-George Bernard Shaw
So wrote George Bernard Shaw, a well-known and popular Irish playwright, political thinker and philosopher. His 94-year life (mostly spent in England) spanned two World Wars and parts of both the 19th and 20th centuries. He died in 1950.
He had unconventional views. In the late 19th century, he was a left-wing thinker with connections to the British Labour party. In the 1920’s and 30’s, he was a supporter of Stalin, Mussolini and even Hitler. He despaired of society or politicians being able to introduce change.
Above all, Shaw was a dramatist and humourist who often said and wrote words just for their effect. As with Churchill, Shaw had pungent and amusing quotes on almost any subject.
If we are to believe Shaw, the world is poised for an exceptional period of ‘progress’ given the numbers of ‘unreasonable’ people there appear to be today!
For many years I have quoted Shaw and appreciated this sentiment. I see myself as a ‘reasonable man’. I have some admiration for difficult people with the courage to sayand do unconventional things to achieve progress. Today, though, I have put the quotation better in context and think about Shaw’s words more carefully.
We live in disturbed and disturbing times. Nationalism is on the rise. Politics are ever more polarised. Economic systems are vulnerable. Our climate is changing and seems likely to become more extreme. Millenials show scant respect for the values for which their parents and grandparents fought and struggled.
Yet none of us have seen the global disturbances that took place during Shaw’s life. The history of the early 20th century is full of ‘new’ politics. Long-established regimes fell. Radical thinking changed the way of life of most of the world’s people. Changes in science, medicine, industry, communications and travel affected the lives of millions.
They still do.
We look back on many of the changes and see them as ‘progress’. Whether political, artistic or social change, we believe they contributed to a better world. This is the world in which we live today.
Many people living at the time were not so convinced.
Railways for example, had to overcome strong objections from all sides. One argument (taken seriously by some) was that travelling over 30 miles an hour would suffocate passengers! Even investors and believers worried about the changes to lives and landscapes.
The telephone was by no means universally welcomed. As recently as 1933, the New Yorker ran a story about the fear that many felt of the telephone, electric shocks, lightning strikes, explosions and so on.
Yet the biggest controversies surrounded how people choose their system of government. A great many ‘unreasonable’ men and women chose to defy tradition to achieve a fairer society, a more prosperous one, a more stable or godly society – or whatever change seemed right to them. If they could appeal to others, movements began to bring about the changes in which each group believed.
Each new wave of political thinking provoked revolutions, wars, economic failure and terrorism as well as profound change and disruption to the lives of millions of people. By comparison with Shaw’s life and times, the disturbances and conflicts we see today are moderate.
Yet there has been one massive change in the world since Shaw’s time that only rarelyattracts debate today.
When Shaw was born, the global population was 1.6 billion. When he died in 1954, it was 2.6 billion. And this was after the catastrophes of the 20th century that saw 17 million people killed in the first world war. 83 million perished in the second world war (about 3% of the global population). More significant, was the global flu epidemic in 1918. This affected one third of the world’s population (500 million) and killed up to an 50 million people.
Today the world’s population is 7.7 billion, almost three times what it was when Shaw died only 65 years ago.
It is astonishing that the last 70 years have been the most peaceful and prosperous in human history. Global poverty has declined. In 1990, the World Bank estimated that nearly 2 billion people lived in extreme poverty. This had fallen to 650 million in 2018 and the Bank expects this to decline to under 500 million in 2030. The numbers killed in wars have dropped to their lowest since mediaeval times. 40 years ago, the population of Hong Kong was around 5 million. Today it is close to 8 million. The Territory is no bigger than it was. The available land and topography are the same. Yet the City is housing, feeding, educating, entertaining and keeping healthy 60% more people than 40 years ago!
Humans, despite our many critics, are doing a lot right.
Our tribal species
Yet there is a price to pay for our success. As the population grows, so do the numbers of ‘unreasonable’ people. We have not yet got used to living so close to so many other human beings and the clash of ideas and wills this engenders. The world’s governments and societies have not only to deal with the logistics. This, as we see, they have so far done quite well. But strident conflicts of ideologies and points of view cause concern everywhere.
In the wild, if a family of tigers grows too big for its hunting ground, it strays into the next-door family’s area. Fights break out. Some tigers die at once; others starve to death because they cannot get enough to eat. Like tigers, human beings are tribal. If there is enough space for many ideas and cultures, then patience and the occasional squabble may keep the peace between tribes. But when a strange tribe appears one day on the doorstep, it threatens both sets of value systems and ways of life.
‘Reasonable’ men and women try to adapt to and live with these changes. ‘Unreasonable’ people rebel to change things (or to keep them the same). One tribe’s ‘freedom-fighter’ is another’s dangerous ‘terrorist’. Should the tribe be inclusive and try to integrate with others around it; or should it defend its traditional way of life?
There is plenty of space on this planet to feed and house many more people than now live on it. With our science and ingenuity, we can solve the logistics of population growth. What we now must master as humans, is how to live together better than humanity has been able to so far.
Managing this better would be real progress. To achieve it, we need many more reasonable people.