Is it weapons of mass destruction? Food insecurity? Global warming? Environmental degradation? Bioterrorism? Ethno-nationalism? A catastrophic asteroid collision? Perhaps uncontrolled genetic modification? Certainly, all of these risks are existential in nature. And when it comes to solutions, lots of ideas are put forward by brilliant and deeply concerned minds. We are often told that though it’s quite late, it’s still not too late to avoid the worst-case scenario—if we will act now.
Although some progress is made when we realize that things have become bad enough that we’re feeling the pain, we are usually far from overcoming the problem, because the real issue is our unrestrained human nature; and we cannot change that without help of a different kind than is generally available.
Take the question of what the main methods of food production are doing to the soil. The result is that we have soil erosion and soil degradation—problems that can be linked to the desire to make a profit at all costs. I asked scientist and agricultural research institution director Achim Dobermann what can be done. His reply: “This is for me the biggest question, and I don’t have an answer for you, because it goes to questioning the fundamentals of capitalism, which is based on profit. . . . It is not easy to change. This constant drive for economic growth and more consumption of goods and services is creating the biggest problems for us.” When I pressed him a little more, he said, “We [humans] are greedy.” This is an aspect of uncontrolled human nature, and notoriously difficult to change.
In the wake of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Albert Einstein talked about the perils of the new nuclear age. He said, “Science has brought forth this danger, but the real problem is in the minds and hearts of men.” In the same New York Times article, he remarked that “it is easier to denature plutonium than it is to denature the evil spirit of man” (“The Real Problem Is in the Hearts of Men,” June 23, 1946).
“A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”
It’s sobering to recognize that the negative side of human nature is the fly in the ointment that prevents us resolving our problems—that we are at the root of our impasses with each other and with other nations. Victor Davis Hanson is a historian of war. Does he hold out hope for a peaceful world? Sadly, not in the foreseeable future, because he, too, sees that human nature is the problem: “Conflict will remain the familiar father of us all—as long as human nature stays constant and unchanging over time and across space and cultures.”
What to do?
A few have glimpsed the answer. After an arduous wartime career, US general Douglas MacArthur concluded this about humanity’s violent heart: “The problem basically is theological and involves a spiritual recrudescence and improvement of human character that will synchronize with our almost matchless advances in science, art, literature, and all material and cultural developments of the past two thousand years. It must be of the spirit if we are to save the flesh.”
Interestingly, a similar answer was given two thousand years ago. Paul, a follower of Christ, struggled to overcome his own nature at times. But encouragingly, he wrote about those “who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” He had identified the problem and knew the solution lay outside his ability to effect it without spiritual help. That help is still available; human nature can be tamed so that its downside is reined in.
If you’d like to know more about how you can change for the better, read our related article, “Hope and the Human Spirit.”