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Pandemics, People, Ideas, or Inventions: How Does Change Happen?

Last week I asked if this corona virus pandemic will cause lasting changes to our society. Many people are counting on that happening. Or maybe things will go back more or less to normal once the disease has run its course. Other people are hoping and planning for that to be the case.

So how does change happen? Theories and research abound. I recently jotted down as many ideas as I could come up with, just to stimulate my thinking. I then researched the question and found that most thinkers were listing the same catalysts I had thought of, although they accord them different degrees of importance. In brief, here are the chief theories about change.

The Nature of the Universe

Some philosophies are less concerned with how change happens and more with developing human understanding that change does happen. The Taoists hold that change is constant, like water wearing away rock, and the role of humankind is to accept and align to natural rhythms. The ancient Greek Heraclitus went so far as to say that change itself is the only constant in the universe. Despite these voices of wisdom, people continue to speculate and have advanced some of the following thoughts.


The “Great Man” Theory

(I don’t apologize for the noun, as it has generally been thought that it was males whose greatness changed the course of history.) This theory holds that powerful, dynamic individuals have through their own actions transformed their societies. Military figures like Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great; political leaders like Hammurabi or Churchill; thinkers such as Confucius or Nietzsche; even artistic figures like Petrarch and Michelangelo have been credited with societal change. Somehow a vision bubbles up through a single person and combines with personal dynamism and genius, and his actions and ideas change everything – according to this theory.


New Ideas

Historians who subscribe to this theory point to the drastic changes brought about by new worldviews. The ancient Indian Maurian Empire restructured itself entirely when introduced to Buddhist principles. Enlightenment ideas led to revolutions. Islam swept the globe, as did communism. This idea makes sense, in that we can certainly see how new ways of thinking have changed people’s behavior and the structures they create, but it’s an unsatisfying answer, because where did the new ideas come from? From great men, or from some other source or combination of sources?


New Inventions

This theory has a lot going for it. From fire and wheels to the internal combustion engine, once an invention is introduced it seems to alter everything. The compass and the caravel made ocean sailing and exploration possible on a new scale. Printing, the telephone, the television, and the internet have changed how people receive and process information, and how many people can connect with ideas and news. Every revolutionary technology seems to bring sweeping and unpredictable changes in its wake.


Violence

Wars and other violent acts are offered as the catalyst for change in this theory, and as with all of them, there is something to be said for the thought. World War Two, for example, was not just responsible for the redrawing of borders and lines of power; it also changed manufacturing processes, social mores, fashions, and many other things. In fact, the war provided the pressure that led to many new inventions, such as radar and the atom bomb. This has implications for other theories: obviously we can see that new inventions are not sufficient in themselves as a cause of change.


Non-Violence

It’s worth mentioning that some changes to governments and social institutions have been the result of non-violent movements. Indian independence from Great Britain and the movement of Corazon Aquino and her followers in the Philippines are two of the best known examples. But was this really a case of non-violence causing change, or was it the spread of the new idea of passive resistance that was the ultimate agent?

Demographic Change

A rise or a fall in population, from whatever cause, can alter a whole society. When the population of Europe plummeted in the aftermath of the Black Death of the fourteenth century, the whole system of serfdom, of workers tied to their lands and at the mercy of a lord, began to crumble. Workers were in such short supply that people who had previously been serfs could bargain for a better deal and live the life of a free person. In more recent years, the most sweeping demographic change has been population increase, creating growth economies as both producers and workers burgeoned. It remains to be seen whether this current pandemic will affect the world’s population sufficiently to require new forms of government or social institutions.

Photo Andy Zehner

Collapse

Whether from environmental degradation, economic free fall, or social implosion, collapse is one of the most popular explanations for change these days. Certainly we can see cases of each of these collapses happening in the past: Easter Island and the Mayans outstripping their resources, Nauru going bankrupt after having dredged up and sold the guano the country was (literally) built on, or the Liberian civil war leveling a country when corruption became unendurable. Some are predicting collapse as a result of this world-wide quarantine and consequent economic slow-down, but it’s too early to call.

Catastrophe

Collapse, as I’ve just described it, is largely a result of a society’s own actions, although of course it can be accelerated by natural conditions such as drought. But occasionally there is a truly catastrophic event beyond our control that changes everything that follows. The explosion of the volcanic island of Thera may have led to the collapse of Cretan civilization, although we can’t be sure. But there’s little question that the asteroid that slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula sixty-six million years ago changed the entire earth. It’s arguable whether the corona virus spread is human-caused or natural and if it will become such a catastrophe that lasting change results.

These are a few of the ideas that have been offered to explain why change happens. Some of them assume human agency, others rely on actions outside of our control. It can be intellectually satisfying to make up a list like this, to try to categorize history in a way that makes sense; however, this list is unsatisfying when the question is not “How does change happen?” but “How can we make change happen?”

If we want to make change happen, it’s obvious that we can only set into motion those things we have control over. But even then there seems to be an element of mystery: hundreds of great men may have died in obscurity before one rose to change the world; hundreds of inventions and ideas vanished unnoticed until, for some reason, one of them took wings and circled the globe. In some cases, morality constrains us from taking actions to bring about change; I hope there is no one who would deliberately bring about societal collapse through violence and population decline, just to hurry change along. (I hope there isn’t, but I believe there is.)


But moral or not, it may be that society-wide change is not within our power, despite the marches, petitions, books and blogs and podcasts, the elections and the revolutions – or at least we have no means of predicting if our actions will bring about any substantial alteration of the status quo. I’m not saying that we should sit on our hands and do nothing; nonetheless, it would be nice if we could find something to do that might actually yield a result. I think there is something.

In a recent post I quoted Milton Friedman saying this about change: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

This means, for us, that whether we are the catalysts for change or not, our job is to keep ideas alive. Then, as Friedman is saying, when a crisis causes conditions to be different, our ideas may be the ones that suddenly make sense. When this pandemic and the resulting economic collapse grind to a halt, we may not be able or want to go back to the way we were. At that point, the ideas that previously were out on the fringes become the obvious and natural choice. Perhaps in six months’ time big business and the growth economy will be as moribund as a dinosaur in a tar pit; then localism and a steady-state economy will seem so obviously practical that we’ll wonder why we weren’t living that way all along. Perhaps, after noticing the improvement in air quality and the expansion of wildlife while we’ve been shut up in our houses, people will exclaim, “I like this better!” and look around for ideas on how to live a more environmentally sustainable life. And because we really don’t know what the future will bring, we have to keep a lot of ideas “lying around,” so that the best one for the time and circumstances will be ready to hand.

It might sound as if your job is just to sit around and think while the world burns. No, it’s much more active than that. Ideas are like seeds. The only way to save seeds for future generations is to plant them and let them grow. The only way to save ideas for future generations is to plant them and let them grow, too. Ideas aren’t much good when they’re shut up in dry and incomprehensible books. They need to be out in the world, spreading and blooming and reproducing themselves. That’s why it’s so important for all of us, now and once the pandemic is over, to keep living a sane and sustainable life that illustrates our ideas about what is right. That way, if collapse or catastrophe or violence occur and people are looking for tools to survive, they will find you, the idea-gardeners, with tools in hand and ready to help.

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t know how you can make change happen. There is still great work for you to do. Live your ideas in such an attractive way that people reeling from a cascade of disasters will look at you and say, “You know, that makes sense. I’m going to do that.” And change happens.

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