It is on the website Life Lot that the unwary web traveller will encounter the suggestion that, as something you should aim to achieve, you should
Change the world.
In this column that you will find it argued forcefully that if you go down this path you are venturing into very deep waters indeed. [Is this a path that goes directly into deep water or what? Shouldn't there be a warning sign? Ed]
Change the world, huh? What would you like, a bigger diameter? More landmass, fewer jungles, a more equable climate in the temperate zones? Perhaps evolution should have taken a different course? Bring on the talking unicorns and let's all live to be 400, be utterly disease resistant and able to fly. Fans of Douglas Adams will know that Magarathea, and the promise of crinklier coastlines with wider and deeper fjords, is what I'm on about here.
OK, OK, that's a bit too sarcastic, I know. So now we have to embark on a long, tedious discussion about what is really meant by "the world". Or would embark on one, if I could be bothered but as I can't let's settle for the shorter interesting version. Let us suppose that by "world" our Life Lot mates mean the biosphere that we, the animals fish, plants, insects and unbelievable numbers of bacteria and single celled things inhabit. Hum, changing that lot would still be pretty hard. I suspect we are meant to narrow our sights a lot more and maybe hone in on what matters to us humans. What might we change?
Technically you are changing the world with every breath as you convert oxygen to carbon dioxide and your internal organs turn complex animal and plant cells into proteins and sugars and the like. You are changing it each time you switch on a light and consume some electricity and every so slightly heat it up. You change other people's lives with every interaction with another person.
Yes, you will be muttering, we all know this, what is meant, clearly, is to make things different from what they otherwise might have been so that you can look back in years to come and think, proudly "I did that". Well, go on muttering, my friends, because this is where it gets murky. Alfred Nobel was really chuffed to have invented dynamite because it made industrial extraction of minerals easier. He was less pleased when people started blowing other people to bits with it. A handful of scientists worked out, purely theoretically, that atomic fission would generate a lot of energy very fast but did not foresee nuclear weapons. How many city centres have been made desolate thanks to the motor car and the shopping mall, and by internet-based shopping? How many humans died because for a long time smoking was thought to be beneficial to health?
"No, no, no" you are saying, angrily "Obviously we want to change the world for the better. Something wonderful like a new medicine, or a Middle East peace plan, or a solution to remove all the plastic in the ocean".
"Yes" I riposte "And how the hell are you going to achieve these things given all the attention that vast numbers of well-qualified and experienced people have given to them and not got anywhere? Answer me that."
"Ah, you've found the weak spot in our defences" you feebly admit "OK, forget the grandiose stuff. What's wrong with just spreading a little happiness? Making one person feel better because we have smiled at them. How about that for a start?"
"Fine, fine" I say, gracious in victory as always "But surely now we have wandered away from the grand theme of Changing The World and ended up with something you might as well have done all the time whether it was on your bucket list or not. Haven't you?"
And there we must pause a while. By all means discover that new vaccine, that new theorem, that breakthrough in international relations - but don't do it because it seems like a neat idea to be ticked off a list. Do it because it is worthwhile for its own sake. Do it because you can. And it is precisely because I know that I can't, that this is one item that goes onto my own list of rejects.