I awoke this morning to an ah-hah experience unlike any I have felt in quite a long time. It was the outcome of two ideas that when considered separately, are quite profound in their own right, but together bring a new level of hope for our future.
The first idea comes in the form of a simple story told by David Suzuki to explain in layman’s terms the power of exponential growth. Imagine you are a tiny bacterium placed in the bottom of a test tube with a few friends, and that as a population you double in size every minute. Also imagine that your home, the test tube, will be completely full when the clock reaches one hour. Now begins the fun! When is the tube half full? 59 minutes you say? Yes! Because your population doubles every minute. At 58 minutes the tube is a quarter full, and if you back up a few minutes more to the 55 minute mark, it turns out that you and your bacteria friends barely reach the 3 percent mark on the tube!
Now imagine you begin telling all your bacteria friends that in just a few minutes you will all be spilling over the sides of the tube to your death (because you are smart and understand exponential growth). But instead of believing you they just shrug you off, because history tells them that they have been sitting in the tube for 55 minutes and not much has happened, all they see is blue tube sky! Why worry they say, we have 97 percent of the tube left for new bacteria condos! But that is the power of exponential growth. You don’t see it coming, and by the time you do, it’s a bit too late. When Dr. Suzuki told the story, he said many scientists believe if the test tube was our planet, we are well past 57 minutes!
The second idea unfortunately cannot be captured in a simple story. Around the world there is such great suffering, most of it stemming from ignorance that we are collectively united by an infinite thread. We are all born from the same source and return home in death, but somehow fail to really understand the implication of this during our time on earth. Instead, many wage war, hoard food, abuse, dominate, oppress, and kill out of ignorance that the pain we inflict on others, is really pain we ultimately will feel ourselves!
Neither of these ideas are overly comforting are they? But here is where something shifted for me. I saw that if exponential growth can lead to overpopulation, it’s power can also be harnessed to lead the ignorant – the ones who are trapped in ego and suffering – out of misery.
The contemporary philosopher Ken Wilber is fond of saying that 70 percent of the world’s population is at a stage of development largely dominated by ego and fundamentalist thinking, which in large part contributes to their disproportionate degree of suffering and belief that they hold the one and only key to heaven. The rest of the population is a bit further evolved, having a broader conceptualization of faith and spirituality that is more inclusive of differing paths. And in his opinion, only about 1 percent of humans are fully awakened beings, reaching the highest levels of spiritual attainment. Given there are over 7 billion on this planet, that means there are 70 million Buddha-like beings helping the rest of us discover our true nature.
The ah hah moment came when I realized that although it seems almost impossible that we humans will get our act together and end much of our self-induced suffering any time soon, the test tube example helps me realize how in a blink of an eye everything can change! Even if Ken’s numbers are a bit off, knowing that a very small group of people, harnessing the power of exponential growth, could raise the developmental curve to a point where we actually solve many of our dire problems, gives me incredible pause for hope.
Perhaps Margaret Mead said it best:
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.