Development Roast

Managing Change

"The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress." Charles Franklin Kettering

"Some people change their ways when they see the light; others when they feel the heat." Caroline Schroeder

It has happened to most of us, even the poorest of the poor. We used to feel safe and secure; the things we needed seemed to come to us automatically without any effort on our part. We were living in a care-free world, with no worries, little pain and few threats, cushioned from all shocks.

Then one day something happened that would change our lives forever. It began quietly, just a mild tugging feeling. But it quickly turned into a violent, jolting earthquake. Our walls of security came crashing down upon us, and our bodies got squeezed and our limbs twisted. The pressure on our heads was so strong, that we thought we would die.

Actually, we were just getting born.

Most of us resent change, not realizing that status quo is never sustainable. If we had had the power to refuse to be born, we would certainly have inflicted unbearable pain and even death on our mother.

Resistance to change often inflicts unnecessary suffering (or prevents happiness) on both ourselves and others. Some types of resistance are at the personal level and the consequences are limited to the nearest family. For example, a person may stay in an unfulfilling job just because it provides a regular income and health insurance, and the thought of looking for a more interesting job or starting a new enterprise is too daunting. The result is an unhappy and unproductive worker, as well as a grouchy husband and father, but the damage is limited to that. If status quo becomes too unbearable, the person will eventually change.

However, other types of resistance to change have become institutionalized and adversely affect millions of people. One example is immigration laws which prevent people from settling down in places where they would have more opportunities to become happy and productive than at the place where they happened to be born. The limits to physical mobility, both the self-induced kind and the more formal constraints, imply that hundreds of millions of people live in sub-optimal places with little chance of escaping the cruelties of poverty and disease.

If the world is to become a better place with more happiness and less suffering, we have to become better at dealing with change. As it is now, even very slow change (such as an average global temperature increase of one or two degrees over a lifetime) scares the shit out of us.

Instead of trying to prevent the climate from changing (an impossible task since the climate has always changed and will go on changing no matter what we do), we should teach people how to deal with change. This effort, if successful, would have a lot of positive spill-over effects as people would not only become better at handling climate change, but also all the other changes that life inevitably throws our way (the loss of loved ones, lay-offs, change of residence, technological changes, etc).

I am not sure how we can teach people to handle change better, but we could start by cutting back on all the scare campaigns associated with change (e.g. The Population Bomb in the 1960s (1) 1, Natural Resource Shortages in the 1970s (2) 2, the Sixth Extinction in the 1990s (3) 3, or Climate Change now). Lots of people profit from our fears, but I don't think we should let them.

Also, at least in developed countries, parents are advised that regularity is important when raising your child. Meals should be served at regular intervals and at the same time every day; the child should be put to bed at the same time every night, in the same bed, with the same bed-time ceremony, since this will make the child feel more secure.

I disagree with that approach, as I think it results in adults that are afraid of change (and have eating and sleep disorders as well). Children should learn from baby-hood that change is exiting, not dangerous, and children should learn to trust the signals of their own bodies and eat when they are hungry and sleep when they are tired, instead of following some arbitrary rules imposed by well-meaning parents.

Fortunately, the fear of change is much less severe in developing countries. Possibly because parents in poor countries never read any books on child rearing, or because the scare campaigns don't reach them. They are faced with real problems of survival almost every day, so they don't have to dream up some distant disaster to get their daily adrenaline shot.

Know of any effective ways to manage changes to social conditions? Leave a reply below.

(*) Director, Institute for Advanced Development Studies, La Paz, Bolivia. The author happily receives comments at the following e-mail:

(1) "The Population Bomb" (1968) was a best-seller written by Paul R. Ehrlich predicting worldwide disaster and mass famine within a couple of decades due to overpopulation. The predictions did not come true. In fact, the world developed in a direction completely opposite to the one predicted by Ehrlich, without the implementation of his proposed measures to dramatically limit population growth.
(2) "The Limits to Growth" (1973) argued that the world's use of raw materials is growing exponentially, implying that we would soon run out of many non-renewable natural resources, especially oil. The high prices of oil and several metals at the time supported the hypothesis, but a decade later the very same prices plummeted, suggesting no scarcity.

(3) Many biologists, most notably Harvard professor E.O Wilson, predict that man's destruction of the biosphere could cause the loss of one-half of all living species within the next 100 years. In severity this would correspond to the Fifth Mass Extinction (about 65 million years ago) which wiped out the dinosaurs and paved the way for the evolution of mammals (including humans). We don't know yet whether such extensive man-made extinction will actually happen, but given the emerging GMO technology, it is just as possible that we move in the opposite direction of increased bio-diversity during the next 100 years.

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