What to do now to improve the human race in the long term?
August 19, 2008 10:38 AM   Subscribe

What things could one person do now to best progress human civilization in the long term (ie, millions of years)?

I recently read Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon. Written in 1930 it describes the waxing and waning of human civilizations (and evolution of the species) over hundreds of millions of years.

It gives one an extremely long-term perspective on humanity. Once it gets going the author necessarily never describes individual people, because the scale is so vast. Whole branches of human evolution can be dealt with in a single paragraph.

But despite this it left me wondering: what things could individuals do that would progress human civilization, even if only a tiny, tiny amount? What actions now, or over the lifetime of a 21st century human, would improve the lives of humans in the distant future? What would increase their chances of survival, their evolution, their culture, their technology, their politics, their... anything.

What can we do now to move the human race forward on an extremely long term basis?
posted by fabius to Society & Culture (59 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Support the space program in whichever part of the world that you live in.
posted by Grither at 10:46 AM on August 19, 2008 [4 favorites]

Have babies.
posted by phunniemee at 10:51 AM on August 19, 2008 [3 favorites]

A single person? Unless inventing something incredible, or finding a cure for a disease, I'd say passing-on knowledge to the future generation. Imagine if every book on the planet was burned, and the internet brought down. Where would we be then?
posted by hungrysquirrels at 10:53 AM on August 19, 2008

Teach school.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:54 AM on August 19, 2008

pump out some child folk.
posted by Stynxno at 10:55 AM on August 19, 2008

Instead of answering, I'll point you to other people thinking about the question: You might enjoy the Long Now Seminars on Long-Term Thinking.
posted by Pronoiac at 10:56 AM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yeah...have kids and raise them right.
posted by rocket88 at 10:57 AM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Teach people useful skills with right-now benefits, such as avoiding disease, taking advantage of preventative care or otherwise furthering their education. If you do this, you increase the likelihood that they will avoid the pitfalls, teach others to do the same, have children and teach them to do the same, so that their children do the same, etc, etc.

A friend of mine recently went off and joined the Peace Corps (yes, it still exists) where she teaches women in Namibia to avoid HIV infection. I can't think of many ways one non-inventor, non-scientist type person can have a more positive impact on the world.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:00 AM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't think creating more children would be too helpful at this stage. We're stuck on a planet with an immense population and with dwindling resources. Creating a super virus that will kill half the population might have a more beneficial effect than increasing the population even more.

Ideally, finding a cheap efficient method of getting people off the planet and supporting them elsewhere would help humankind in the short and long term.
posted by JJ86 at 11:04 AM on August 19, 2008 [9 favorites]

If you really mean in the long term (millions of years) the true answer is nothing. Or, looking at it another way, the best thing to do is to foster the human race now in an attempt to make sure it survives the present and has a chance to make it to the future. Because we have no idea what the human race will look like in a million years, nor what technology will be like, nor what outside events will have influenced our future.

So just do what you can now and the far future will have to sort itself out. To that end I agree with the others:

Have kids and raise them right.

That's it.
posted by Justinian at 11:05 AM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Find out a good way of preserving the knowledge we've accumulated so far. There are huge losses of technological expertise and general knowledge quite regularly. These happen after every collapse of a society and/or after a new technology comes into favor. 1, 2 etc Often that knowledge is relearned and rediscovered many many years later out of necessity or greater appreciation for the former. We shouldn't have to keep doing things over.
posted by andythebean at 11:05 AM on August 19, 2008 [6 favorites]

I would think pumping out babies would be counter productive since we're WAY over populated as it is. In fact, it seems rather short-sighted and selfish.
posted by piedmont at 11:05 AM on August 19, 2008 [9 favorites]

Creating a super virus that will kill half the population might have a more beneficial effect than increasing the population even more.

People who believe this are either horribly misanthropic, evil, or both. It's wrong on so many levels I wouldn't know where to start. Suffice to say, it wouldn't have the effect you desire. Unless, as I suspect, your desire is just to kill people.
posted by Justinian at 11:06 AM on August 19, 2008 [5 favorites]

Research ways to prevent events that could wipe out our species. For example, tracking asteroids, or figuring out a way to stop a super volcano from exploding.
posted by diogenes at 11:10 AM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

you can't know what configuration of society or individual will be ideal for future conditions, so it's basically pointless to try and shape either. that's what eugenicists used to do. eugenics is based partly on the faulty presumption that we can know what these ideals are.

the world always seems to be falling apart around us, yet we soldier on. is it that this is how things are supposed to be? is it a conceit to think that we know what "better" even means? you'll often hear environmentalists say that we're destroying nature, yet isn't it the height of vanity to think that a puny species such as ourselves even has the ability to harm nature? surely she will outlive us. dandelions grow in the cracks of the sidewalk. nature is just waiting for us to vacate. besides, our behaviour is our nature so the trajectory we're on is part of nature's own plan (whatever that means).

why not work to make things better now? better as you define it. if that means being a spartan militant or a terrorist, go for it. if it means being gentle and kind, go for it. no sense in having an ozymandias complex about it. there are plenty of mouths that need to be fed now and regardless of how it affects the future - you might be feeding the next hitler, after all - you should do it.
posted by klanawa at 11:10 AM on August 19, 2008

Become a scientist.
posted by steveminutillo at 11:10 AM on August 19, 2008

I'll be damned if we're not just robot brains by 2050, so I guess make some nice robot brain canisters for everyone?

But really, I'm one of those crazy (and probably wrong) optimists/futurists who thinks that we'll have AI and life extension and yes, robot brains within the not-too-distant future, so I guess the best way to improve the human race is to stop us from destroying ourselves before that action comes around. Of course, if that does happen, we'll probably still have big problems and things to improve, but it'll be impossible to fathom that type of instance until we're there, or at least really close.
posted by Damn That Television at 11:11 AM on August 19, 2008

Well, if we don't have kids, there will be no future generations. Just limit the number, and as mentioned raise them well, but don't coddle them. Kids need to be kids. And educate them.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 11:12 AM on August 19, 2008

I showed this to my husband, who loves Stapledon, and this is his contribution:

http://www.amnesty.org/ — because basic empathy and fundamental equity between humans is the thing that will pay off, or at least keep us alive, in the long run. By way of further explanation, I refer you to Stapledon's own "Star Maker" — same gambit, but even larger scope. At the end of the day, or the universes, or some hippy dippy 20th century cyclical time, (following Stapledon here) that'll be the ongoing challenge.
posted by shirobara at 11:12 AM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Justinian responded: Suffice to say, it wouldn't have the effect you desire.

How so?

One of the most counterproductive and devastating uses of limited resources is to have wars which destroy infrastructure and the environment. Wars are more often than not a product of conflict over resources and land.

I'm not saying that this is the best solution but saying that the population needs to be increased in any way is wrong on so many levels I wouldn't know where to start.
posted by JJ86 at 11:15 AM on August 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

1. Kill yourself. But first talk as many other people into killing themselves as possible.

2. If you're unwilling to take such extreme measures you could start an aggressive campaign to lobby your elected representatives to support more funding for near earth object research. We are the first species in the history of life on this planet who has it within their power to prevent a catastrophic cosmic impact and we're doing nothing about it! This is mostly because people out there in fly over country scoff at the idea species-ending natural disasters when "God's still up there!"

3. Develop a virus that kills only religions nutjobs.
posted by wfrgms at 11:19 AM on August 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Have babies.
pump out some child folk.

This advice, on its own, will likely have an adverse affect on humanity. One of our biggest current challenges is overpopulation, particularly in areas that can't sustain their populations without massive imports.
posted by mkultra at 11:20 AM on August 19, 2008 [5 favorites]

help the internet become ubiquitous, unkillable, and free, with as many useful nodes as possible that make education ubiquitous and free.
posted by RedEmma at 11:28 AM on August 19, 2008 [3 favorites]

How so?

Modern civilization is an intricate thing. For example, microchip fabrication plants depend on a whole series of other high-technology industries. It's a long chain of high tech industry. Remove any part of the chain, and much of the modern world comes to a halt. And each part of the chain requires a higher and higher population.

If a virus shows up and kills half the population (randomly), you've knocked giant holes in any industry you care to name. Modern tech can't be supported because people are too busy trying not to starve to death. How much food do you think Manhattan can supply without massive food imports which will come to a screeching halt if half the population suddenly goes boom? So the virus that kills half the population actually ends up, probably, crashing civilization and indirectly causing the deaths of significantly more than half the population in places like the Northeast, California, virtually all of Europe, China, etc.

Those places also tend to be the most technologically advanced.

If your goal is to kill most of the human race and plunge it into a dark age from which they may well never recover, then yes a virus like that might suffice. If your goal is simply to reduse the strain on resources you're better off just educating women in places like sub-saharan Africa and the middle East. Give women in these cultures the choice of actually making a life for themselves other than as a brood mare and, shockingly, most will take the chance. And stop having 9 babies.

This has the additional benefits of actually making the lives of those women better. And you didn't have to kill 5 billion people.

Which is why I say the only people who could possibly believe that such a virus is a good thing are either fundamentally ignorant or evil. Because you can accomplish the same goal (reduced strain on resources) by doing good things: educating and improving the lives of women in repressive and patriarchal cultures.

All that said, I will indeed offer another solution to OP:

Help improve the lot of women in poor and repressive countries. Getting rid of the oppression of half the population over much of the globe is one of the most important things you can do for the future of the human race. It is good in and of itself and it leads to a somewhat lower population (as opposed to a crash we might not recover from) and thus is possibly the best thing you can do.
posted by Justinian at 11:32 AM on August 19, 2008 [6 favorites]

I don't think creating more children would be too helpful at this stage.

I actually think there is merit to people that read MetaFilter having kids... it shows that they're halfway conscientious or have an interest in intellectual pursuits or the arts. That will probably get passed down. If only the trashy folks have kids... well, Idiocracy is illustrative.
posted by crapmatic at 11:35 AM on August 19, 2008

posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:37 AM on August 19, 2008

learn chinese and teach it to others.
posted by A189Nut at 11:39 AM on August 19, 2008

I think that if everyone stopped having children, it would be the end of humankind.

It may be more productive to become a designer of bicycles, or at least a mechanic or builder. You could also look into inventing and perfecting low-cost solar collectors. Stuff like that. And yes, teach your children well.

And kill sternly lecture litterbugs.
posted by Mister_A at 11:40 AM on August 19, 2008

vote for obama. then once it's been reestablished in the public consciousness that electing a so-called liberal president actually won't cause the end of the world (an argument, ironically, favored most by the pro-apocalypse crowd), work to elect an actual left-winger, someone who'll be tough-minded and principled enough to make us swallow the bitter medicine we really have to take soon to avert environmental collapse. in the meantime, support local businesses. walk, ride a bike, telecommute, or drive a hybrid. invest in solar energy. eat lots of leafy green vegetables.

don't teach your kids some sentimental nonsense about how they should take care of the earth because it's their mother, just level with them: tell them they or their children or their grandchildren will suffer and possibly die if they don't. tell them wars will be fought once there isn't enough food to go around.

and teach them to think all the way through the consequences of their actions (rather than thinking only far enough through to convince themselves they've found a good solution when they're actually only postponing having to solve the problem or leaving it to someone else to solve, like most of us often do). teach them that not being willing to face their mistakes out of misplaced pride will only lead them to make more mistakes, inevitably causing further harm to their pride, and that their greatest feelings of pride should be derived from facing their own mistakes courageously with no illusions, understanding them, and correcting or avoiding them in the future.

make sure that people with nihilistic impulses and antisocial personalities don't get opportunities to breed (or else the people of the future will be so busy patting themselves on the back and making insipid "kill yourself" or "don't breed" comments every time a discussion about how to improve the human condition comes up that the human race will just end up going extinct, which kind of defeats the point--geez, take some antibiotics already and flush that human-hating parasite out of your system, eh?).
posted by saulgoodman at 11:43 AM on August 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

ack. that last part should be in meta. sorry.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:43 AM on August 19, 2008

I hate to be a downer, but... nothing.

Millions of years is an absurdly long time. There is nothing that you can do that will have any effect noticable that long down the line, except for things that someone else would have done anyway even if you hadn't.

For example, if Einstein didn't exist, there were dozens of other physicists, contemporaries of his, who could have and would have discovered relativity. The data was there, and was begging for an explanation. He was propitiously in the right place at the right time, but if he wasn't, someone else would have been. It's almost unbelievable that we wouldn't have known about relativity by, say, 1940, and it's totally unbelievable that we wouldn't have known about it by now.

And only a hundred years have passed. That's an eyeblink, relative to the scale you're talking about. Millions of years is unimaginably long, and any influence that you have now will have been absorbed in the overwhelming chaotic flow long, long before that.

One caveat: If you can do something that will actually save humanity from going extinct in the next, oh, century or so, then there's that. But, uh, good luck at that.

Furthermore, for the people arguing about having kids or not, here's a happy medium: Adopt.

Finally, in a futile attempt to be less of a downer, I'll say this:

Maybe just be a good person. Can't hurt.
posted by Flunkie at 11:52 AM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I just read Last and First Men and felt similar sentiments to what you've expressed in your post. In a similar way, it inspired an already existing spirit of continuing or developing something that would/could benefit mankind in the long-longrun, but depressingly enough, I think the answer to your question is 'close to nothing'. I say 'depressingly' and 'close to' because I feel like mathematically, the odds are very much against you. Anything one person could do (barring exceptional circumstances) can be similarly undone by yet another person (barring exceptional circumstances), let alone the cumulative force of a people, or a nation. And what I mean by exceptional circumstances is something akin to securing yourself some sort of autocracy in a powerful nation.

One of the haunting ideas this book put in my head is that during the millions of years of human history, how many 'nearly identical lives' (to use Stapledon's terms) have been lived out by humanity? How many millions of times have my daily or yearly frustrations and joys have been felt by so many? How truly unique can I possibly be? And yet, I am because despite the similarity, no one has 'felt' them with the same context and texture as I have. In this way, through this variance in experience, can humanity truly come to understand its existence and build a better place for humanity (assuming we don't blow ourselves up or devise some biological agent to wipe half of us out).

Ultimately, I believe the only thing humanity can bank on is human nature, which (IMHO) is a precarious balance between nature and nurture... our innate desires matched by our environmental spurs... Chomsky and Foucault get into this a bit regarding the nature of mankind in a lecture discussion regarding Justice and Power, which I recommend anyone with a similar worldview as mine check out.

After I read Last and First Men, and subsequently went on a similar quest as you, the only applicable piece of advise I was able to find in regards to our question was the following, and I believe it to be the most sage advice I've been able to collect on the topic:

"You must be the change you wish to see in the world."
-Mahatma Ghandi
posted by moncho at 12:02 PM on August 19, 2008 [3 favorites]

There is nothing we can do to ensure long-term human survival because there are too many unforseens between now and "then." Golden-rule stuff like raising your kids right and all that is good, but in the long term we are likely to be extinct in, say, fifty million years.* Just as well, perhaps. In the meantime, the best we can reasonably hope for is to get the gene pool the hell off the planet and into space, and set about spreading it out as far as we can. So, supporting the space program is a good choice.

I have read Stapledon, and what I came away with was a sense of exhiliration at the potential scope of human achievement he posits. Star Maker has an even broader canvas than Last and First Men.

* Assuming no breakthrough in longevity that will render us immortal, thus putting an end to evolution.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 12:17 PM on August 19, 2008

Mod note: this is in metatalk, fightiness and jokiness goes there, thank you
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 12:18 PM on August 19, 2008

The best (and most difficult) thing you could do to improve the lot of humanity is to practice compassion and kindness in your interactions with everyone, especially those who annoy you or do you wrong.
posted by aught at 12:26 PM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


Contributing somehow to nuclear-nonproliferation. If we kill ourselves, there will be no human race in the long term.

Some bio-weapons programs will conceivably have to be destroyed or contained by any means necessary within our lifetimes.

Eugenics. (You didn't say if you believe that the ends justify the means.) If you have genes sufficiently above-average to overcome the lack of parenting you will be able to provide, inseminate as many women as possible, as often as possible. If you are a woman, find the best sperm you can and start pumping 'em out. Use fertility drugs if necessary. Execute or sterilize everyone with bad genes. Teach your kids to be selective womanizers and sluts.

Maybe do something about global warming, unless you think global warming will have a eugenic effect.

Asteroid detection and deflection.
posted by callmejay at 12:41 PM on August 19, 2008

even if only a tiny, tiny amount

Believe that the simple, positive changes you make in your consumer lifestyle (and in America, that's a pretty big of everyone's life) have an effect, and spread the word.

If you stop drinking bottled water - either out of solidarity with those who have no clean tap water or because you don't want to support the generation of more and more plastic - tell your friends. If you find a great vegetarian cookbook and stop eating as much meat as you did before, tell your friends. If you start biking/scootering to work to save money on gas and be kinder to the environment, tell your friends. If you stop buying Jet Dry and replace it with vinegar, if you shop at Trader Joe's instead of Walmart, if you get your produce from a CSA instead of driving to pick them up at the store: tell people why.

As consumers in the most affluent society the world has ever known, we - normal, little you and me - determine the outcome of global trade agreements, resource extraction, and hundreds of other world-changing decisions that are made in places you've never even heard of. Do we use more cell phones than ever before? Then we better start mining more coltan. Do we package everything in plastic? Then we better stay involved in oil-rich regions to secure an oil supply.

Think about the recent trend to switch away from plastic bags at the supermarket. If every family in the US goes to the market twice a week and gets three plastic bags of groceries - and I think this is probably a low estimate - that's 600 million bags a week we're using. How much has that gone down in the last few years? Maybe a lot.

So many people in this world lack the power to effect change in their own communities. Forget democracy for a minute: the most powerful thing you have in this country is not a ballot but a dollar bill.

Spend wisely.
posted by mdonley at 12:44 PM on August 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Support education and basic science research.
Push for strict environmental regulations.

You will likely be interested in the life of Buckminster Fuller, who asked himself this very question and spent the rest of his life trying to live the answer.
posted by phrontist at 1:00 PM on August 19, 2008

Help bring about the Kwisatz Haderach?

Seriously, what do you think are the problems of the future and which of these problems do you think today's activism can change?

Overpopulation? Can you convince your country to enact a one child per couple law?

Pollution? Can you convince your country to stirctly control pollution?

I dont think there are any "tiny actions" that will make any noticable difference to those in the future. Perhaps big actions, but not tiny everyday actions. I think this is a very idealistic view of things that ignores how big problems are systemic not individual.

The only people you can really affect are those living people who you know. Be good to them and stop worrying about some future generation who wouldnt care to remember your name even if you cured cancer (which to them will be as scary as smallpox is to you).
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:04 PM on August 19, 2008

Have babies.

In the long run, your genetic contribution is nil (and it takes a mighty ego to believe you're genetically wondeful in the first place), and influencing the paltry number of kids you can crank out is irrelevant - educate other people's kids. Meanwhile overpopulation is very real - the energy crisis amongst others are just symptoms.
posted by phrontist at 1:04 PM on August 19, 2008

Kantian Ethics are probably also of interest.
posted by phrontist at 1:05 PM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

There are some things that you can do, but you should probably accept that you may never see the benefits, and history may not remember that you did it.

Social change frequently starts with grass-roots organizations. Find a cause you believe in, study what has been successful in the past, and prepare to spend years or possibly the entirety of your life working for it. The best Idea doesn’t always win so learn how to make sure that yours is also the most appealing. Tip for success: Don’t treat people who disagree with you like they are mentally deficient even if you believe that to be the case

Find the things that are overlooked primarily because of short-term thinking. Diogenes gave a good example - Tracking Asteroids. This is a long term problem with potentially catastrophic consequences that the work of one person could go a long way toward mitigating. Here’s how: make a design for a cheap digital camera in a weatherproof housing. Make the kit cheap enough that Scout troops and Shop classes can build them. Learn some math and coding skills and build a distributed computing application to compare and analyze the output from those cameras ala SETI@home. This is something that can easily be accomplished in a human lifetime with the resources one person could expect to gather. I’m not saying that this is what you should do, this is just an example of a real problem that just requires time, dedication, and planning to fix. Look around and I guarantee you will find others.

Sorry this is roughly put. Bad typist, limited time, etc
posted by Lord Widebottom at 1:06 PM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Read Daniel Quinn's Ishmael and tell people about it. Borrow it from a friend or take it out of the library so you can save a tree.

This probably isn't the most helpful option, but it's a good start and pretty easy.
posted by giraffe at 1:09 PM on August 19, 2008

Zero population growth is the correct answer.

The people who are saying "have more kids" are obviously saying that to get a rise out of you all.
posted by Zambrano at 1:13 PM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

As individuals? Very little, to be quite honest. Collectively, individuals can make a great different.

In your personal life, you can make small changes to lessen your impact on the environment, on your government and on your community. When/if you decide to have children, you can make a positive difference by raising them to the best of your ability by trying to spark their interest in science and education. Inspire them to take on challenges and be stewards of what they want to see in the world. Reproducing responsibly is another thing, however I don't think the alternative really applies to the folks on MeFi.

Are you already set in a career? Think about what you can do to have the greatest influence on the upcoming generation. Teach, mentor, be involved. I don't want to turn this question (however ChatFilterish it may be) into a theology debate, but encourage these kids to spend their time learning and becoming involved with science study. That is what is going to help the worldwide economy for the better. Religious conflict and debate about where we came from isn't helping us - feeding false facts and ideas into the minds of young America/ is.

If we make this a larger question as to what we can do collectively, well then that's quite different. Education is key for rehabilitating Africa and other impoverished LDCs. Providing the means for smart and socially-responsible reproduction is what will lead them to self-sufficiency. We need to support geopolitical and international trade policies that promote a fair and equal trading platform for all nations. In the short of it, it all comes down to education.

posted by cgomez at 1:17 PM on August 19, 2008

Boy do I need to learn to proofread, difference*. Also, I'd so very strongly like to reiterate the notion that having more children is not the answer.
posted by cgomez at 1:25 PM on August 19, 2008

To borrow a line from someone whose name I have forgotten:

"Improve yourself. That way there will be one less rascal in the world."

Unlike some of the more grandiose schemes for societal improvement, this one is actually possible.
posted by jason's_planet at 2:05 PM on August 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Gather a huge amount of money, by whatever means you can manage. Use that money to launch a deep space vehicle. Sidle up to a NEO, and use the gravity tug technique to pull it into a collision with Earth. Try to select an object that will devastate a continent or two, but not actually obliterate all vertebrate life.

...even if you don't actually manage an impact, it may still work. Fear is a great motivator, and Earth is a potential single point of failure. After a NEO strike, more people will realize that.

After all, if you're talking millions of years, go for the gusto.

Alternative: reactivate Toba.
posted by aramaic at 2:08 PM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding the reading of Ishmael. Also, the premises for Endgame by Derrick Jensen.
posted by symbollocks at 2:44 PM on August 19, 2008

The Foundation for the Future is a heavily-endowed (from some guy who invented rocket engines or something) outfit that thinks about this question --- one of their projects is to think about the year 3000, for example.

The Foundation conducts a broad range of programs and activities to promote an understanding of the factors in the social, genetic, biological, medical, psychological, physiological, cultural, technological, and ecological fields that may have an impact on human life during coming millennia.

Posters pointing out that history is contingent and idiothetic and thereby unpredictable are correct. Stopping the Black Death might or might not have been a good thing for humanity as a whole -- it might seem unequivocally good from the perspective of the dead, but this question desires to know the wishes of the distant unborn, and that surely is not possible.

Ironically, the best guide is, in some sense, history and, especially archaeology, as the latter deals with the long term consequences of action neatly separate from sure knowledge of the motivation for action -- as we say, "the present is the future of the past" and very long term social dynamics are, or should be, part of every archaeologists mental toolkit.

But for definable action in the present? Be the change you desire to see in the world - but don't be surprised if a million years from now your desire was misguided.

do be surprised you are alive a million years from now, however. please.
posted by Rumple at 2:57 PM on August 19, 2008

You may be interested in The Logic of Failure by Dietrich Dörner which explores some of the complexities of tweaking human systems that people have been mentioning above. I think there are more book suggestions in the amazon reviews at the link above.
posted by zeek321 at 5:00 PM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would think pumping out babies would be counter productive since we're WAY over populated as it is.

I agree. Adopt a child or children and raise them well.

Get involved in politics and possibly run for office. The decisions Bush and Co. have made are pretty far reaching.
posted by orange swan at 7:37 PM on August 19, 2008

Two books that address this question (albeit on a time scale 0.04 % of what you describe) are Cloud Atlas and Woman on the Edge of Time. Each author takes a very clear stand about what they think should be done to further the social evolution of the human species. Ender's Game and its sequel Speaker for the Dead address this more obliquely. The common element they share is that you should organize to fight oppression, so all creatures are treated with respect and allowed to be what they are. But that's oversimplifying.
posted by salvia at 7:54 PM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Turn your fellow man to Christ, not the faux religion of the mega-church, mega-judgers, (the perverters of Christ's message to justify their own greed) but the Christ of redemption, the Christ of love and goodwill towards your fellow man.
posted by caddis at 8:49 PM on August 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Parent one child.
posted by hortense at 9:25 PM on August 19, 2008

Restraining my anti-malthusian Fist of DeathTM, uttering the phrase "overpopulation" without substantially qualifying it lowers the level of discussion to an untenable altitude.

Some parts of the world are overpopulated. If you're reading this, you're not in one of those parts of the world (to a first approximation). The western world's fertility numbers have been trending (sharply) downward for the last hundred years or so and it's not because we're crowded. Starving the world of potential leadership, participation and inspiration by letting the boogie man of overpopulation scare you out of raising a child is folly.

Raise your children well. Recognize that all children are your future even if they're not your children.

Oh and teach them statistics and algorithms.
posted by Skorgu at 7:27 AM on August 20, 2008

Spread a rational philosophy. I.e., one that advises looking at reality, using reason and logic, eschewing any appeals to religion and other forms of mysticism, and which advocates individual rights in the political realm.

Without the correct fundamental ideas guiding people and societies, all the science and technology in the world is useless, if not actively harmful.
posted by mw at 8:14 AM on August 20, 2008

Response by poster: Wow, thanks for all these thoughts everyone. Keep them coming. I'm going to be re-reading these again.

Interesting that one of the polarising issues is "have children" vs "have no children" (or even, "get rid of people").

I realise that an easy answer is "there is nothing you can do" but that's precisely why I ask the question: to find out the few things that we can do that might affect our long term survival and progression. It's like voting -- chances are your vote on its own will never make a difference to electoral results during your lifetime, but that's no reason not to vote.
posted by fabius at 11:45 AM on August 20, 2008

To all those that said "have no children", I'd say have a read of this.

I'm sure it isn't an entirely complete argument, but it's a little more developed than "ahh population overgrowth, desist!"
posted by latentflip at 3:18 PM on August 20, 2008

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