Human Intelligence

What's the greatest challenge facing humanity today?
Answered by Elie Wiesel, Jean Oelwang and 4 others
  • Elie Wiesel

    Elie Wiesel

  • Jean Oelwang

    Jean Oelwang

  • Aubrey de Grey

    Aubrey de Grey

  • Dr. Calvin O. Butts III

    Dr. Calvin O. Butts III

  • Vanessa Woods

    Vanessa Woods

  • Steven Kotler on behalf of Abundance

    Steven Kotler on behalf of Abundance

  1. Elie Wiesel Nobel Peace Laureate, Boston University Professor


    I think the number one is indifference. When I think back on my life and all my involvements and commitments and challenges and combats, they had to do with indifference, to fight indifference. I remember in the beginning I came out with a formula. I said the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. But then, the opposite of education is not ignorance but indifference. The opposite of life is not death, but indifference to life and death. And still today, by the way, I think indifference is what threatens civilization, always.

    Every teacher, no matter what he or she is teaching, with every word that they learn together, every idea that they exchange or they explore is actually a move against indifference. If I teach Shakespeare, what do I say? I say to them, look, Romeo and Juliet is not a story of love but of hate, after all. If I teach philosophy, I say, Plato was the greatest philosopher of all but nevertheless he did some terrible things because he hated women, for instance, and boys also, and he condoned slavery and he actually condoned the death sentence of his teacher, of his master, Socrates. So it depends what you do with your learning.

    More answers from Elie Wiesel »

  2. Jean Oelwang Chief Operating Officer, Virgin Unite


    I could sit here and talk about issues all day -- about environment, poverty. I think the more interesting [subject] that we can get people having a conversation about is, "What are the root causes? Why are those issues happening?" So, let's get people to start looking about, "Why is our economic model broken? What are the things that need to be fixed in it?" We just went through this financial disaster, why aren't we standing up and looking more closely at, "How should businesses be structured?" What can we do, as businesses, to drive change in the world? So, I'd say that would be a number-one thing.

    The second thing would be: we don't have global leadership initiatives in place to handle things like climate and depletion of natural resources that are global issues. We have national responses, but we don't necessarily have a global response. How do we look at new modes of global leadership that are going to help guide us in those tough-to-tackle issues? I'd say let's look at that.

    I'd say the third thing is we've built the response to these issues on a rocky foundation. We've built them in silos. So, businesses have one set of responsibilities; governments have the other; and NGOs have the other. How do you totally break that down and get those three sectors working together with unlikely marriages to scale change? That, I've seen, a radical shift on in the last seven years -- of how those sectors are starting to work together -- but we still have a long way to go.

    I think the last thing: How do you raise human consciousness that we are one, common humanity. And it's not okay for us to be sitting in the U.S. or the U.K. and allow someone to die somewhere else in the world because they can't get access to a dollar-a-day pill, and know that's all going to get worse as the issues around the environment get worse? So, how do you lift that human consciousness? So, I think those are the things that I'd want to get people talking about in the world. What are the solutions to how we've structured our response to the issues that we've caused, basically?

    More answers from Jean Oelwang »

  3. Aubrey de Grey Chief Science Officer, SENS Foundation


    My own work revolves around the defeat of what I view as unequivocally humanity's worst problem, namely, human aging. I think that we are within striking distance of putting together what we already know about how aging works, and how life works, to be able to develop medicine that would bring aging under the same sort of degree of control that we already have for most infectious diseases. And that will undoubtedly alleviate the most astronomical amount of human suffering and save the most astronomical number of lives, and I can't think of anything better to do in my life.

    More answers from Aubrey de Grey »

  4. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III President of State University of New York College at Old Westbury, Pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in the City of New York


    Education is very close to my heart. As an African-American, education and faith -- the Tigris and the Euphrates of our redemption, twin rivers at the source of our liberation. Without an educated mind and a tuned heart, you go nowhere. That might be the opening remarks at the graduation. America, the United States of America – and I, too, sing America – is the greatest nation in the world. And no matter what people say, I've got the empirical evidence that everywhere else in the world wants to come to America to get an education, tiger moms all included, they want to come here because we still have the best education systems.

    However, we've lost ground in public education. We've failed so many of our children because we have refused to put the resources into public education based on – here's that question again – why is that when public systems become black and brown, the resources seem to dry up? Why is it when they become black and brown, you move to a charter movement, you abandon the large majority of the kids? You have to pay children to learn? What kind of foolishness is that? That's foolishness. It doesn't work. And I will say to you that taking art and athletics, culture, music out of the schools -- devastating. Culture, art, this is the epoxy that holds it all together.

    We have failed, and whoever has been in charge of our educational systems in the larger cities and in the national government that allowed this to happen ought to be brought before a tribunal. So first of all, we've got to restore the resources. A president and a head of a Department of Education can do that. Arne Duncan, you can do that. Take the money out of defense because the greatest threat to America is not the terror that flies by day or the arrow that flies by night. It's the internal disintegration that's caused by uneducated population. And the greatest protection for our civil democracy is an educated population.

    We have failed because we haven't properly trained the teachers. Now, you have a person speaking primarily from an urban perspective. I think the suburban and rural communities would be in concert with me. But we haven't adequately trained the teachers. No matter how well-intentioned a young white woman wants to be, and is, there takes some special training to come from Greenwich, Conn. with an Ivy League education and no experience in the hardcore urban centers and walk into a classroom of poor kids. Now, you will find an example. You make a movie out of one example. But they need to come in institutions like the State University at Old Westbury where we are working – here again, I think that President Obama is right – with the federal government in a new training that works on culture. You've got to have sociology, psychology to understand what's happening with these young men and women. And, quite frankly, from the point of view of an African-American, you've got to include us in the curriculum, in the history and culture of this nation. It's not to the exclusion of anybody else. It's just the reality. If black people had not been in America, the USA would not be what it is today, and you need to track that.

    Teachers need to understand it. You need to graduate from an institution of higher learning if you're in teacher ed with a dual degree or a dual major – one in teacher ed and one in science or math or chemistry, with a healthy infusion of electives in African-American Studies, Latino Studies, depending upon where you're going to be. The Latino community is the largest minority group today. If it hasn't become so yet, it will be very shortly. So many teachers have to be bilingual. It's hard to be a teacher, and then if you're gonna make it that hard, you ought to pay them, and you ought to pay them according to their success. This is going to help us.

    Math and science is not difficult. Twenty-six letters in the alphabet, what's so hard about that? Everything written in the English language, those same 26 letters. Then numbers, zero through nine. That's it. You can cut them in half, raise them to another power, put some words in front or behind them. That's all you've got. We can do this. We have done it. And I say again, the greatest terror is not what's happening in Libya or Afghanistan. It's what's happening in the inner cities, and to take a few billion from building these guns and planes and bombs and putting it in there, I don't care what the color -- because ignorance is now demonstrating itself to run rampant through all racial groups.

    If you've got people who say that – you know, I just can't help it – that the president wasn't born in this country, and people who are afraid of a person because he or she may be of a different sexual orientation. Or if you've got people running around thinking that – whether global warming is responsible for all of the weather patterns we see or not is debatable, but whether it is a reality, that's not debatable. And we need education. Poor white people living in rural Appalachia or poor black people living in the bowels of Harlem, there is a correlation between the two. They're suffering from ignorance, and they need to be redeemed, lifted, if I can use my religious language for a moment.

    So I'm passionate about education because I believe it is as I said in my opening statement. And then finally, I would say to the young men and women who are graduating, "Listen." I say this often. Tom Freedman wrote his book The World is Flat, and not a bad position. It is. The internet, for better or for worse, I say for better, because like television, there's o much that enlightens you, so much that empowers the world, so if you're in Mongolia and you get online, you could find out so much that you would never have known.

    So the graduating class --look, I hope we prepared you well. You're getting read to go out into a cruel world, and the world is not just Suffolk and Nassau County, though we'd love to see you stay here and use your expertise to build up this area. The world is China. The world is Tibet. The world is Rwanda. The world is New Zealand. The world is the world, man, and it belongs to you, so take it. And take it as a world citizen. Don't go into the world as a United States citizen. Cherish your country. Love it. Extol its virtues. Critique it when it needs to be. But go really as a citizen of the world, somebody who hopefully has a couple of languages under their belt, somebody who handle living in Australia as well as they can handle living in London. Realize that while the pageantry of a royal marriage may be something that people are really taken by, it ain't what it used to be. And recognize that there is a rising tide of color, that most of the world is filled with colored people. Don't be afraid of that. Embrace it. Learn the languages. Eat the foods. Do the dances. And if you need some really constant and consistent language, let it be math. Go into engineering. Learn how to build bridges. Look at the enduring monuments. Look at the pyramids. What the heck did those people know? How could they do that then? Look at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. How they build that devilish thing? Look at my Honda. That thing works. And now, they're talking about using – or go buy some gas, and that'll convince you to become an engineer or a scientist to figure out, "How do I keep from paying $5.00 a gallon for this stuff?"

    I'd try to make the class laugh at themselves. I'd try to inspire them with the greatest moral thought that I could from Jesus, from Buddha, from wherever I could get it, and I'd give them some real pride, and then I'd turn them lose and say, "Go and do this, and challenge wrong wherever you see it. Don't be afraid."

    I think the last thing is, until you have made some significant contribution to humanity at whatever level – I'm trying to remember who said it – you should be ashamed to die. But when death comes, do not be afraid of it. Martin King, Gandhi, Jesus – these guys – don't be afraid to die.

    I'm not sure that I'm – I love life, you know, but there are some things that I think I'd just have to die for if it came to that. I'm curious about that. I'm curious about that. Why are we afraid? That ant doesn't know anything about that. That sparrow in the air, that deer, that antelope running across the Serengeti, they don't know anything about that. Why am I afraid to die? What is it? What makes some people go proudly into death and others tremble and shake? I'm trying to figure out how to do that so I'm not accused of combining church and state, because for me in this season of your interview, this is Easter, man, and I have eschatological vision. I see all of the Good Fridays through the eyes of the resurrection.

    Jesse used to have a wonderful expression, and he did it fairly well. He used to say, "It's morning time." He said, "It's morning." Do you remember that refrain? "It's morning time." And he took that from, "While weeping may endure for a night," so I'm crying about the condition of the public schools, I'm crying about the money we spend on war, I'm crying about the fact that while we've come so far with HIV/AIDS, we've still got so far. I'm crying about the fact that people can't get along, and they hate the president because of this color of his skin, but at the same time, you know, I kind of see the sun peeping over the horizon, and I know that the morning is coming, so I'm curious about that.

    More answers from Dr. Calvin O. Butts III »

  5. Vanessa Woods Research Scientist, Evolutionary Anthropology, Duke University

    War. If humans could stop killing each other it would do wonders, not just for the death count, but the associated illnesses and trauma that accompany war.

    More answers from Vanessa Woods »

  6. Humanity’s grandest challenge is to build a better world, a place where every person has access to all essential needs: clean water, nutritious food, affordable housing, personalized education, top-tier medical care, nonpolluting energy, access to ubiquitous communications and information, and freedom. We believe that over the next two to three decades it will be possible to reach this goal. That’s what we’re really talking about. Abundance is not about providing everyone on this planet with a life of luxury—rather it’s about providing all with a life of possibility.

    More answers from Steven Kotler of Abundance »

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