Whenever I catch myself pronouncing in self-important tones on the state of the world - in other words, about three times a week - I should really go back and re-read this passage from one of Herman Hesse's pamphlets:
Friends, we must learn to desist from judging whether the world is good or bad, and we must forgo the strange pretension that it is up to us to better it.
The world has often been denounced as bad, because the denouncer had slept badly or had too much to eat. The world has often been praised as a paradise, because the praiser had just kissed a girl.
The world wasn't made to be bettered. Nor were you made to be bettered. You were made to be yourselves.
That's from Zarathustra's Return, first published anonymously in 1919, when "world betterment" was apparently something of a buzzword. I found it in a collection of his anti-war writings, 'If This War Goes On', picked up from a bookswap in a backpackers hostel years ago. Since then, two copies of the book have slipped through my fingers, but I just discovered that you can download the full text via this site - together with those of thirteen of Hesse's other works.
What's struck me lately is how difficult and/or irrelevant it seems to talk about the changes currently going on in terms of things getting better or worse. Today, for example, Ran Prieur reposted an article suggesting "the only way to save the economy is to stop printing money and allow defaults on all the bad debts. Of course the owners of debt will never agree to that, and the big money economy will crash and burn. I'm not sure that's a bad thing."
Meanwhile, my colleague Paul had a nice piece on the Guardian's PDA blog, talking about how the internet industry is changing:
My prediction for 2009 is that startups that matter will matter more. By 'matter', I mean the ones which have an explicit goal to improve the world whether that's socially or environmentally... The outlook for 2009 if you're trying to change the world is pretty good. If you're trying to get people to throw virtual sheep at each other, it's going to be a lot tougher than 2008.
I'm closer to Hesse when it comes to talk of "improving the world", but I do think that we're living in a time that is full of possibilities, and where precisely the events which are presented as the end of the world as we know it can open up a space for hope.