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Who Wants Inequality?

If no one wanted it, it wouldn't be here.

Living things are nature’s goal achievers. We are supremely designed to achieve goals, produce particular outcomes, make things happen. By and large, things don’t occur accidentally.

The very business of living is, in fact, a process of ensuring that what comes in – sights, sounds, tastes, feelings – conforms to one or more internal signals, commands, standards, specifications, references, or set-points. A goal by any other name – expectation, dream, will, belief, attitude, preference, hope, aim, intention – still functions the same way.

Of course, this doesn’t deny that “stuff happens.” People’s parades sometimes do get rained on. You really can be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And, ants and other wildlife can disrupt your picnic in the country, a flat tire can make you late for an appointment, a tornado can demolish a farmer’s crops, bushfires can devastate entire communities. These events, however, are noteworthy not just because of their impact – sometimes only irritating, sometimes catastrophic – but also because they are not the way life usually goes. And even when these insuperable disturbances arise, people mostly find a way through them. They somehow get back on track and keep doing what they like to do.

And what we like to do, what we are designed to do, is achieve goals. Pretty much all of our activity can be understood as part of the process of goal achievement. Ironically, apparently failing at one goal can often occur because another goal is being achieved. Even not achieving a goal can be a goal!

To understand goals and how they work, it’s often useful to take a longer- rather than shorter-term view of things. The way people are, and the things they do on an ongoing basis, can give you strong clues about the goals that are important to them. Someone who is overweight might not necessarily intentionally plan to see the scales register such inflated numbers, but they could have goals about eating what they want when they want, about not leaving anything on their plate, about creating feelings of comfort and happiness, about not being told what to do by others, and so on. Any of these things could be a priority for someone who is hefty. Although they might be disappointed about failing to achieve their latest dieting goal, they may have actually just achieved, once again, the goal of not being boxed in by restrictive eating practices.

Within our vast network of interconnected goals, there will always be some goals that are more highly valued or prioritised than others. This network is organised in a hierarchy, or, more correctly, in lots of hierarchies. Noticing the particular results that seem to keep occurring for people will give you some big hints about what’s important to them. For the most part, things don’t happen in our lives unless we want them to. Or, sometimes things happen that we don’t particularly want, but we’re prepared to tolerate them because they accompany something else that we do really, really want.

Two other important points are worth noting. The environments we find ourselves in will have a large influence on the goals that can be achieved. If I have a goal to taste the spicy seafood Laksa I’m so fond of, but I find myself in the environment of an Italian restaurant, I’m going to be frustrated unless I change my goal. People in impoverished environments will find it much harder to achieve goals than people with more degrees of freedom who have access to a greater range of resources.

Source: Jaromir Chalabala/ID: 20862520/123RF
Source: Jaromir Chalabala/ID: 20862520/123RF

Also, there can be a big difference between what people say their goals are and the way their lives play out on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. I might say that one of my goals is to run two to three times per week but, if week after week, you find me sitting at my computer, keeping up with emails, communicating with colleagues, writing articles, and reading the latest journals, you would have to conclude that my goal of achieving at work is more important than my goal of regular exercise. My actual goal might be something like “go for a run when I can fit it in around work.” I might not even like to admit that’s my goal, but the evidence is there.

This line of reasoning can be used to better understand yourself or other individuals. It can also be used on a much grander, global scale.

Health and social inequalities are perhaps some of the greatest problems of our time. We know, for example, that enough food is produced each year so that no one on earth ever has to be hungry. Yet large numbers of people are malnourished while voluminous amounts of food end up in the trash.

Our planet does not have a problem with abundance, it has a problem with distribution. Given that the gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening rather than narrowing, an impartial assessment of the state of play would have to conclude that we have inequalities because the world’s most powerful decision-makers want it to be that way. Currently, it seems that goals such as economic growth and maximising profits for shareholders are more important to those who make decisions and establish policies than goals that would enable all of the world’s citizens to lead contented lives.

For our children’s children’s children to have the opportunity to take their children on a picnic in the country, and for many more of today’s children to experience the picnics that life can offer, it is balance, not growth, that needs to become the new global imperative.

Health and social inequalities were created through the relentless pursuit of certain goals. They can be eradicated by prioritising different goals. Life is goals. We all have them, and ironically, the more we help others achieve their goals, the easier it is to achieve our own. The very state of the world can be thought of as a record of the goals we have prioritised up to this point. Do we have what it takes to rewrite the record books?