For those you who may have envisioned that headline a little too literally: sorry, but X-Man is not one of the professions we’ll be discussing here (your CV is rather thin for that gig anyway, although lucky for you genetic discrimination is now banned by federal employment law). No, we’re looking at careers that give you a chance to save the world on a more mundane level. From giving Gaia a good scrub-down, to keeping the rest of us armed primates from killing each other, to educating the next generation of hopeful world-savers, here are 30 jobs for idealists, secular saviors, and superheroes in us all:
Whatever the future holds for the energy sector (and to say that it’s a matter of dispute is an understatement), we should all remember one thing: nearly all the energy we use is ultimately solar in origin. The oil we extract is really a liquid battery of energy photosynthesized by ancient plants. It’s pessimistic (and a bad bet) to assume that mankind won’t, sooner or later, find a cleaner and more efficient way to capture that sunlight directly. Arizona State University, Phoenix offers a degree in Solar Energy Engineering for interested parties.
Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him to fish a little too well, with a worldwide fleet of ships, vast inescapable nets, and 21st-century technology, and you end up with a crisis. It’s the “tragedy of the commons” in its purest form. Many of our most delectable seafood favorites are being fished nearly into oblivion and will face extinction shockingly soon if we don’t make some intelligent collective decisions.
Viruses are tricky little buggers. One of the simplest forms of life, if indeed they can be said to live at all, viruses are nonetheless (or perhaps consequently) some of the hardest illnesses to fight. Scientists are hard at work trying to understand and thwart such seemingly unstoppable microbes as Ebola, AIDS, West Nile, and even such hoary old classics as influenza and the common cold. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the state with the third highest concentration of microbiology jobs is Delaware.
Think you’ve really got what it takes to be on the front lines, helping those who need it most? Are you possessed of uncommon patience, goodwill, and determination? It doesn’t get much more world-savey than social work. You will work like crazy for little pay, and your heart will be broken over and over again by the world you witness, but once in a while, you will be rewarded with the knowledge that you helped change, or even save, someone’s life. The best state to find a social worker job is Montana, according to the BLS.
The priceless importance of biodiversity has become clear to us, as we watch many of the world’s species of plants and animals meet their end. In agriculture this risk takes on a special human significance, as mankind’s dabbling “improves” crops (we’ve been genetic engineers for 10,000 years) but can ultimately homogenize them, leaving them vulnerable to disease and other problems. Seed banks aim to provide back-up copies of all the plants we use, in case of famine or global catastrophe. Though seed banks exist all over the world, the most impressive must be the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, where nearly a million varieties are stored under a mountain on a an island in the Arctic, just outside the world’s northernmost town.
If you take a long enough view, space exploration will eventually become the only hope for humankind to survive. Sooner or later, one way or another, the Earth will die, so we’ll need a back-up … like the seed vault but on a planetary scale. That doesn’t count as “world-saving” so much as “world-leaving,” unless you define “world” in terms of humanity, but it could be “world-finding” or “world-building.” However, here is a NASA project of more immediate use to saving the world: keeping an eye on the solar system’s many asteroids and comets, and figuring out what to do if they head our way. If you grew up with an Atari joystick in your hand or just really liked Armageddon for some reason, this is the calling for you.
The science of earthquake prediction is becoming more exact and, even more importantly, faster. This can help us mitigate the toll of events such as the tsunamis that have wrought such grief in Asia the past several years. Incidentally, Volcanologist could just as easily have made the list. If you’re ever looking for something to be paranoid about, just Google “supervolcano.” Fun fact: Hawaii ranks 3rd for frequency of earthquakes by state.
Conservation matters, an insight that may have been new and radical over a century ago, coming from Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir, but we should accept it as obvious by now. Unfortunately, we can expect economic factors to increase pressure on governments to divest themselves of protected public land for energy and mineral extraction and other commercial uses. That would be a shame. National parks are some of our most valuable assets … and not all assets are for spending.
People need to relearn how to eat. Our diets are costing us lives, years, happiness, and gazillions of dollars in medical expenses. Medical professionals and policymakers are increasingly looking to preemptive measures rather than extreme surgical interventions and silver-bullet cures. So consider helping out, as a dietitian or nutritionist. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure (or of belly fat).
Outside of a meteor (or the worst-case scenario for runaway global warming), this is still how it’s most likely to go down. The Manhattan Project unleashed a force that mankind still seems far too immature to control. Though miraculously the world survived the Cold War, we’re not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot (as you’ve noticed if you’ve been watching the news from Iran and Israel). Most frighteningly of all, there are many “loose nukes” unaccounted for in the world. The unheralded bureaucrats working to keep track of them are true world-savers.
The amazing things going on in biotechnology are going to change not only our individual lives, but our idea of what humanity itself is. We’ll need to develop new moral norms to adapt to this brave new world and keep our souls.
Military medicine has come a long way since M*A*S*H. It’s one of the reasons we’ve seen a lot fewer fatalities in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and a lot more lifelong disabilities). Though technology accounts for a lot of this, the human factor is crucial as well, so if you want to save lives, Uncle Sam needs YOU to join a few good medics. Unfortunately, it seems likely to remain a growth industry.
Speaking of people senselessly killing each other, has there ever been a more important moment for interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance? If you’re spiritually inclined, and genuinely interested in the wide variety of beliefs that differ from your own, here is your chance to foster understanding, of the kind that just might save the world.
This job title can refer to two different things, but it’s more a difference of degree than of kind. On a small scale, mediation is a way to bring justice and reconciliation in the context of divorce, crime, and personal and family disputes. On a larger stage, conflict mediators do the hard and often thankless work of resolving grudges between whole communities and nations, whether it’s the Bloods and Crips, the IRA and the Orangemen, or the Israelis and Palestinians.
Speaking of thankless jobs. There’s not much to say that hasn’t already ascended to the realm of cliché. Education is everything. No, you won’t get the pay you deserve, as you work your butt off. Yes, you’ll still be blamed for the problems in education and marked as greedy and lazy by the ignorant. Even your students (especially your students) won’t appreciate you most of the time. Do it anyway. Someone had better.
Defendants are people too. We’re innocent until proven guilty here in America. Don’t get me wrong: you’ll have some clients who are guilty as sin. But in our justice system, those people are just as worthy of a decent hearing as anyone else. And a lot of people really still are thrown in jail for no reason other than not being able to afford a decent lawyer. You’ll have a chance to give them another chance at life.
Halfway between nurse and camp counselor, these professionals brighten the lives of those little ones unlucky enough to be hospitalized, whether for terminal or chronic conditions or just extended inpatient stays.
No one would be a writer if they didn’t believe in the potential of books to change the world. Think of Common Sense and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and the Little Red Book of Chairman Mao’s sayings. The alphabet remains our most powerful technology to hack minds and alter society.
How’s this for a career move: take a vow of poverty. In Japan, Zen monks can often be seen standing at the roadside, heads down, continuously praying for the enlightenment of all sentient beings. The Abrahamic faiths, too, make space for contemplation and the pursuit of a purely holy life. There’s something to be said for being in the world, if you want to save it, but on the other hand, perhaps pursuing peace on an individual level can help one bring it to others. The writings of Thomas Merton, which delve into monasticism both Eastern and Western, articulate this idea far better than I ever could.
Cancer is, of course, one of the main killers of people both old and young, and is likely to stay toward the top of that list for a long time to come. Still, many exciting developments are in the works, and while there’s probably no one cure just around the corner, our arsenal of targeted therapies is growing exponentially.
“Accidents will happen” … but they can be kept to a minimum with good design. Safety engineers are a part of every major industrial design enterprise. They work to make sure your car doesn’t decapitate you and that your power plant doesn’t melt down. Thanks, safety engineers!
No, not the computer game. The real thing is a bit more than a diversion: it’s one of the scariest jobs imaginable. Landmines from conflicts past and present litter many of the world’s countries. Demining, or mine clearance, is the (very) delicate art of neutralizing these killer booby traps. Got a steady hand?
A bit cushier than digging up landmines, this is nonetheless an invaluable occupation in a society where, for most purposes, private financial interests have seemingly won out over any notion of the common welfare. At the very least, we can work to ensure that corporations act as benevolent despots. It’s good PR for them, and just plain good for the rest of us.
These brave public servants became a national symbol of heroism on 9/11. They also have an extremely colorful history; though volunteer firemen still exist, it’s a full-time career for many.
Speaking of brave public servants, and terrorism, the recent death of Ambassador Chris Stevens, beloved in Libya as well as at home in the U.S., drove home for Americans the vital mission that is foreign service. Consider taking the Foreign Service Exam and pursuing a career representing your country.
Epidemiologists study no particular type of disease; rather, they analyze the way illness spreads through environments and societies. Information technology has revolutionized this field, as it has so many others, enhancing our understanding of how a disease travels through a population, and potentially our ability to curb it.
Americans are often complacent about learning other languages. Perhaps it’s because we’re a nation that receives so many immigrants, who then become bilingual themselves. Or perhaps it’s simply that, compared to a continent like Europe, we’re a bunch of states that speak roughly the same language instead of a bunch of states that don’t. (This is why it’s also unfair to compare our number of passports per capita to theirs.) Still, since communication solves so many problems, perhaps polyglots possess potential to promote peace.
This is our most frivolous entry in the “save the world one person at a time” category, but man, it’s true. Whenever wesee an evil villain bent on world domination, we think, what if someone just gave that guy a backrub?
As Joseph Stalin (apocryphally) said, “It’s not the people who vote that count. It’s the people who count the votes.” Election monitors vouchsafe meaningful democracy by ensuring there’s no hanky-panky at the polls. For a free, decentralized, representative form of government to endure, people have to believe that elections are legitimate.
Despite what you may have heard, there’s not much money in homelessness. But homeless people are still people who matter. Devote your life to “the least of my brethren” and you may find a kind of job satisfaction that money can’t buy.