In the beginning, so scientists have concluded recently, the universe came into existence as a result of a cosmic Big Bang1. That was fifteen billion years ago. Our planet is a tiny spec in a corner of a galaxy of billions of stars in a universe of billions of galaxies, and is itself a mere four and a half billion years old. In the whole of that unimaginable vastness of space and time it is possible that the conditions that have given rise to life as we know it have not been replicated anywhere else. Maybe we are the only conscious spectators of this whole extraordinary drama.
We humans are very recent participants in this story. If the whole of earth’s creation were reduced to the six days of the biblical story, it would have taken the first two days for the land masses and oceans to form, and a further two and a half days for sexual reproduction to have evolved. It would have been half past one in the afternoon of the sixth day that the first marine animals came ashore. It would have been five o’clock that Saturday afternoon that the first reptiles appeared, while it was only twenty minutes before midnight that the Great Apes appeared. Twelve minutes later the first apes actually stood up and walked on their hind legs. The first modern humans appeared in Africa eleven seconds before midnight which means – swapping time scales – that this was some seven million years ago2. Then, a mere one hundred and fifty thousand years ago, we humans developed the ability to construct language and tell stories.
From the moment our ancestors gained sufficient consciousness to reflect on their emotions, ponder the behaviour of other people, and be awe struck by the magnificence of the night sky, Humankind has sought to use such knowledge to manipulate the world to his advantage. The warning that humans could all too easily become too clever for their own good was noted long ago in Jewish scripture; “When the Holy One created the first man he said to him: all I have created, I created for you. Take care, therefore, that you do not destroy my world, for if you do, there will be no one left to repair what you have destroyed”3.
By the time of Christ the earth was already home to two hundred million people. Now, less than one hundred generations later, there are six and a half billion of us. Our ancestors were remarkably successful in applying their knowledge in ways that have enabled us to live both longer, and better, but all this progress has inevitably come at a cost. We have ravaged the forests, plundered the oceans, exterminated the people we don’t like or who are in our way, and cleared more land for farming in the past fifty years than in the previous two centuries. All this comes at a cost, for it is increasingly hard for many people to keep up, so that clinical depression may soon become the biggest medical problem of our time.4
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Supplies of oil – the precious black gold of the modern economy – are being consumed faster than they are being discovered5. As they burn and emit ever-more CO2 gasses, temperatures increase, icecaps melt, and sea levels rise. We have created incredible ways of saving life and invented extraordinary technologies of communication and information, while also pioneering the production of the most horrendous weapons of mass destruction. An Armageddon is approaching, warn the biologists, for we are wrecking the planet by our ingenuity and our greed. We have grown accustomed to living beyond our means so now we are witnessing the collision of our civilization with the very earth itself6.
“I think the odds are no better than fifty/fifty that our present civilization on earth will survive to the end of the present century”, said Sir Martin Reese, the Astronomer Royal speaking early in the year two thousand. “What happens here on earth, in this century, could conceivably make the difference between a near eternity filled with ever-more complex and subtle forms of life, and one filled with nothing but base matter”7.
Can we – in this generation that knows so much about where we have come from – help our children to be wise rather than greedy? Never before has humanity had to accept the challenge of recognizing its common identity as a species, over and above race, nationality or creed, and accept its collective capacity for self-restraint in pursuit of the common good. We have to educate our children to understand themselves and our world.
Sources so far used to write this:
E.O. Wilson; The Future of Life; published 2002;
Richard Holloway, Doubts and Loves: What is left of Christianity, published 2001;
Sir Martin Reese, Our Final Century; A Scientist’s Warning: How Terror, Error and Environmental Disaster threatens humankind’s future – in this country, on earth and beyond, published 2003;
Al Gore, Earth in Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, published 1992, and Speech 5/6/05 in San Francisco to International Conference of Mayors of major cities;
Jared Garmond, Collapse: How Societies chose to fail or succeed, published 2005;
Madeline Bunting, Put us all on Rations, 26/08/04, The Guardian;
Sacks, Johnathon, The Dignity of Difference: How to avoid the clash of Civilizations; and
Capra, Fritjof, The Web of Life, 1996.