By Dr David Laing Dawson
What an interesting time to be alive. I had grandparents who drove some of the first mass produced automobiles; parents who listened to the radio, took penicillin, and flew in planes; I grew up among a generation of boys who dismantled cars and rebuilt them to drive when we got our licenses at 16; we watched television going from black and white to colour, and analogue to digital, from large boxes to thin screens; we bought 64K computers; watched the first messages pass through the internet and modems; watched portable phones, libraries, laptop computers, arcades, cameras, pagers, slide rules, and calculators merge into this ubiquitous instrument we call a smart phone; we learned to say double helix, and then genome; we saw small amounts of data stored on microfiche evolve into terrabytes of data stored in something smaller than a thumbnail; my son and daughter work in the high tech industries; my grandson is studying artificial intelligence at University; and Stephen Hawking tells us we need to colonize another planet or two within 100 years or risk extinction.
If he is right, then the generations alive today are humans who have links to the early days of mass production in the industrial revolution, to the beginnings and early evolution of modern science, medicine, and agricultural practices, right though the digital age, space travel, and on to the destruction of the planet.
Our dramatic success over the past few generations (give or take some stupid wars, genocides and catastrophes) is leading directly to the demise of our species, all within a dozen generations. That is impressive if sad.
Hawking includes possible “acts of God” in his list of destructive forces (direct hit by a large meteor) but most scenarios include one form of suicide or another (pandemic spread around the globe, nuclear holocaust, the consequences of over population, and global warming).
Biologically our evolution has spanned millions of years. Until the industrial revolution our social evolution had been almost as slow and incremental. Capitalism, democracy, science, medicine, and technology have jet propelled (literally and figuratively) this social evolution the past 150 years.
Before then we were creatures surviving within a complex ecology, our population very slowly increasing, subject to the whims of weather, drought, wars, and pestilence. We had minimal effect on our planet. We could build a boat, a city, a canal, and a damn, but the oceans and forests continued, the rivers, deserts, and most of our earth’s life forms persisted. To survive through those centuries we needed to expand, explore, conquer, and exploit.
Now quite suddenly we are the shepherds of our own destiny as a species, a life form. To survive we must all cooperate. We must give up notions of magic and Gods and competing feifdoms. We must stop population growth through all humane means of birth control. We must husband our planet’s resources rather than exploit them. We must have in place an international program ready to act instantly when the next pestilence arises. We must stop talking about economic growth and replace this with equitable economic distribution. We must stop destroying our oceans and forests. And of course we must either reduce our CO2 emissions or figure out how to capture them.
A tall order. Especially when some leaders of our fully industrialized nations want to pull us back to an age of competing xenophobic fiefdoms. A hundred years is but a blink of a galaxy’s eye.