I am a very lucky human being. I was born into the greatest period for a member of Homo sapiens to be alive, the peak of human civilization—the period following WWII. Never before in human history has an ordinary person such as I been able to enjoy such an exceptional combination of high standard of living, comprehensive knowledge, personal freedom and influence in the affairs of his or her society. When in the past has an ordinary person been able to look up at the night sky and actually have at least a rudimentary knowledge of what he’s looking at?
In the last 300 years Western society has made more social, material and political progress than in all the preceding millennia since civilization was invented in Mesopotamia. We have seen the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, the empowerment of women, the end of child labour, legal marriage for gays and lesbians … the list is long.
Much progress has taken place in my lifetime. When I was a kid, people of Indigenous and Chinese ethnicity couldn’t vote, homosexuality was illegal and women were restricted to few occupations. Now most young people can hardly imagine such primitive attitudes.
All of this remarkable social progress, most of it never before achieved in human history, has been supplemented by remarkable technical progress. As a child, I lived in a house in southern Saskatchewan that lacked insulation, running water, indoor plumbing and central heating, not because we were exceptionally poor but because in the 1930s that’s how many working class families lived. Most young people today can hardly imagine that either.
Today I live in a warm, comfortable apartment with all the facilities one expects in a modern home and spend many hours investigating the world on my computer. I live a life that would seem inconceivable luxury to 99 per cent of the humans who ever lived, regardless of their station.
As a result of this background of progress and my own rising fortunes, I have tended to be optimistic. It has seemed obvious to me that, though setbacks will occur, and we have had some deep dark ones in the recent past, the general trend of humanity is upward and onward.
But here, in my twilight years, it rather suddenly appears that even if this had been true it no longer is. Humanity faces threats greater than it has ever faced before and it is clearly not dealing with them, and I’m not talking about the coronavirus. These are threats that, if not dealt with, will bring civilization down around our ears, even terminate our species entirely. One threat alone, the most immediate—global warming—has progressed to where its effects are nearing tipping points. Indeed global warming itself threatens to become irreversible in the not too distant future.
This may sound like the grumbling of a stereotypically grumpy old man. Perhaps a stereotypically grumpy old man unnerved or depressed by the current pandemic. I can, however, deny that is the case. Why? Because science, the only instrument we have to truly understand the physical world, supports the observation that humanity is despoiling its home. This isn’t even pessimism. Basing the potential of an unpleasant future on science isn’t pessimistic. It is, to the contrary, realistic.
If humanity is to avoid a very unpleasant future indeed, it will have to step up its reduction of greenhouse gasses well beyond what it’s doing now. It will have to stop exterminating other species. And it will have to reduce its exploitation of the Earth’s resources sufficiently to where the planet can sustainably replace what is exploited. Can humanity do all this? Maybe, however the opportunity is rapidly slipping away. More importantly, will it do all this? And here the pessimist enters the picture.