Every generation thinks that the present is more wonderful, or more threatening, than at any time in the past, depending upon the level of their optimism and pessimism. Whether it is the millennium, the Black Death or the Cold War, there are always people around who think that the world is coming to an end, and there are others who see the advance of science, the development of international co-operation and the incredible array of electronic communications systems as signs of genuine human progress.
In one key respect, though, the world is quite different now from times before the twentieth century. For millions of years mankind evolved in small numbers, living in a sustainable environment where the presence of humans was not a threat to other species. Mammoths may have been the first species which man hunted to extinction, but now we threaten the existence of many others.
Until recent times, war could be terrible but weapons had their limitations. Now the more powerful nations have weapons of mass destruction which could obliterate the whole human race.
Until sugar was processed, sweet things were special. Now we can process foods so that our daily intake can vastly exceed our needs.
Until electronic amplification came along, very loud noises were rarely made by humans. Now, everyone can produce noise at a level which blasts the eardrums and affects hearing.
At one time there were people who learnt the lore about the herbs which were beneficial in dealing with ailments. Now we have access to vast arrays of pills, powders and potions – through the Health Service or illegally – which affect our health or our state of mind.
Until fairly recently, heating was a matter of a fire, around which people gathered. Now there is ubiquitous central heating, and controlled environments modify humidity, with never a breeze to disturb the calm.
In all these examples – and one could probably produce dozens more, to do with speed of transport, flying, communication, travel, wealth, goods on sale and so on – the daily life of humans is now functioning on an unnatural scale. It is louder, faster, sweeter, more destructive than ever before. In many ways we have lost touch with the human scale of things, with nature.
It is no wonder that we have global warming and all the other ecological problems. It is no wonder either that human breakdowns of relationship are manifest in world-wide terrorism. “What is the world coming to?” the pessimists will ask.
But on the other hand, it is an amazing achievement that a species which evolved to live an small wandering bands until about ten thousand years ago should be able to live relatively peaceably in cities of millions of inhabitants, maintaining systems for feeding, educating, transporting, treating and entertaining everyone. Despite all the problems and threats, it is also a real success story for the human species.
The incredible scope to modify our lives and surroundings which mankind now has means that it is all the more important to be a good steward of the earth, for the sake of other species, for mankind as a whole and for ourselves as individuals. It is not just a matter for governments, though they have a clear leadership role. It is for each individual to look after himself or herself, to use resources properly, to relate with concern to other people, and to appreciate the natural position of mankind in the order of things. Children today have opportunities undreamt of in the past, and they face new threats to their own lives, to other people and to the world as a whole. Facing these options is a big responsibility. Let’s do it optimistically.