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A UTOPIAN WORLD REALLY POSSIBLE?
the last chapter of my book, 2012:
Extinction or Utopia, I make the case that instead of the world hurtling
towards destruction, we actually have reason to be optimistic. In fact, I suggest
that we actually could be heading into a golden age of mankindnot in some
New Age spiritual enlightenment sort of way, but in a political, economic and
social way. This has naturally led some people to ask me if I believe that a
utopian world is really possible, and whether I'm not just living in some sort
of delusional pie-in-the-sky world of sunshine and lollipops.
not an unreasonable question, especially considering all the problems on our
planet. After all, we do have quite a few things to concern us, with terrorism,
nuclear proliferation, climate change (colder or hotter? I forget which...)
and the many real and imagined dangers that lurk around every corner. So how
can I be an optimist?
answer is simple: history. When we look at the whole range of human historyand
especially the last centuryI believe there is hope for optimism. How can
I say that? Let's take a look at a few statistics (taken from my book):
and Literacy: That there are still multitudes who live out their lives
in grinding poverty cannot be denied. Much of the world survives on a few
dollars a day, and in some countries a few hundred dollars a year. It seems
that the twin spectres of poverty and illiteracy have been a part of the
human condition since homo sapiens first emerged from the forest and remains
with us like an ache that refuses to go away no matter how badly we wish
it would go away.
However, once we accept the fact that poverty, deprivation, and want has
always been a part of the human equation, the next question we need to ask
is not whether there is still hunger and poverty, but whether the percentage
of people who live in these conditions is the same, greater, or less than
it was a century ago. Or two centuries ago. Or a thousand years ago. In
other words, to make the case for a declining humanity, we should see poverty
not only keeping pace with population growth, but even increasing as a percentage
of the world's population.
Fortunately, when we take the time to more carefully examine the statistics,
we find some reason for optimism. According to figures taken from the March
22, 2006 edition of The International Economy magazine, poverty rates declined
approximately 4 percent every twenty years between 1820 (when economic statistics
first began being kept) to 1950. Between 1950 and 1980, that decline increased
to a rate of 14 percent each twenty years, and even more impressive, since
1990 worldwide poverty rates have decreased an astonishing 20 percent. One
example: in 1980, the poverty head count ratio in India and China was 50
and 60 percent, respectively. By 2000, the poverty ratios in both economies
were in the range 10 to 25 percent, meaning that the number of human beings
that moved out of poverty in these two countries alone was around a billion-a
historical upliftment of 20 percent of the developing world's population!
Clearly, the percentage of human beings living in poverty is going down
(both proportionally and in actual numbers) while the world is seeing the
birth of a small but growing middle class emerging in even the traditionally
poorest countries. This is a fairly recent innovation in the human condition
and, I think, a positive one.
Further, according to UN studies, world literacy rates stand at nearly 82%,
with literacy rates approaching 99% in almost every industrialized country
on the planet. Compare that with the worldwide literacy rate at the start
of the twentieth century when, even after factoring in the industrialized
nations (which were few and far between) literacy hovered at a dismal 5-10%.
If such trends continue, it's not unreasonable to imagine a worldwide literacy
rate of 100% by the end of the twenty-first century. As such, today humanity
is the most literate it has ever been at any point in its history.
Consider this: in 1900 only about 10% of Americans had high school diplomas.
Today, only 10% don't have them! Plus, there are twice as many institutions
of higher education in the world today than there were a mere 50 years ago.
In fact, in almost every area of human endeavorinfant mortality, life
expectancy, annual income, access to medical attention, sanitationthe
world has improved dramatically in the last one hundred years. Of course,
that's not to say that there aren't areas of the world still mired in abject
poverty, or that AIDS and other diseases aren't cutting swaths through some
populations, but compared to the quality of life experienced just a century
ago by most human beings on the planet, ours is an infinitely better world
Rights and Civil Liberties: Have human and civil rights kept pace with
this upliftment in terms of poverty, litracy, and health? Absolutely! For
example, consider that just a couple of centuries ago slavery was considered
an acceptable practice around the world (and, in fact, played a major role
in the development of civilization over the last seven thousand years),
while today it is nowhere legal on the planet. Additionally, for the most
part people cannot be worked to death, imprisoned in a debtor's prison,
or summarily executed for crimes as petty as stealing a loaf of bread or
making off with another man's horse. Further, today people cannot be hanged
for practicing witchcraft or burned at the stake for heresy, nor can a mob
lynch a man because of the color of his skin and expect the judicial system
to turn a blind eye as was sometimes the case a mere century ago. The rights
of woman, children, and minorities has also improved substantiallyespecially
when contrasted to the conditions even 75 years agountil today truly
repressive societies, while still in existence, are growing less common
and sustainable. Of course, there are exceptions: child labor laws are sometimes
lax in third-world countries and exploitation by the wealthy is still common
(and, in places, prevalent) but the point is that such behavior, when exposed,
is routinely prosecuted, whereas a century ago such behavior was common,
tolerated, and even expected. While still far from realizing a utopian world,
it would be difficult to maintain that humanity is not collectively becoming
increasingly aware of the rights of all human beings and so less willing
to exploit the weak for the benefit of the wealthy as it once was.
Even our government institutions have demonstrated tremendous and usually
positive changes in just the last sixty years. Immediately prior to the
Second World War, there were just over two dozen functioning democracies
on the planet; today nearly two thirds of the world's people live under
some form of democracy or benign, constitutional monarchy which guarantees
basic civil liberties and human rights. Truly nihilistic, totalitarian governments
can be counted on the fingers of one hand, while repressive societiesdefined
as those under the control of authoritarian leaders or those with dismal
human rights recordsnumber only in the dozens (out of a total of nearly
200 sovereign nations on the planet). Of course, there is always the danger
of a major democracy failing and being replaced with an authoritative regime
(as happened in Germany in 1933) but in a world in which each nation's economy
is becoming increasingly integrated with those of their neighbors to form
a genuine world economy, such a descent into darkness would be more difficult
- Wars and
Nuclear Weapons: Further, and largely as a result of this democratization
process, war as an almost natural and expected instrument of foreign policy
is growing increasingly unpopular and uncommon. Though small-scale conflicts
still rage in some isolated spots around the world (and are usually confined
to non-democratic nations), really big warsthat is, armed conflict
between two or more sovereign nationsare growing increasingly rare,
demonstrating that today nations are far less willing to resort to violence
to resolve their disputes than they were in the past. Of course, the threat
of terrorism or of a rogue nation developing and then actually using nuclear
weapons remains a real threat, but these are mere flea bites when compared
to the twin threats the world faced from Nazism and Communism throughout
much of the twentieth century.
Consider also that while the threat of nuclear war remains a potent one,
that the proliferation of such weapons has dramatically decreased over the
last two decades. In 1987, there were over 70,000 warheads of all types
in the nuclear arsenals of the world's six nuclear powers. Today, thanks
in a large part to various treaties negotiated in the 1980's and 90's and
the collapse of the old Soviet Empire (who held the lion's share of such
warheads) the number is closer to 20,000, with further cuts anticipated
in the coming years. While 20,000 warheads (about half of which are considered
fully operational) is still a massive number, it's a far cry from the height
of the Cold War, when the prospect of destroying all life on the planet
ten times over remained a very real one. Certainly, the fact that we are
cutting our nuclear arsenals rather than increasing them has to be considered
a positive sign for the future-at least in the long term.
But what of the two great wars that ravaged the twentieth century, the horror
of the Holocaust, Stalin's brutal gulag, and the more immediate concerns
about rising crime rates, terrorism, and international drug trafficking?
Couldn't it be said that modern history argues far more persuasively for
a humanity in moral decline rather than for a world on the verge of a golden
age of enlightenment?
The atrocities committed in this century seem so much worse than those in
the past for two reasons. First, most people aren't aware of the many atrocities
that took place in the past when pogroms and the extermination of entire
populations because of their religious or political views were common, thereby
making it appear that genocide is a modern aberration. Second, thanks to
the media and the internet, we are now more aware of the scope and horror
of genocides when they are committed, whereas a century ago such news seldom
found its way into the popular consciousness. Additionally, when such atrocities
are brought to light, they are much more likely to incite international
outcry and response, making it far more econimically and politically difficult
for a brutal regime to get away with their crimes than they were only a
few decades ago.
In the end, it's not whether there are more evil deeds and criminal acts
being committed today than in the past, but whether there are proportionately
more. No doubt more people die at the hands of their fellow citizens today
than they did in the past, but that's because there are more people than
in the past. Naturally, when the population increases, the numbers of crimes
are going to go up. That, however, is not necessarily indicative of an increase
in frequency. For example, if a population were to double at the same time
its crime rate fell by 40%, there would be still be a net increase in the
total number of crimes committed, thereby giving the appearance that things
were getting worse when statistically they are actually significantly improving.
It's often just a numbers game.
Threats: But certainly the destruction of our environment argues strongly
for a planet in peril, does it not? With a world population approaching
seven billion, the threat posed to our weather, oceans, and ecosystems by
global warming, the tragic consequences of deforestation, the reality of
rapidly dwindling energy supplies and reduced sources of new energy to feed
an ever more ravenous and growing world economy, how can anyone even begin
entertaining the possibility that things are improving in any way?
No one said there are not challenges, but consider that the first step in
overcoming adversity is becoming aware that a threat exists in the first
place. For decades the world went about its business creating an industrial
revolution the likes of which the planet had never experienced before, spewing
clouds of noxious gas into the environment, clear cutting entire forests,
and filling our lakes and rivers with all kinds of toxic pollutants without
a second thought. Now, however, we are taking steps to change all that.
Emissions standards for both factories and automobilesonce never imagined
to be necessaryare now strictly enforced, logging is heavily regulated,
species once on the verge of extinction have been brought back to viability,
recycling is one of the fastest growing industries on the planet, and the
push towards clean, renewable energy is well underway. Obviously, we have
a long way to go and unrestricted growth among rapidly industrializing countries
like China and India remains a concern, but for the most part there is an
effort underway to rein in the worst of the abuses. Just the mere fact that
we are aware of the magnitude of the problem and are willing to pursue solutions
can't be seen as anything but positive. Undoubtedly the world has a number
of challenges ahead and many political, economic, and technological hurdles
to overcome (along with a few unforeseen catastrophes yet to endure) before
we straighten things out, but a very good case can be made that we are on
the right track.
who hold to the disintegrating society theory are unlikely to be impressed with
these examples, but I submit their gloomy outlook can only be sustained by determinedly
ignoring the judgment of history. While in many ways we are still a very brutal
people but one mindless act away from exterminating ourselves, we are at the
same time far less tolerant of those who diminish the value of human life, rape
the environment, or practice injustice. It's not a perfect world that we seek,
nor do I believe that human beings are perfectable. There will probably always
be selfishness and cruelty and all the other unfortunate hallmarks of what it
is to be human, but I do believe it is possible to create a world in which humanity
respects itself and its environment, where it solves its problems through dialogue
and hard work, and where each day brings it closer to realizing the potential
that resides within it.
What would such a society look like? Imagine a world in which every nation was
a representative democracy, where every constitution guaranteed basic human
rights and civil liberties such as freedom of speech and religion. Whereas
Dr. Martin Luther King once saidpeople will be judged not by the color
of their skin but by the content of their character. Imagine a world where warfare
was a historical anomaly taught in class but not a practical reality any longer.
And picture a planet in which everyone had the same access to public education,
healthcare, and opportunities for advancement. That's the sort of "utopia"
I imagine and believe is possible.
Would there be no crime, no rape, no murder, no abuse in my little world? Probably
not. Would there be no greed, materialism, selfishness, or cruelty on such a
planet? Unlikely. People would still have to find their own way through life
and struggle through the challenges fate and their own decisions places before
them, for such is the stuff that makes us grow intellectually and spiritually.
Some may fail in business or in their chosen professions because life does not
come with guarantees (nor should it). Some may have less than others because
they refuse to work for more, but that is their own decision. In these senses,
then, mine may not be a utopia in the classical sense, but it would be enough
to lay the foundation for an exciting future among the stars that is, in my
opinion, not only our destiny, but our birthright. It may not happen in my lifetime,
or within the lifetime of those reading these words, but it is a near certainty
we will one day obtain, no matter how long it takes. We are the authors of our
destiny; not fate, not the stars, and not even the gods. I believe we are just
beginning to understand that, and once we fully appreciate it, we will find
the strength within ourselves to create the sort of world we can be proud of.
As such, I don't believe for a moment that the future is nearly as bleak and
hopeless as many assume, nor do I consider hope and faith to be foolish ideals.
I believe in tomorrowhowever niave that may soundand hold out hope
that in some small way, I can help others find the confidence and assurance
that humanity, for all its many flaws, is not on the verge of its own destruction
but may, in fact, be standing at the threshold of a bright and remarkable future.
Pie-in-the-sky? Maybe, but what sort of world do you want to live in? One of
despair and fear or one of hope and faith in the future? It's all up to you.
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