Our legacy: how we will be viewed in 2050


By David Swanton 

Posted Wednesday, 5 January 2011 in in ON LINE opinion - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


When we consider our recent history, most of us are dumbfounded that people in the mid-19th century advocated slavery, that people in the late-19th century rejected women’s suffrage, and even in the mid-20th century a racist mindset opposed people of certain, particularly Asian, ethnic groups migrating to other countries.

Given that we are now more enlightened and aware of the failings of the past, it is worth contemplating how we in 2011 will be viewed historically, even by people in 2050.

Unfortunately, we are likely to be viewed poorly.

We are abrogating our ethical responsibility to future generations to enhance the human condition and care for this planet that we share in time with them.

We are ineffective in addressing population and quality-of-life issues, unsustainable resource use and climate change. Our civilisation is still encumbered with social, religious and political instability arising from intolerance, and despite improvements, there is an inequitable distribution of wealth, as many individuals have a poor quality of life.

On a positive note, we recognise that many people and governments are working hard to implement initiatives that lead to economic, environmental and social progress, although people in developed countries often seem to be the main beneficiaries.

There have been substantial technological developments, and some initiatives that are leading to a better human and planetary condition, of which we should be justifiably proud. It would however be impolitic for us to revel in these significant achievements, when we are ineffectively addressing some fundamental problems.

Over 6.8 billion people are living on our planet in 2011. This population, and its current growth rate, is unsustainable given the earth’s finite resources. If current growth continues, then the human population in 2050 could be about 9 billion people, exacerbating our population-induced problems.

If the population’s growth rate were just a trivial 1 per cent per year, then the population in one thousand years would be a factor of twenty thousand times more than today’s - an implausible outcome. If population growth needs to slow, and clearly it must, we should start now, for any delay would be ignoring our obligation to address a problem for which we are partly responsible.

The number of people is not our only problem. Many millions, particularly those in developing countries, live in abysmal conditions and many die from malnutrition and disease. Many, including many indigenous peoples, live with unclean water and inadequate food, and have pitiful health standards and poor educational opportunities.

If our society had any humanity and dignity for our fellow humans we would address these problems as a matter of urgency. The situation is no better for legitimate refugees, as ineffective world bureaucracies strangle their access to refuge and welfare. We have the capacity to address these problems, but are failing to do so.

Unfortunately, the lot of the disadvantaged is unlikely to improve when some organisations and governments openly promote population growth.

Some governments provide financial incentives to encourage population growth according to the tenet that economic growth flows from population growth. Other organisations, particularly some religions conceived in antiquity, encourage procreation and rally against birth control, and perversely, oppose the use of condoms that could also prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Unchecked population growth is incompatible with long-term sustainability.

A more appropriate objective would be to increase the quality of life per capita (including economic, environmental, social and other factors) in an ethical and sustainable manner.

This is clearly a desirable outcome, even if its implementation might be more problematic, especially when some religions continue to deny equality and individual rights and irrationally discriminate against people based on their sexual preference, sex and belief system.

Some religions deny gays the same rights as heterosexuals, deny women equality and the right to their own bodies by opposing abortion, and deny the terminally ill rights to their own bodies by opposing euthanasia (which is a voluntary act, by definition), meaning that many people unnecessarily and inhumanely suffer indignity and pain in the final stages of their lives.

Some governments customarily but foolishly reward discriminatory and intolerant religions, and their business enterprises, with substantial tax concessions. Although many religious people might have good intentions, they have been indoctrinated in a system of subjective beliefs derived from their particular culture or geographic region.

They allow their children to be similarly indoctrinated and try to impose their religious values on others, but vehemently reject other religious or secular values being imposed on them. This religious confrontation and inequity has contributed to establishing intolerance and mistrust of other peoples, nations and cultures as a defining and regrettable characteristic of our current and previous generations.

Two consequences of this intolerance are war, which dominates security considerations now as it has throughout recorded history, and terrorism, which has emerged recently as a threat to peaceful civilisation.

War, terrorism, and mutual mistrust of other nations have resulted in the defence budgets of the economically more powerful nations being obscene in their profligacy.

This should not need to be the case, because humans, the dominant inhabitants of a pale blue dot in an insignificant galaxy, should be coexisting in harmony so that all our lives can be the best they can be. Instead, this intolerance has resulted in social and physical conflict and has thwarted attempts to progress to a more ethical, sustainable society.

The United Nations could help drive reform, improve the human condition and resolve international disputes. Unfortunately, it does not seem to have the influence and authority that an international body of its stature ought to command.

The United Nations is often felled by bureaucracy in the provision of goods and assistance to the needy. Politically powerful nations can and do veto any major progressive or ethical initiatives for their own nationalistic reasons, which is not particularly democratic. Democracy has its strengths, but nationalistic economic and political objectives are often given more credence than the attainment of ethical and humanist goals in international forums.

It is important that people consider how we can establish and maintain a high quality of life, live fulfilling and ethically good lives, respect the environment and use resources sustainably.

Regrettably, many nations and people seem to have thoughtlessly left this complex yet fundamental issue in the "too hard" basket. It should be the responsibility of all humans to ensure that our planet, and any planet we may inhabit in the future (unless the earth is where we as a species eventually become extinct), is effectively and efficiently maintained for later generations.

The world is now unsustainably consuming resources, particularly valuable metals. If new technologies arise, developing economies evolve quickly, and the population grows at current or greater rates, then the supplies of some metals could be exhausted within a few generations. Despite our best efforts to recycle materials, not all resources are fully recyclable.

We continue to burn fossil fuels to provide most of our energy needs. Despite the fact that these are finite resources and their combustion releases products that exacerbate global warming, too little effort is being expended on developing alternative renewable energy sources.

Without technological advancements to address the impending reduction in the availability and use of fossil fuels, the achievement of which cannot be presumed, our future capacity to generate energy, distribute food, provide emergency services and undertake everyday commerce will be severely impaired.

Humans’ rapacious use of resources is, unsurprisingly, coupled to the issue of human-induced climate change. While the scientific community has been proclaiming the dangers of global warming for many years, many political leaders have either failed to acknowledge the scientific consensus and evidence or they reject anything other than token action, due to national self-interest - "why should we act on climate change when others are not doing anything". This uncooperative and unethical approach has manifested itself in a lack of commitment from many political leaders to definitive action.

Governments and people must do more than focus on economic growth as an end in itself. Governments and people must acknowledge that the human race will not survive on this planet unless we can coexist sustainably, care for our environment, be respectful and tolerant of others, and mindful of our ethical responsibilities to future generations. Governments must act, and people must support governments that do.

What we are currently doing to future generations should not set an example for what the people of 2050 should do to the people of, say, 2100. Perhaps we should take greater notice of, and learn more from, the mistakes from our history, and critically and objectively analyse our current society, where human misery and conflict and environmental degradation are too prevalent. If not, our planet, our home, and future generations will be adversely affected by this generation’s selfishness and intransigence.

It would be lamentable if our grandchildren and their progeny judged our society as selfish, discriminatory, intolerant and short-sighted. Unless we change how we think and how we act, our lack of concern for the planet’s future inhabitants will validate such a judgement.


David Swanton is an ethicist, PhD scientist and director of Ethical Rights. He is also ACT Chapter Coordinator for Exit International.