Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Good News

We see the world from our limited perspective in time and space. Anatomically modern humans have been around for at least 160,000 years, which seems like an awfully long time but is only about .oooo12 of the age of the universe, and .000035 of the age of the earth. Somewhere around 25,000 years ago, we began a cultural takeoff, that produced continual innovation in our ways of living, the control of fire, clothing, sophisticated weapons and hunting techniques, conquest of cold climates, journeys across the southern ocean to distant islands. Then agriculture, writing, the rise of cities, social hierachies, armies, priestly castes, conquest and slavery, holy books and human sacrifice.

Civilizations have risen, that are now forgotten. Cities have vanished under the desert sand. Dark days and centuries have descended on peoples once prosperous and at peace.

But when we ate the fruit of knowledge, there was no going back. We know more than we did yesterday, and yesterday we knew more than we did last year. Not everyone believes the truth, but as long as some people know it, truth is indestructible. Half of Americans don't believe in evolution, but 141 years ago, nobody did.

We understand ourselves better than ever before. And we have discovered the ineradicable idea of humanity, as a principle to be treasured. It took a vicious war to abolish slavery in the U.S., but we did it. Slavery still exists but it's only respectable to defend it in some of the remotest corners of the earth. The abolition of war is nowhere in sight but it's more and more the norm to see it as degrading rather than glorious. War for the sake of conquest and pillage made Alexander Great, was Rome's reason for being and America's Manifest Destiny. But it offered only the illusion of historical grandeur for Hitler and is now, by international consensus, the vilest of crimes. To be sure, vile criminals are in power right now in the United States, but most of the world, and a good many Americans, see them that way. The destruction of New Orleans, the social injustice it exposed along with the callousness and incompetence of our national leadership has shocked and appalled the nation and the world -- but that's exactly the good news, that most of us were shocked and appalled.

It may seem that our country has lost its way, as we enter a perilous, traumatic and unsettling time for humanity. The U.S. will certainly decline as a world economic and military power, and we are unprepared for and, in our political discourse oblivious to, the troubles ahead: what may be the disastrous fall, or if we are wiser than we seem the successful transformation, of petroleum based civilization; a warming, stormier earth and rising seas; epidemic diseases; violent conflict over resources. Remember, though, that the present era in U.S. history will just be a paragraph in the encyclopedia of the future. Our culture and political system have raised to power a cabal of malignant dwarfs, and that's pretty depressing. Yet even while ignorance rules, there is more and more wisdom. The American Century is over, but I'm willing to bet it's just the beginning of the Human Millenium, and beyond. I'm looking forward.

These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

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