Happy New Year, everyone! Hopefully everyone’s New Year’s Day hangover was within manageable limits, and hopefully you didn’t wake up in a jail cell.
So it’s now 2012, and if the internet is any judge, this is the year the world will end. We have until December 23rd before the entire world says “fuck it, I’m done.” and we all die a horrible, horrible death. But even if you don’t believe that, and I sincerely hope you don’t, sometimes it’s easy to simply look out the window and think humanity is doomed. Violence, poverty, hopelessness, and despair all seem to permeate the news. You can’t go two posts on the internet without running into someone posting “I’ve lost my faith in humanity”.
Well take heart my dear readers, because there is hope for humanity, and it comes in list form.
3. The Earth isn’t Dead
Humans sometimes seem to be in a perverse triathlon to see who can kill the planet fastest. Whether it’s Brazil trying to turn the Amazon Rainforest into the world’s largest desert, China putting out more industrial pollutants than the USA (which is no small achievement), and a disturbingly large portion of people still believing that global warming is just a conspiracy by Big Science, it seems man is simply determined to destroy Earth. Like the homicidal half of a Siamese twin linked at the chest, not realizing that killing its twin will result in its own death.
Yet I don’t think man is doomed, nor do I think the planet will die anytime soon. Humanity is a bit short-sighted, and could use some serious prescription lenses, but one thing that has driven our species since the dawn of time, is the inexorable desire to survive. Our entire evolutionary process has honed our survival instincts to a fine edge, and led us to become kings of the damn world. The fact that we are even capable of fucking up a planetary ecosystem is proof enough of that. The only problem is that often we don’t see the danger until we’re staring down the barrel of the gun. Once we do see it, however, we’ve proven we can use our incredible brains to sort out whatever the problem may be.
I remember when I was in grade school my classmates and I were always hearing about how the hole in the Ozone layer was growing, and how without the Ozone, Earth would become the proverbial hotpocket to the Sun’s microwave oven. The problem was CFCs, some kind of chemical used in aerosol sprays, refrigerators and air-conditioners. As a nervous little 9 year old boy, I was fully convinced I wouldn’t live until my 10th birthday, and that the last thing I would experience was my skin melting off from the Sun’s brutal radiation. But mankind saw the danger and passed the Montreal Protocol, which phased out CFCs, and guess what? That hole in the ozone has shrunk by 15% since it’s discovery in 1985 and is expected to heal completely well before 2060 as was first expected. Mankind saw an immediate threat to its own survival and took steps to avoid it, and its not the first time its happened either.
By the mid-20th century the Industrial Revolution was finally starting to catch up with mankind. On October 27th 1948, in the town of Donora, Pennsylvania, people woke up to find their entire town blanketed into the thickest, blackest fog anyone had ever seen. It was so thick that people couldn’t see, and one man claimed he could only drive by scrapping his tires against the curb because he couldn’t see the road. Of course people realized this wasn’t normal fog when they stepped outside and immediately started suffocating. It was, in fact, a cloud of sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, and fluorine, which officially made it less breathable than the atmosphere on Venus. Just breathing it for a few moments was causing people to go into respiratory distress, and the local fire department completely exhausted its supply of oxygen. The local fire chief had to go to neighboring towns to get more. When the smog finally cleared four days later, 20 people were dead and tens of thousands were left with chronic respiratory illnesses. The same thing happened in London in 1952 and killed 4,000 people in four days, with another 8,000 dying over the following months.
Finally the idea that polluting the air we breathe with deadly chemicals might not be a good idea got through our thick collective heads, and the result was the 1970 Clean Air Act in the United States (and it’s international equivalents), and the result has been nothing short of amazing. Regulatory agencies like the EPA, and strict guidelines, have made it so we can go outside with fear of being suffocated in a cloud of filth. Many technological advances were made to clean the air, giving us electrostatic filters, catalytic converters, and dozens of other inventions that we now use everyday. The result has been cleaner cities, and not once since the passing of the Clean Air Act has the air been dirty enough to kill instantly.
Take Los Angeles for example: A filthy, dirty city that is constantly shrouded in smog. During the 1970’s LA had hundreds of Stage 1 Smog Alerts, where people were breathing in more poison than they were air. You know how many Stage 1 alerts have been issued since the new millenium? A big whopping zero and now over 20% of LA’s power now comes from renewable resources. Oh sure, LA is still filthy, but look how far its come in only 40 years.
The point of all this is that when mankind finally realizes its survival is at stake, we can do just about anything we set our minds to. Some of the most intelligent people in the world are even now working on creating clean sources of energy, and finding ways to undo the damage to our environment.
And if all else fails, nature might just step in to do the job for us.
Edit: And in reference to my statement about the amazon, I was directed to this story, which is definitely worth a read.
2. Mankind is More United than Ever
I know what you’re thinking: Russia, the United States and China still have nuclear weapons pointed at each other, terrorists are out there plotting in caves (or two-level houses with Big Screen TV) to blow us all up, and the Democrats and Republicans seem to be stuck in an infinite loop of bullshit and stupidity from which there is no escape. With all that’s going in the world, how could I possibly delude myself into thinking that humanity is in anyway united?
Well consider this: Around a thousand years ago Europe was divided into dozens of different kingdoms, each one trying to annihilate the other. Every so often the Pope flips the Middle-East the bird, and sends a crusade their way. The Mongols have finished pillaging the entirety of Asia and are now gearing up to curb stomp the Middle-East and Russia, both of which are also divided into dozens of kingdoms just like Europe. In the Americas the various Native American tribes war among themselves, the Mayas are in the middle of a bloody collapse of their empire, and the Aztecs in the north are beginning to create their own empire by brutally subduing neighboring tribes. In other words, everyone was trying to kill everyone.
Now if we could travel back in time and tell these people that in a thousand years they would all be living together with their worst enemies, what do you think they’d say? Well they’d probably burn us as witches, because people were stupid back then, but they’d also call us crazy. Do you think the Grand Duke of Muskovy would believe that one day his city would be known as Moscow, and that it would be the capital city of the largest country in the world? What would William Wallace say if you told him that one day not only would England and Scotland be at peace, but would actually flourish together as a United Kingdom?
That’s all ancient history though, let’s get more recent: October 14th, 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis. The United States and Soviet Union are engaged in a very dangerous game of chicken, each has their button on an arsenal capable of throwing mankind back into the stone age. For nearly a month the world stands on the brink of an abyss, with thousands of thermonuclear weapons prepared to throw mankind into a holocaust that might very well exterminate the entire species. This was as black as things would get.
Look at how much has changed in only 50 years:
Of course today’s world isn’t perfect. Hundreds, maybe even thousands, of books have been written about all the troubles in today’s world. Pick out a random country on the planet and they’ll be at least a dozen huge problems it faces right now. But instead of thinking of these things as problems to be avoided, we should look at them as challenges to be overcome. The very fact that these issues are happening to huge countries and involving millions of people is an amazing accomplishment in itself. We’ve moved beyond tribes, city-states, and petty kingdoms. Things like the European Union or the United Nations, and countries as large as the United States and the Russian Federation could never even been conceived of a thousand years ago.
We’re learning to live together everyday, and everyday we get better at it. Which brings me to my last item:
1. Mankind is basically good, and getting better all the time.
The news is a fraud. There, I said it. All they report is the bad, the ugly and the outrageous, because that’s what gives them the ratings. They show us the murderers, the rapists, the thieves, and, worst of all, the celebrities. Yet the truth of the matter is that when you get right down to it, mankind is mostly good. We’ve come along way from the brutality of our early days.
Evolution is a cruel mother. We’ve evolved to the top of the food chain because we had the brain power to fashion tools, and the very first tool was a sharp stone to better kill things with. That’s what was needed to survive back in the day, we couldn’t possibly survive if we had to rely on our pitiful claw-less hands and tiny teeth. We needed weapons, and as we evolved, so did our weapons. From bronze spears to steel swords, from muskets to machine guns, and finally TNT to nuclear fission bombs. Evolution has crafted us into the deadliest god damn animal on the planet. It was all necessary for our survival, and without that violent past, our ancestors would have ended as piles of saber-tooth tiger dung.
But other things evolved with us, besides the bigger brains, the longer legs, and the opposable thumbs. Our insatiable curiosity about the world, our desire to love and be loved, our absolute dedication to finding purpose in our lives…our humanity. It all evolved as well.
When Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn, it was more than just a story of a boy on a raft in the Mississippi, it was a treatise on how our morality can evolve just like any physical trait can evolve. Throughout the story Huck is accompanied by a runaway slave named Jim, and Huck is constantly tormented by guilt over letting Jim escape. All his life he’d been told that slaves were property, and letting Jim escape was a cardinal sin in the deep south. Yet as he gets to know Jim, and they adventure together along the Mississippi, Huck comes to reevaluate his beliefs and comes to the realization that Jim is a person, and just as deserving of freedom as he is. He tossed out an old, outmoded morality, and a new, improved one came to take it’s place.
I believe the same thing has happened in humanity as a whole, and while cultural and societal differences have left others slightly behind, they will all get there eventually. Through the generations the philosophers, theologians, spiritualists, and everyone in between have been moving us toward a day when the savagery of our past will be but a distant memory.
It’s true that we are capable of incredible cruelty, but so too are we capable of incredible acts of compassion, mercy and understanding. For every Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin, there are ten Albert Einsteins, Albert Goerings, and Albert Schwietzers (in fact, maybe we should just name everyone Albert). For every abusive husband, there are ten caring men that loathe the idea of domestic violence. For every murderer, there are ten that would lay down their own life for another. As much as I loathe math, in the equation that defines humanity, the good will always outnumber the bad.
And it’s in that knowledge we find hope.
“You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.” – Mahatma Ghandi.