September 15, 2015
In 2008, Michael Wallace edited 50 Years from Today, a collection of predictions from sixty "of the World's Greatest Minds" of where we are headed, where we can expect to be by mid-century, and what might happen if we don't step in and take care of the problems. Among the contributors are biologist Richard Dawkins, former South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung, former Bill Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta, counter-terrorist expert Richard Clarke, and Pulitzer Prize winner Ross Gelbspan, an editor and reporter for the Washington Post and Boston Globe.
The world during my lifetime has changed in ways that my parents, in the 1940's, could not have imagined. The global population, when my dad was born at the end of the nineteenth century, was about one and a half billion. It was a figure we'd needed a hundred million years or so to reach. During the 1900's, despite two world wars and a horde of local ones, the population multiplied five times. I don't think anyone saw it coming. Estimates in the Wallace book for mid-21st century put the population at more than eleven billion. This when we can't feed everyone now.
Then there's the climate issue. For anyone who still resists the notion that the atmosphere is changing, or thinks that, even if it is, we've had nothing to do with it, the book might be unsettling. But then of course I suppose we can just go on believing what's convenient.
One of the major points in the book is that we have to become not only better equipped to help one another, but that we need to become more willing to help. Last week, the depth of the catastrophe developing as a result of the Syrian civil war was driven home when a video clip went viral of a man recovering the body of a child which had washed ashore after a boatload of refugees capsized. Do we really need that kind of stark reminder before we realize that building walls and sending out police is not a viable solution? A first step is to find a way to introduce a decent liberal education for everyone.
It's hard to see how that could happen, but we need to try. Which brings up another point: There are a lot of heroes involved in this global struggle: doctors and nurses, people carrying supplies into broken areas, a wide range of volunteers putting their lives at risk to do what they can. A group that rarely gets mention: Teachers in places where there is a considerable amount of animosity about the notion that being able to think freely is a good idea. Or where girls shouldn't be allowed near a school at all. We think American teachers can get in trouble for recommending the wrong book.
There's rarely a day anymore without TV reports of desperate refugees being stopped by border guards, civil wars raging in Africa and the Middle East, religious crazies committing murder in God's name. It reminds me how fortunate I am to have been born in the USA. At Dragoncon I encountered a young writer who argued that there's reason to believe that reincarnation actually happens. She presented a couple of cases that were hard to explain in any other way. The conversation forced me to ask myself whether I'd rather be reincarnated or drift into oblivion? I realized that the answer depended on where I'd reappear. I wouldn't want to live in one of those unfortunate places where disease is rampant and simply getting a decent meal for your kids is a challenge. To say nothing neighbors blowing themselves up, or women not being allowed to walk the streets without a male keeper.
But to get back to the book: There's good news. With a little bit of luck, we are told, we'll have a station on Mars by midcentury. Medical techniques will be vastly better than they are today because we will be treated based on our individual strengths and weaknesses rather than on a set of generalities. Genetic manipulation will have arrived, so our children can be brighter than we are, and better looking. (Is that really a good idea?)
Predicting the future is not easy. In 1950, I would have believed that I'd see a way station on one of the moons of Saturn before two males would be allowed to marry. Or before discrimination would go away. (Not that we've completely gotten rid of it, but it is dissolving, as the bigots die off and get replaced by another generation.)
Before it appeared, I never heard of anything like the internet, and would not have believed it possible if I did. Medical care has come a long way. When my mom had cataract surgery back in the '90s, I wondered how she was able to stand it. Nobody, I thought then, would ever be allowed near my eyes. But eventually the time came. Do the surgery or face a dark world. People assured me it would not be a problem. Sure. But when the time came, the doctors used a mask to give me an anesthetic. I lay there sucking it in, waiting for it to take hold, wide awake, wishing it would knock me out. When finally the doctor came back, I was ready to tell her that the anesthetic hadn't worked. Instead, she smiled. "You're all set," she said. "You can go home now."
I've another book that I'm getting ready to start: Year Million, edited by Damien Broderick. Published the same year, 2008. Subtitle: Science at the Far Edge of Knowledge. Among the contributors are several friends: Catherine Asaro, Gregory Benford, Wil McCarthy, Pamela Sargent, Rudy Rucker, and George Zebrowski. Well, I hope they got it right.