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How bleak are our prospects?

The question may be a good banner headline, but in fact it is too naive. At the individual level, we have a lifespan of normally less than a century. This is unlikely to significantly increase in the foreseeable future. Many factors driving life expectancy are outside our individual control; they will be caused by wars, persecutions, and the types of decay, diseases, and natural events that I have outlined. Therefore the real question is to ask is, ‘How well is the entire human species likely to cope with these various difficulties?’ On the scale of a major meteor impact or a new ice age, inevitably the total human population will plummet. This does not guarantee that humans will become extinct. If there are survivors and we manage to retain some records, then information and knowledge may survive. This will be more important than just information retained by word of mouth during the immediate aftermath of a meteor strike.

On geological timescales, we are a very new species and still evolving, so, just as for our Neanderthal forbears, we (in the current version of humans) may vanish, and are likely to do so as we gently evolve. Our loss as a species will merely be a natural shift as we are replaced by some new derivative species. This is evolution, and if we are lucky, it may be progress.

Civilization as we currently know it will certainly alter. Therefore the important effort should be to try to control how this change takes place. My personal preference would be in a direction that offers more equality of treatment and opportunities, totally independent of sex, race, and religion, plus maintaining the features that are currently viewed as of benefit to global civilization. This is a major shift and it will need to include an appraisal of resources and all other planetary creatures. This is incredibly idealistic, and unfortunately I also recognize that we have advanced technologically precisely because of, not just intelligence, but the human characteristic features of aggression, power seeking, and personal gain. That part of humanity is unlikely to change. There will certainly be better technology, but we need to examine very carefully if it is desirable in the longer term.

By nature I am definitely optimistic, and therefore convinced (by instinct, not evidence) that humanity will survive even major disasters, and we will eventually evolve into a humanoid form that differs from our present model—in other words, the same pattern of evolution as has happened over the last tens of thousands of years. If we can do this, our intelligence and technological advances may be beneficial.

Certainly, if we are to survive then we need to be aware of possible dangers, plan ahead, and be able to cooperate across the world stage for the benefit of all mankind, not just for local political, racial, or religious reasons. Since this is quite a contrary approach from most human activities, which have all too frequently focussed on power, control of other people, and lands and just plain greed, I am worried.

I will take a simple salutary example of how most of the world has actually behaved when we were driven by greed, profit, and power. Prior to the mechanical items that we put under the umbrella term of technology, a highly profitable route to greater productivity was to use slaves. Probably few major nations have been exempt from this exploitation of their fellow creatures. Since I am British, I will cite the historic behaviour for which Britain has been guilty, but equally I could quote identical inhumane examples from virtually all nations. My example has a slight positive tinge, as at least in Britain we eventually made progress away from this cruel behaviour.

My example is based on our attitude to slavery, and in particular the hypocrisy and despicable behaviour of industrialists, politicians, and, not least, the Church of England. Christian teaching clearly states we should show care and love to all fellow humans. Despite this, Britain was instrumental in stealing some 3 million people from Africa and shipping them to America and the Caribbean to work as slaves. This financial gain was wrapped in claims that we would bring them into Christianity. Most of the home-based users of the products and wealth they generated never considered that their lifestyle was based on slavery. Slaves brought immense wealth to Britain; without it, we might never have risen to be the world-dominating nation of the nineteenth century, or indeed have our present status.

My outrage is that the Church of England was such a greedy and willing partner in this slave trade. It is well documented (in the National Archives) that several hundred slaves in the Caribbean were branded on their chests, with a hot iron, with the word ‘Society’. This registered that they were the property of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. The Society’s treatment of the slaves was to flog them (sometimes to death) and use chains to restrict them. How they could reconcile this with Christianity is inconceivable, except they provided sufficiently vast financial profits that conscience could be ignored.

The British involvement with slavery ran over three centuries. Eventually it was repealed and then outlawed in the 1830s (indeed this progress included aggressive efforts to do so from Christian churchmen). Nevertheless, the final insult to humanity is that when slaves were freed, payment was made to their ‘owners’, and nothing to the slaves. In current terms, the total payment is estimated at some ?20 billion pounds—entirely to the slave owners. The legislation of the 1830s was weak—not until 2010 did owning slaves become a criminal offence in the UK.

The hypocrisy of slave ownership was (and is) widespread. At the time of the American Declaration of Independence, there were some very fine written words and sentiments, which are widely quoted. It is less well publicized that of the 57 signatories, 41 were currently owners of slaves; of the other 16, several had previously owned slaves that they had inherited. The financial reason for ongoing slave ownership was definitely obvious as, in numbers adjusted to the current day, individual slaves were claimed to be worth between $20,000 and $200,000. Indeed, of the 16 non-slave owners of the Declaration, some had no slaves as they were too poor.

In far too many parts of the world, progress has been less successful. Many informed estimates say the current world slave population is around 30 million and increasing, as well as being condoned, or the norm, in some major religions. To put this in perspective, the number is about the total population of some European countries. Despite this inhumane behaviour, we describe ourselves as being civilized. This is definitely still a problem even in the most advanced ‘civilized’ nations. Media reports of 2016 across Europe repeatedly expose examples of illegal immigrants trapped into slavery as manual workers or sex slaves.

If we are unable to change our greed and exploitation to obliterate such a cancer in society, because of the inherent profits, then no matter how vulnerable we are likely to become, because of natural events and dependence on technology, I do not believe we will ever manage to change our behaviour to plan ahead to safeguard future generations.

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