(August 18, 2011)
To my tiny mind, the greatest mystery ever is the "chicken-egg" conundrum of existence. If indeed there was a Creator who made this and other universes, then who made the Creator, and with what materials? And then who made that Creator, and with what materials? And so on, endlessly. Can a Creator create itself from nothing? I find this difficult to believe... I can only conclude that existence, in all the forms that I have experienced it, is absurd... And beyond this question of how, lies the other question of why...
Most scientists today believe in a "Big Bang Theory" to describe the beginning of our universe. They claim that it occurred some 13 billion years ago, from a tiny speck in space, and in a tiny fraction of a second. This, too, is a huge stretch for my mind. An even greater stretch is trying to ponder what might lie beyond "our universe" --in time, space, and other dimensions as yet unknown.
Just as each of us has a limited lifetime, our human race also appears to be mortal. Our sun is expected to supernova in around 5 billion years, destroying our planet and others in our solar system. The nearest habitable planet of another star, if there is one, is many light years away --quite far, should humankind try to escape. We are also threatened right now by extra-terrestial objects such as asteroids and comets, by new diseases which may be impossible to treat, and by our own destructive weapons and careless lifestyle... The likelihood of the natural acts occurring anytime soon is small, but that of the man-made acts occurring soon is not small at all.
Life on Earth is believed to have started some 3.6 billion years ago. Exactly how this change (from non-life to reproductive life) occurred, is still not fully understood. It boggles my mind.
Meanwhile some of us sit here on the chairs of Earth and ponder: what is humanity? And what makes us special? Biologically, we are each a collection of about 4 trillion cells, curiously united into one being which has a defined body, feels emotions, thinks thoughts, operates on a spiritual plane, and has complex behavioral patterns. Wow!! And each of these 4 trillion cells also contains the entire genetic code for the rest of our body. Wow again!! Chemically, we are around 65% oxygen, 18% carbon, and 12% hydrogen. At the point of conception, we weigh a tiny fraction of an ounce. And we grow and grow until most of us reach a height of 5-7 feet and a weight of 100-300 pounds. And then, after around 70-l00 years, we die, whatever that means...
So what differentiates us from other species --like the ant, the dolphin and the chimpanzee? We're by far the slowest species to grow up. Most five-year-old children, cut off from adults, would be helpless in this world. Much is often made of our oppositional thumb and fingers, which allow us to pick things up, paint, and more recently, to text and do word processing. Another big difference is our superior brain, which has led us to invent ways to start fires, devise wheels, live in severe climates, and build rockets to send into outer space. This brain has also led us to highly complex social systems, in which some of us can earn a very comfortable living by pushing buttons on a computer, while others work their muscles to the bone and live in stark poverty.
Looking back over the past 2,000 years (why 2000? All you mention are last 500 years or so, maybe toss in Eratosthenes or Democritus or ? )
I guess I still think back to Jesus and our calendar as the starting point for the modern world.
, our species has much to be proud of: great scientists like Newton and Einstein, writers like Shakespeare and Melville, and artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Inventors like Alexander Bell and Thomas Edison have given us electric light, indoor plumbing, central heating, air conditioning, refrigeration, cars and planes, movies, telephones, televisions and more recently, computers. And Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and others have given us legal documents to promote the concepts of democracy and human rights. Magnificent!
But there is also a dark side. There have been onslaughts such as the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the conquest of Native American peoples. Even today, wars are being fought in Asia and the Middle East, with the added dimension of world-wide terrorism. And the threat of atomic and biological weapons continues to grow as they become more accessible. At home here in America, crime, drugs, poverty and unemployment are major problems. Many families spend more time watching electronic boxes than relating to each other, and the shopping mall has become an alter of sorts. The purity of our forests, air and water is eroding every day. On the one hand we live in a golden age of affluence and freedom; on the other, our planet has never known such peril.
In the last 50 years, over 80% of the world's large fish, over 50% of its corals reefs, and over 50% of its large animals, have all disappeared. Some of the world's formerly large rivers (such as the Nile and the Colorado) have dwindled to almost nothing. Nonreplenishable aquifers are decreasing by 10-20 feet per year in much of the world, particularly China, India and Pakistan. Glaciers from California to Kenya and the Himalayas are fast disappearing; and the Amazon Rainforest (from which we receive around one third of our oxygen) is being slashed and burned at a rate of almost 5% each year.
Hydrocarbons produced mainly by vehicles, coal power plants and farm animal flatulence
are poisoning our air and raising the temperature of the planet. We have all but lost our northern polar ice cap; and if Greenland's glaciers melt soon, we could find sea levels rising up to three feet in the next hundred years. In mankind's desire for a more comfortable lifestyle, we are fast destroying the resources which we need to survive. Mini-mansions, long commutes, meat based diets, are a good example of this. Mass extinction via cow emissions may be the ultimate proof of an angry divinity with a divine sense of humor.
A more immediate problem concerns the food supply. In 2008, the prices of the three food staples (wheat, rice and corn) all tripled. This not only put a squeeze on all consumers (particularly poor ones). It also led to countries such as China, India and Egypt buying or leasing millions of acres in countries like Ethiopia, Sudan and Indonesia. Instead of the produce staying in those agricultural countries, it is now being sent back to the lessors. This has already caused riots in Ethiopia.
Americans constitute 4% of the world's population, while consuming over 25% of the world's resources. What's worse, we don't seem to care much about this! I think that schools should take regular field trips to garbage dumps and junk yards to view the kind of waste that we "contribute" every day to our fair planet. Students should be encouraged to make collections of the garbage their families throw away, and bring this to "show and tell" at school. We need more recycling, telecommuting
I think this is already happening on its own.
and efficient mass transit systems. If mankind is to become truly committed to curbing the destruction of our planet's resources, America needs to lead the way.
Our planet is so large that much of this destruction is going unnoticed. However, like the lobster in the proverbial slow-boiling pot, unless we change our ways soon, we threaten the lives of future generations.
In 1900, our world population was around 1.6 billion. Due mostly to higher birth rates and medical breakthroughs, it rose to 2.5 billion in the early 1940s. Today our world population is 7 billion --an almost 300% rise since I we (assumes reader is same age)
Thanks. The report was originally written for alumni of my prep school in New Hampshire. Now I need to change some pronouns to make it more universal.
were born. By 2050, even with lower birth rates, it is projected to climb to 9 billion. One is compelled to ask how long this increase may continue before life as we know it becomes unsustainable.
But the subject of population is not simple. In this 21st century, developed countries like Japan, Germany and Russia have declining populations. They also have an increasing median age, and a diminishing younger work force. Soon it will be difficult for their younger workers to take care of their older populations. These countries could take on more people from other cultures (like the U.S. is taking from Mexico), but the cultural differences bring their own challenges.
In these wealthy countries, the per capita consumption is also growing at an alarming rate. Middle and upper class people of today are consuming more than twice the amount of food, building materials, packaging, gas, water, etc., compared to the same stratas who lived fifty years ago. Therefore, even with declining populations, these countries are consuming more of the planet's resources. Today's mii-mansions are good examples.( repeat)
Meanwhile, undeveloped countries like Kenya and Bangladesh have declining birth rates, but rising populations. Their challenge is to become developed enough to reach a reasonable lifestyle (and zero growth rate) before their populations become so great that poverty, crime and starvation become endemic.
In some areas of the world, religion is an obstacle to population control. Some Catholics of Latin America (not everywhere ?)
point to the Biblical verse, "Be fruitful and multiply," while some Moslems of the Middle East prefer to leave such population questions in the hands of Allah. And then there are cultures in which the high number of children produced is a sign of pride and machismo. In the two countries which have done the most to curb their populations (China and India), there has been widespread resistance to such control. There has also been widespread abortion, infanticide and abandonment of females, leading to a gender imbalance, an angry population, and ethical questions.
Recent studies have shown that the greatest antidote to unsustainable population growth is education. If the wealthy nations of the world can help the poor nations to educate their people, and to empower their women to say no at some point to having more children, then the populations of these poor areas will decline and the number of people living there may level off. The more wealthy nations will benefit by having more stable neighbors unlike large angry populations that breed groups like al-Qaeda.
Lester Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute in New York, has pointed to the goal of Earth having a sustainable population of around 8 billion by the year 2040. This would be difficult to achieve, but possible.
To my mind, the best measure of civilization on our planet relates to our ability to work together as one people. Unfortunately, the United Nations (the only major world organization we have now) is woefully inadequate to deal with our planet's problems. The Security Council is composed of World War II-era powers, and it needs a major overhaul. Its five permanent representatives all have the veto power and rarely agree on major issues. The General Assembly serves as a useful forum, but has little actual power. Other divisions (such as the World Health Organization, the High Council on Refugees, and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations) are generally quite useful, although the programs are sometimes corrupt and the funding is often too small for the task at hand.
It appears that there are several types of nations today: monarchies, corporatocracies, social democracies, theocracies, and failed states. Each have their challenges as the elements of greed, poverty, hunger, famine, war and anarchy, come and go. Freedom is a growing force, but so is ego and the corresponding desire for power.
China will likely soon become the world's dominant economic power. It already holds more than $1 trillion in U.S. currencies, and it could destroy our economy in a few days with no shot being fired. (self destructive - they loose what we owe them)
Yes, but the point here is to show our own vulnerability.
But there is no belligerent tone now to suggest that these two nations are likely to clash anytime soon. Europe appears to be in decline, while India, Brazil and Indonesia are fast rising in importance. And no doubt, in the next few decades, there will be lots of surprises.
Several years ago, I wrote a report in which I described America as a country with two flags. The first flag was the traditional red, white and blue one; and it honored America for its Declaration of Independence, its Constitution, and its development of freedoms for such minorities as people of color, women, the elderly, the disabled, and Gays and Lesbians. It also praised America as a land of enterprise, opulence and opportunity.
The second was the black and white pirate flag, with its skull and crossbones. This represented the dark side of America: slavery for African-Americans, broken promises and genocide for Native Americans, and blatant racism toward people of many other cultures. It also represented a fearful
America's obsession with guns and drugs, and its reluctance to pay taxes for basic services such as education, health care, and helping the poor.
While some claim that America is a democracy, I call it a corporatocracy. Money is essential to all elective offices, and corporations have been given free rein to support candidates who do their bidding. Some of the effects of this are a privatized health care system which is charging outrageous fees, large and unnecessary subsidies for big oil companies and agribusiness, bailouts of banks and lending institutions in which multimillionaires are assured of keeping their inflated salaries while the public pays the bills for their mistakes, and a military-industrial-governmental juggernaut. (Does America's defense budget really need to be greater than that of the next ten countries combined? I don't think so.) I wish our Republican friends would see Eisenhower, who warned the nation of the Military Industrial Complex as positive roll model, as opposed to those politicians that year after year awarded no bid contracts to Halliburton looting America's coffers.
I don't think today's Republican can relate to Eisenhower. He was too moderate -and too sensible.
I really like President Obama, but I don't think he has much to work with in today's America. There is such polarity between Tea Party Republicans and Democrats that our government is close to dysfunctional. If the political lines were also geographical (as in 1861), I would recommend that we split our nation in two, and I would live on the Democratic side. However, as it stands, I don't think this is possible, and I see nothing but trouble and decline for America in the years ahead.
In the past three years, America has lost over $4 trillion in housing value, close to 8 million jobs, and its reputation as the world's undisputed economic leader. I blame this on American bankers, lenders, realtors, rating agencies, government regulators, and a general public which gambled its future away on an bet that housing prices would always go up. Some say it will take 5-10 years to recover. Others look at America's enormous debt and its gridlock government, and question whether we will ever recover.
Meanwhile, the disparity between rich and poor is growing. One third of the people on this planet earn less than $2 a day. The richest 1% in America own 35% of the nation's wealth, while the bottom 80% own only 7%. The income of the average American CEO is 262 times that of the average worker in those companies. Millions of people throughout America and billions throughout the world are struggling with housing, food, transportation, medical care and unemployment, while a few very rich people lead lives of unimaginable wealth. It seems unfair.
A related subject is job creation. The free enterprise system is fantastic in motivating many people to create businesses and jobs, but this system has two basic limitations. First, it cannot be counted on to produce basic services (such as education, health care, and police and fire protection). Second, it cannot be relied upon to produce high employment. At this time, America's official unemployment rate is over 9%, and its real unemployment rate is closer to 20% since many jobless people are not applying for unemployment compensation.
Some Republicans in America have made a commitment to never raising taxes on anyone, including the very wealthy. I see this as an enormous obstacle to economic growth. The wealthy are not committed to increasing jobs. They are committed to making profits for themselves, and this often means laying workers off, cutting job benefits, and sending jobs overseas.
We must look at the nations track record of economic success to settle this issue. In the 1950s Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower achieved economic prosperity with a marginal tax rate on the top income bracket of 89 to 92%. Even the beloved Ronald Reagan sported a marginal tax rate of 50% for the majority of his presidency. Compare that to the right of Reagan Barack Obama who extended the Bush tax cuts and now has a 33% top tax bracket. Neither Bush nor Obama have enjoyed much success at this rate.
Yes, yes, yes!
I believe that all governments should have a strong role in helping to maintain close to full employment. President Obama's $787 billion stimulus package in 2009 was a step in the right direction, but I would have preferred a stimulus of several times that amount.... if I ran the zoo.
Not long ago, America was the world leader in education at all levels. It had a Jeffersonian commitment to providing young people at all levels of society with a general knowledge of the world and enough skills to work in various awaiting jobs. This appears to have changed, as now the students of both Europe and Asia are scoring much higher on tests ranging from math and science to geography and the social sciences. And jobs are fast moving overseas.
A major problem is that many Americans no longer believe in paying the taxes needed to improve our schools. This is huge!! Another problem is that under the "teach to test" system to "leave no child behind," more children are being left behind than ever before. Students who don't do well in this pressured environment become angry and depressed, and the drop-out rate for American high schools has risen to more than 25%.
For low-achieving students, I would like to return to a less test-driven system, in which every effort is made to keep them in school, to build their self-esteem, and to steer them toward gainful employment. For the high-achieving students, I would like to see more opportunities for them to excel outside of their respective schools. For example, I'd like to see more student exchange programs and interscholastic competitions.
(Don't know abut the esteem argument - recent study said esteem has gone up but not test scores. Apparently children feel good about themselves, but for no good reason!)
I think a healthy self-esteem is needed, regardless of whether or not it is merited.
The evaluation of teachers is very difficult. How does one judge them, and should their jobs be at constant risk? Here we must look at a number of factors: What is the background of the students? What is the background of the teacher? How large is the class? How much do the students appear to be learning based on tests and other criteria? How much has the class learned based on their performance in past years? How much do the students like the teacher, and for what reasons? How difficult is the subject to teach? How does the teacher handle grades, and one-on-one sessions with students, and similar sessions with their parents? Are there "problem students" in the class? And then, who's doing the evaluating?... I don't have any easy answers for this subject.
I think that it should be the lifetime mission of everyone to help others in need. This can be done on an individual level, on the levels of groups (such as schools, churches and service clubs) or on the level of governments. It means getting more rehab programs for addicts, getting more medical services for mental health patients, and getting more housing, food, clothing, bathrooms and showers for the homeless. It means helping ex-cons to find a reasonable lifestyle when they are released from prison, and helping teenager mothers with day care, and helping the sick and elderly receive good care. It also means finding jobs (creating them if necessary) for every single person who wants to work.
How does one pay for such programs? I've already mentioned cutting the defense budget, stopping subsidies to big oil and agribusiness, and raising taxes on the very wealthy. Greater "stimulus" programs would also give people jobs and stimulate the economy.
America's attachment to guns and violence continues to be abominable. Television, movies and videogames all glorify murder, at the same time that our laws make it easy for anyone to buy guns. Although I believe in the freedoms of the First Amendment, I think our media should be strongly encouraged to reduce its coverage of crime, while parents steer their children toward less violent programming. We should also pass much stronger gun control laws, and have stiffer penalties for those who use them illegally.
Since I was born in 1943, we have seen a decline in the rates of such diseases as malaria, smallpox and tuberculosis. Death in childbirth has decreased, and medicine has advanced incredibly in such areas as transplants, medications, vaccines and non-invasive surgery. All these have contributed to a general increase in life expectancy.
At the same time, we have also seen a rise in the rates of cancer, diabetes, heart attacks, strokes and obesity. Americans now eat 1/3 of their meals at fast food places, where sugar, salt and fatty foods prevail. Those who dine at better restaurants often overeat, because today's portions are larger than those in earlier times. We also get less exercise than we used to. Many adults move from bed to chairs to car seats to more chairs, car seats, couches, and back to bed, every day. There are many exercise clubs and plans, but these are generally inadequate to address the need.
America is still the only country in the industrialized world which doesn't have universal health coverage for all its citizens. The recent Obama Health Care law will help those who would otherwise be denied coverage due to pre-existing conditions. It will help small businesses by giving tax credits to cover employee health benefits, and it will help employees of large companies by requiring those companies to offer health care plans. It will also require everyone over a certain income level to buy into some kind of health care plan.
Unfortunately, the Obama plan will do nothing to lower the cost of private health care plans, or to lower the costs of medications provided by drug companies. It will entrench the private health insurers, whose administrative costs tend to be several times higher than those of government insurers. And it is uncertain how the forcing of people to pay into health care plans will be handled.
I believe that the only way to solve America's health care problems is to go to a single-payer system run by the government, as seen in most countries around the world. This could be supplemented by private plans for those who want more coverage. Unfortunately, in today's political climate, this idea is unlikely to be considered.
Love, Marriage and Family
For most of us, love, marriage and the raising of children offer the greatest possible joy in this life. They also offer the greatest challenges. as we try to keep up with the constant changes in all these relationships.
Gone are the old days when women maintained their virginity until marriage and marriage was a lifetime contract. Instead, we now have a lot of serial monogamy, a lot of mixed families, and a lot of dating at different ages. I think this is generally good, for most people can't predict the needs and desires they and their partners might have down the road. For those not in relationships, internet dating services have become a great way to meet people, and they open up the possibility of love and sex for anyone of any age or sexual orientation.
During my lifetime, most women have entered the work force and this has changed the rules of the family game. More women now have the option of divorce, and a chance to be "reborn." However, children generally suffer from this, as they often feel that they are to blame for the breakup. Even in families that stay together, with both spouses working, the children may not have much quality time with their parents. Instead, they are left to watch TV and play video-games, and experience parenting by cell phone. It's hard to find time in each day to work, rest, have fun and be a good parent.
Unlike past generations, older people today are often left to languish in "rest homes," with rare visits from other family members. They too may be casualties of the busy, independent lifestyle enjoyed by their children. We need to give them as much love and time as we can.
To my mind, the finest artists which our civilization has produced almost all lived in earlier periods. (I've already mentioned Beethoven, Michelangelo and Shakespeare and some of their contemporaries.) Of course, art forms keep evolving. This last century produced great movie-makers such as Charlie Chaplin and Steven Spielberg, and musicians like Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles.
Sadly, I find that aside from a few movies, much of the art of this 21st century leaves me cold. Music and motion pictures have taken a twisted turn toward violence, crudeness and nihilism. It may be that I'm just growing old, but I'm concerned about the direction of art and related culture in mankind's future.
The growth in this area has been fantastic! We can now access most of the information known to mankind from a tiny cell phone! And we can talk and text and tweet and skype to almost anyone on the planet at any time, with no language barrier! This is particularly good for friends and family who live far apart, and for global networking in any number of areas.
At the same time, I see young people spending so much time playing video-games, watching TV or YouTube, or calling and texting each other constantly that I worry that somehow their growth is being stunted. I would like to see technology-free days, or weeks, or months, or even years, to bring back more of what I consider to be "quality time."
Social networking has become a way for masses of mostly young people to do everything from message friends, to party, riot, or overthrow governments. It is accelerating the tempo of an already fast-moving world.
Long ago, I came to believe that it was mankind who created gods, and then God, rather than the other way around. I think the main reason for this "creation" was that mankind was desperate to try and explain the unexplainable. And mankind, particularly in religion, has a great imagination.
Yes, I do feel a sense of conscience, of spirituality, and of wonder toward the richness of life. But I have never heard a voice, or felt a personal connection of any kind, to a higher, ruling power. Indeed, if I did hear such a voice, I would ask "Him-Her-It" why cruelty and suffering have been allowed to persist these many years. At the same time, I don't see a controlling force which is inherently evil. Instead, I see life unfolding in a random fashion.
As an amateur student of history, I question whether the effect of most religions has been more positive or negative. Yes, Christians are mostly good people; but I don't understand the hypocrisy when it comes to fighting wars or pursuing enormous wealth. Yes, Jews are mostly good people, but I don't understand how they can believe that they are God's "Chosen People," or why Israel can't share the Holy City of Jerusalem with Moslems and Christians. Yes, Moslems are mostly good people; but I don't understand Fatwas, Sharia Law, and the desire to kill innocent people at the World Trade Center. Yes, I also have some good Hindu friends; but I don't understand the hostility which continues between them and Moslems in South Asia... It is perhaps no accident that religious intolerance is a primary cause in all the major conflicts in the world today.
The only "religion" that I do feel I understand is Buddhism, where the followers have remained more or less faithful to the peaceful teachings of their leader, after 2,500 years.
When I was seventeen and a student at Exeter, I devised my own credo, which I called the Rawlings Manifesto. It began: My whole purpose in life is to make myself happy. I expect to achieve this in pursuit of the following :
Over time, I enlisted the help of several "guides" to help me in this endeavor: Buddha (who reminds me to let go of worries when I have no power to change them), Jesus (who reminds me of the importance of service to others), Thomas Jefferson (who reminds me of the many areas of inspired learning), and Mahatma Gandhi (who urges me to follow "that small, still voice within").
Although there have been bumps along the road, this little credo has generally served me well.
Biogenetics and Beyond
It looks like genetic breakthroughs may transform life as we know it in this coming century. Parents of the future (male or female, single or multiple) may make birthing decisions by pushing buttons on their home computers. The races, genders, eye and hair colors, and physical, cognitive and emotional attributes, as well as the forms of gestation, may well be decided outside of the normal routines of sex and pregnancy. Cloning may allow men and women without partners to have children who look exactly like them, and more artificial surrogacy systems may allow mothers to avoid the pain, stress and stretching of pregnancy.
Along with the scientific breakthroughs will come the ethical questions. Who should have what right to bear what kind of children? To what extent should this area be regulated by government, and how should the financial questions be handled?
Sometimes I have this strange vision of future generations looking a lot like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dollie Parton... I wonder if the Sultan of Brunei will build a nation-family of 100,000 sons... And I think about how the San Francisco 49ers could use a 500-lb. running back with the strength of King Kong...
Just a Dream
Also sometimes, in a dream, I see Planet Earth united by one government, with citizens who are committed to maintaining its natural resources and a sustainable lifestyle. As in John Lennon's song, Imagine, there are no religions, or countries, or other reasons "to kill or die for." The people on this planet are very compassionate toward each other, and toward all life...
...But don't worry. It's just a dream.
Thanks a lot for this feedback! It's really appreciated!