Jan 162020

While Australia is burning, I listen to a radio programme titled “What will the next decade bring?” Two enthusiastic men, both of them social scientists with PHDs about “future prospects”, believe it or not, gleefully exclaim that in the course of the coming decade “we” will be colonising planets.

That word, “we”, is just about the most irritating word I know, as it is all too often used as a euphemism for “a few lucky suckers”. Not that I envy anybody the chance to live on a lifeless pink planet, but by the time “we” get there, spaceships to Mars will resemble overflowing buses in Bombay: people dangling by their fingertips from cracks and snags in the outer shell of the overburdened vehicles.

That word – “we” – can be pronounced in a self-congratulatory tone of voice: How fortunate “we” are, how great, how wonderful, how very much better than everybody else. Let us praise the Lord.

I propose to use the word with a rather different intonation.

The Australian conflagration has momentarily eclipsed even the destruction of the Amazon. The entire world weeps at the fate of the victims, including, not least, that remarkable continent’s marsupials and fauna in general. Meanwhile the Fascist Brazilian president Bolsonaro is temporarily off the hook, as Australia seems the greater tragedy.

It so happened that I have been reading Sapiens by Yuval Harari while all this has been going on. For the few of you who have not already read the book, I take the liberty of describing it as a damning indictment of our species. True, “we” are wonderful story tellers and ingenious charlatans, but also universally destructive. I don’t know whether the author of the book would accept my summary of it; after all, he needs to earn a living. Nevertheless, this reader finds his indictment so damning that I am not even sure I shall manage to finish reading it; after all, there are people I need to love and be loved by.

Ever since the early eighties, when I read the NASA scientist Carl Sagan’s wonderful book Cosmos (published in 1980), and watched the 13-part television series, I have known about the threat to our planet posed by greenhouse gas emissions. Since then, more and more scientists have confirmed early predictions, and projections are growing exponentially bleaker by the month.

Yes, yes, the sun… and yes, this, that and the other. But the effect of a greenhouse should be as understandable even to a child as it was to me in 1980; that is, if the child wants to understand it.

A lot of people are burrowing their heads into the sand. Some do so because of fear, others because of greed. Regardless of the reason, “we” – people living today – will be called to account by future generations regardless of our reasons for failing to support measures to curtail greenhouse gas emissions. “We” will – quite simply – never be forgiven. “We” should have known, just as the Europeans should have known back in the early forties. “We” refused to see what was happening to the planet, just as the Europeans – refused to see what was happening to the Jews.

But go on, if you wish, pretending. Go on listening to Fox news, telling yourself that everything will be all right, that we can just go on doing exactly what we have been doing, playing our cold war games, driving our supersonic vehicles into a make-believe future. Real life will catch up with us, one by one, as surely as death. Unlike ordinary death, though, real life will catch up with more than just us.

But as Carl Sagan pointed out 40 years ago: “We” are all just a grain of sand in the cosmic picture. I put it to you: Does the future of our planet, its species, our species matter?

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