Humanity At A Crossroads
For almost as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by the universe that surrounds us, and I have been driven to learn as much as I can about it. Much of my fascination derives from the fact that, the more we look out into space, the more we are confronted with the reality that our Earth is a very tiny grain of cosmic dust compared to the universe as a whole. We see this in the Hubble Space Telescope photographs that show a universe teeming with galaxies to as far as we can see. We see it in the images of Earth taken from the Apollo missions which show our planet as a tiny little jewel floating in the vastness of space. Upon this utterly insignificant, and yet almost indescribably beautiful, planet there has arisen a race of beings that occasionally takes the time to look out into the universe and wonder about where it all fits together.
Although it almost seems trite to point this out, these images of Earth verify that the political boundaries with which we always seem so obsessed are nothing but artificial and arbitrary constructs. If we think seriously about this we should realize that the human race that populates this planet is all one species, one people. We might also realize that nature is not going to respect our artificial political boundaries; if, for example, we disturb the atmosphere in one location, the entire planet ends up being affected.
Another item we might realize is that our planet's lack of importance in the universe tells us in no uncertain terms that there is no one segment of humanity that is divinely ordained as being the "privileged" group. There is no one segment of humanity that is "better" than any other segment. There is no one segment of humanity that has somehow been awarded access to "the Truth" to the exclusion of other segments of humanity. No, we are all one people, and we are all on this ride together. Once we realize this, we can understand that the trials and challenges we face, and the solutions we must develop to overcome these, are the collective responsibility of all of us.
When I examine our history, along with much of our present-day world, I must confess that I sometimes find it difficult to be optimistic. I think of all the wars we have had, and are having, and of all of our resources that are being devoted to developing new and exotic ways of blowing each other up. I think of the millions of people throughout history, and today, who have been and are being hated, tortured, and killed because they have the "wrong" skin color, or speak the "wrong" language, or subscribe to the "wrong" religion, or have the "wrong" sexual orientation, or embody any one of a number of other "wrong" characteristics. I think of all the many people living in poverty and squalor here in America and elsewhere throughout the world. I think of how many children will die of starvation by the time the day is over. I think of those who live in war-torn areas around the planet who wonder whether or not they will make it through the night without being killed.
Those of us who are fortunate enough not to have to deal with these situations can find it all too easy to pretend that they don't exist. Is the size of a tax cut so much more important than the fact that millions of children in the world will go to bed hungry tonight, and that some of them may starve to death before sunrise? Are we really acting responsibly when we indiscriminately pump more and more pollutants into the atmosphere, condemning the less fortunate members of the human race – not to mention our own posterity – to dealing with its calamitous effects, just so our richest corporations can add a few more million dollars to their portfolios? How many times do we need to be reminded that our Earth does not know about, or respect, our arbitrary boundaries?
Despite all this, however, there are many times when I do feel optimistic about humanity. I feel this way when I witness the almost innumerable occasions when neighbors, and sometimes even strangers, will stop to lend a helping hand when someone experiences a difficulty. I feel it when I see communities pulling together after a disaster to help those who were affected. I feel it when I see people making a concerted effort to understand, and meet with, their counterparts from elsewhere on planet Earth, and who actively seek ways to bring about peace, health, and preservation of a clean environment.
Sometimes, I am almost astounded by some of the progress we have made. Of course, there are those events which showcase humanity at its best, for example, Neil Armstrong's "one small step" upon the Sea of Tranquility. There are those technological developments such as the Internet that have given us the capability of communicating almost instantaneously with people all over the world, making our planet smaller than it has ever been before. But I am perhaps even more encouraged by the ways we have found to eliminate old hatreds. One of my favorite photographs was taken on the 40th anniversary of the battle of Iwo Jima, and shows former Japanese and American soldiers who had faced each other as enemies in that hideous conflict, returning to the island as friends. More recently, after this past January's earthquake that devastated parts of India one of the primary relief efforts arrived from, of all places, their ostensible mortal enemy Pakistan. I've been fortunate enough to witness this type of phenomenon for myself, when during my recent visits to Iran I was overwhelmed by the displays of friendship from the people I once considered my enemies. I cannot possibly forget the gentleman named Hossein who, on a moment's notice, dropped what he was doing so he could chauffeur another American scientist and me around the city of Esfahan, or the young man who stopped me in a restaurant to tell me "After twenty years it's great to have Americans back in Iran again!"
It's a cliché expression, perhaps, but I believe the human race is really at a crossroads. Of course, the space enthusiast within me likes to visualize a wise and mature human civilization expanding into the solar system and outwards. I also like to visualize other scientific and technological advancements, such as eradication of diseases and further improvements in transportation and communications. But along with all this I like to visualize a human race where our old hatreds have been left behind on the rubbish pile of history where they belong, and where every person is treated with dignity and respect, regardless of skin color, religious belief, sexual orientation, and so on. I visualize that this future, with its many wonders, is open to everyone, not just to the handful of those who are fortunate enough to live in the "right" parts of the world. But while such a future is within our grasp, at the same time we have the power to destroy ourselves with our weapons and our hatreds, and to ravage our planet's fragile environment with our devil-may-care recklessness.
The choice is up to us. If we are to pursue the higher road, and avoid the pits into which we can so easily fall, then we must make the conscious choice to do so, and have the courage, and perseverance, to overcome the obstacles we face. Are we up to it? I believe we can be. But are we worthy? When I see pictures of the dead bodies of innocent people lying around after yet another street battle somewhere, or observe our ostensible political leaders refusing to see how their self-interested decisions are harming the rest of the planet, the temptation is strong to say "no." But then I see my sons playing together and I think of their hopes and dreams for their future, or I remember the outpouring of friendship I received from the people of Iran, or I think again of that Iwo Jima photograph, and I want to utter a most emphatic "yes!"
Which shall it be?