A Small World
This talk was prepared for a Faith & Reflection Day at Farlingaye High School, Woodbridge, on 3 November 2006. The event ended the school’s One World Fortnight. I had to skip a chunk of my talk because the previous speakers overran (don’t you just hate it when that happens?), and we were running out of time.
The other speakers included a Jew, a Unitarian, a Buddhist, the Mayor of Woodbridge, John Gummer MP, a Hospice Chaplain, the Bishop of Dunwich, a Quaker, and the local Vicar, who said he agreed with everything I said.
Since I started this sentence, the Earth’s travelled 100 miles around the Sun, the Sun’s moved 1,000 miles in its circuit of the Galaxy, and the Orion Nebula’s moved 100,000 miles relative to us. A few years ago, NASA took a photograph with the Hubble Space Telescope, leaving the shutter open for 10 days. The 10-inch square photograph is of an area of space that to the naked eye is about the same size as a grain of sand viewed from 6 feet away. To cross it at 10 times the speed of light would take 300,000 years. There are about 1,500 galaxies in the picture, each containing billions of stars. Here we are, whirling round a relatively small star, a tiny planet in all the vastness of space. It’s a small world.
3½ billion years ago, Earth was uninhabitable. Half a billion years later simple organic compounds were formed – the basis of life. It was a long time before DNA evolved, to make more complex life forms possible. The trilobites and ammonites appeared about 570 million years ago, insects appeared about 300 million years ago, dinosaurs were much more recent, and if we represent the history of Earth with a diagram of an hour in time – a clock face – we human beings have only appeared within the last minute or so.
Since we evolved, between 100,000 and 300,000 years ago, we’ve made great progress and caused great damage. Of all the species that inhabit the Earth, we’re the cleverest. We’ve created machines, the World Wide Web, medical cures and procedures, great art, great science, and great literature. Of all the species on the planet, we’ve had the greatest impact. At the end of the last Ice Age, there were only about 10,000 people on the Earth. The current population of Suffolk is about 690,000. If you were living in the Ice Age, you’d probably never meet anyone outside your community or imagine that there was anyone else. The world’s population has recently reached 6 billion. It’s taken less than 40 years to double in numbers. Scientists predict that, within 50 years, it may double again. Imagine what sort of pressure that will put on our resources.
Imagine that we’re all on a spaceship, travelling across the vastness of space, like the Starship Enterprise in the TV series Star Trek. We’d rely on other people to ensure our safety; that we could breathe freely, that there’d be food and water, and that the temperature would be neither too hot nor too cold. If there was a fire, say, at the other end of the ship, would you ignore it and say it’s someone else’s problem? No, of course you wouldn’t. It’s unlikely there’d be an inter-galactic fire engine within a few light years, even travelling at warp speed, as they do in the science-fiction series. Would you think it fair that one set of passengers should eat more than their fair share of the food, faster than anyone could replace it? No, of course not. Behaving like that would put everyone at risk.
Well, we are on a space ship, of a sort. Earth is like a space ship, millions of miles from any other galaxies where there might be intelligent life. Our resources are finite. If we light too many fires, we breathe less easily. If we’re greedy, people starve. If we make a mess, someone must clear it up or we all suffer.
I referred to Star Trek for a good reason. Its creator, the American writer Gene Roddenberry, was a Humanist and an atheist, like me.
The original TV series was the most popular TV series ever. The first real space shuttle was named Enterprise after the fictional spaceship in the series. Before Star Trek, most science fiction was about monsters from space. If an alien stepped out of a flying saucer, they’d be regarded with suspicion, probably shot, and any stragglers would be sent packing with the message that the Earth was hostile to inter-galactic travellers. Roddenberry’s science fiction was different. The crew of the Enterprise travelled across the universe, seeking new life, boldly going where none had gone before, to find out what was out there and to learn. In their encounters with alien races, the crew avoided confrontation or violence, except when defending themselves against aggression, resolved differences with negotiation, and treated people of all races with respect. Roddenberry didn’t think of Star Trek as just science fiction. He thought it was about people and how they behave. His Humanist values informed all his story lines and many that have been written by others since his death in 1991.
Roddenberry believed it’s possible to solve problems through reason and co-operation and that there’s no need to turn to religion or superstition for help. These things were irrelevant to his life, as they are to mine. He felt that human reason and intelligence will help us to develop and progress, and that the world and the universe are natural wonders, waiting to be explored and understood.
When they started filming the first Star Trek series, 40 years ago, Roddenberry’s ideas weren’t appreciated by all the NBC studio bosses. He wanted everyone involved to be treated equally, for a start, and wanted the second-in-command to be a woman, which the bosses wouldn’t accept. They made the women crew members wear skimpy costumes, which he opposed. Roddenberry didn’t want any religion or dogma on his spaceship. He thought it illogical to imagine that everyone from Earth and the other planets would share the same beliefs in the 24th century. He fought to have black people in the cast, saying, “If we don’t have blacks and whites working together when civilisation reaches that time frame, there won’t be any people.”
Roddenberry’s Star Trek stories didn’t cover the dangers of global warming, except in situations like planets being drawn too close to a star. This is a problem that we’ve really only become aware of recently. Climate change has been in the news a lot. Drought in Africa and flooding as sea levels rise will displace millions, so many more are likely to want to share our space. It’s ridiculous that an intelligent, resourceful race — the human race — should continue to be divided into nations who behave as though other nations’ problems are nothing to do with them, unless they choose to get involved. When powerful nations do get involved, it’s often produced a negative effect.
As the world’s population increases, there’ll be less room for us all and more refugees from war zones, such as Iraq, and from dangerous places like earthquake zones and flood plains. However sympathetic and generous we might be, it seems the British don’t necessarily want foreigners to turn up on their doorsteps, judging from news reports about hostility towards immigrants and refugees. Yet we’re all part of the same crew. We’re all human, whatever the colour of our skins or the language we speak, or whatever we believe. If an inquisitive alien, like one of the intelligent beings that the crew of the Enterprise met, were to visit our small planet and ask why we fight and kill one another, and why some are greedy while others starve, what excuse could we make?
There are many who are trying to make the world a better, fairer, safer place. Humanists helped found the United Nations and UNESCO and other important international organisations that don’t have a religious agenda. It’s important to concentrate on what we have in common, than what divides us. We all have to work together. There’s a lot to do. There’s a lot you can do. Don’t imagine that whatever you do won’t make a difference. Besides, you’ll probably be happier doing more, rather than having more.
Over the last 50 years, increasing affluence has allowed many more people to spend more on household appliances, TVs, DVDs, mobile phones, and cars for every member of the family, and clothes, and trainers, and foreign holidays. Those who’ve researched such things tell us that though many people have more possessions, fewer would say they were happy now than in the 1950s. Meanwhile, the gap between the haves and have-nots is growing wider.
The 17th October was International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. On the same day, 8 years ago, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan gave a message that included the following: “For the past 3 decades, we have witnessed the most rapid improvements in the lives of billions. A child born in a developing country today can expect to live 16 years longer than a child born 35 years ago. Infant mortality has been more than halved since 1960, and the share of rural families with access to safe water has risen from 10% of the total to 60%. But,” he went on, “… the struggle for the eradication of poverty has reached a critical phase… So long as every fifth inhabitant of our planet lives in absolute poverty, there can be no real stability in the world.”
Absolute poverty is defined as an income of roughly a dollar a day, which is currently worth about 52p. Poverty knows no boundaries, spreads over every continent and is present in industrialised and developing countries, crippling the lives of some 1.5 billion people, whose number is rising by at least 25 million a year – mainly women, children and the elderly. The cost of providing basic social services for everyone in the developing countries is estimated at about £27½ billion a year over the next few years, which is less than 0.2% of the world’s income of £17.22 trillion. The sum needed to close the gap between the annual income of poor people and the minimum income at which they would no longer be poor is estimated at another £27½ billion a year, so the total cost would be roughly £55 billion, or less than the combined wealth of the seven richest people in the world.
Closing the gap between the haves and have-nots could be so easy, if we could only agree to do it and stop wasting money on wars, bombs and guns – in 1998, a B-2 Stealth Bomber could cost you $1.157 billion.
Can money buy you happiness? It can make a huge difference to those with little, but seems to make little difference to those who have a lot. Once you’ve got the necessities of life, you don’t actually need more. One problem is that millions of people earn a living producing and selling things that no one really needs. All that talent, all that effort, wasted on cluttering up our homes with more and more stuff, while a quarter of the world’s population live in absolute poverty. Doesn’t seem right, does it?
I’ve covered a lot in my slot. Evolution, time and space, human potential, a science fiction TV series, poverty, wealth, climate change. I haven’t really covered philosophy, or we’d be here all day. I haven’t covered religion because religion is for the religious, as far as I’m concerned.
You believe what you want to, but don’t let it stop you from doing the right thing. If we’re honest, most of us know what needs to be done, without needing to be told, though some hang back and wait for someone else to do it first. Remember that fire on the spaceship? If you wait for someone else to do something, it could be too late.
I know that many of you worry about the future and care passionately about doing the right thing. I know that many of you think for yourselves. I know that you won’t accept that what other people may tell you is true without thinking about it. I hope that, like the Starship Enterprise, you’ll boldly go where no one has gone before and that this small world may be safer in your hands than it’s been in the hands of those who ought to know better.
Photo of Southern Hemisphere night sky (c) Nathan Nelson 2005