News Headlines From the Future
Imagine reading these news headlines* in the coming years:
2021: COVID-19 Vaccine Trials Completed — Worldwide Rollout Ongoing
2031: Fusion Reactor Online — Entire City of Paris Powered by a Teaspoon of Water
2033: First Contact With Blue Whales. Songs Translated — They’re Furious
2035: Amazon Rainforest Triples in Size
2037: For the First Time Since 1966 — No Entries on the Endangered Species List
2042: Last Internal Combustion Engine Donated to Museum
2045: Polar Ice Caps Are Growing
2047: Mollusks That Eat Plastics for Breakfast Make Significant Progress in Cleansing the Oceans
2050: Global Mean Temperature Returns to Early 20th Century Level
2055: Quantum Physics Prove Multiple Realities Are Real
2060: Ganges River Water Certified Potable
2075: Ozone Layer Fully Restored
2080: Earth Has Recovered From Industrial Revolution
Does this “future news” sound too good to be true? Are they simply impossible within our lifetimes? To me, they are less of a prediction and more of a dream, something like a map that will help us navigate towards a more promising future. We have historically overcome overwhelming odds stacked against us, from past pandemics, natural disasters, wars, to the last five mass extinction events that almost obliterated life itself from this planet. We are resilient. We have survived. We — every single one of us — were descended from a long line of survivors who conquered every challenge that was presented to them.
We — not I.
We — not just our next of kin.
We — not exclusively the citizens of this country.
We — not even limited to us human beings.
Who are We?
Perhaps it is time to redefine who we consider as “we”. For thousands of years, it used to be our families, our own small tribes. As civilizations rose and nations formed, the notion of “we” have expanded to include people who think and look like us, to those whom we share a common culture, history, sovereign administration, and arbitrary borders with. More recently, it have broadened to include everyone whom we taxonomically share a name with, every Homo sapiens. Think about that: the idea that all human beings are entitled to equal and inherent human rights only became commonplace less than a century ago. Looking ahead, it makes sense to me that within decades, the definition of “we” for many people will be widened to include most animals, and even plants. The passage of time is one of the most powerful things. If we think about it, our “we” horizon started from those whom we share closer ancestry and DNA resemblance with (or who we think we do), until we slowly begin to overlook these differences. All life are genetically linked through our shared evolutionary history after all.
Us vs Them
The “Us vs Them” mentality is hardwired to social animals to make sense of the world around us. It reinforces our sense of identity when we consider ourselves to belong to a certain group. We judge other people based on whether we think they are like us and therefore part of our in-group. We do this “sorting” subconsciously, as fast as a quarter of a second after seeing another person’s face. If someone does not belong to our in-group, we automatically, perhaps subtly, treat and perceive them differently. Our brains interpret what they do or say with more malice. This behavior is primarily influenced by our biases in race, ethnicity, gender, social status, politics, and religion, but also, to an extent, by petty things like a favorite sports team. One could be tempted to conclude that this false dichotomy of “Us vs Them” is used to justify discrimination, dehumanization, violence, and wars. When we cleanly sort people out into these boxes, we often forget that just like us, the people in our out-group have complex identities.
What can we do then if this is hardwired to us? The good thing is that the human mind is malleable enough that this Us-Them divide can easily be manipulated. Our awareness in our natural tendency to think this way gives us an edge to then prevent ourselves from reacting based solely on this instinct. It also goes all the way back to this being a matter of how far we will broaden our “we” horizon to include more members into a bigger, more diverse in-group.
Not just wishful thinking
So what does this actually mean to the day-to-day lives of ordinary people like you and me? What does expanding our “we” horizon entail?
To me, it means treating everyone kinder. It means seeing beyond race, ethnicity, gender, social status, politics, and religion. It means being capable of empathy to people with a different set of those biases. It means giving ourselves a chance to engage in meaningful conversations with people holding opposing ideologies and worldviews. It means having the resolve to understand where those people are coming from and to respond accordingly. It also means being responsible for the welfare of other animals and plants, more like the way we would treat our pet dog and other cute animals. It means being less selfish, less near-sighted, more understanding. It means being filled more with compassion and less with contempt. It means educating instead of shaming someone in social media. It means treating a stranger closer to the way we would treat our own father, son, or wife. It means speaking up for the voiceless, standing up for the powerless, and inspiring the hopeless. It means not turning a blind eye on injustices, even when people around us find it acceptable (People of the future will not. Think of how normal slavery and gender inequality was before.) Lastly, we need to broaden our “we” horizon not only in the dimension of space but also in the dimension of time. It means being conscious of our actions today that will affect future generations long after we die. Do we consider a baby that will be born in the year 2300 as part of our in-group today?
Headlines from the future
Turning these news headlines into reality will not benefit a single country alone. They will not merely affect our own species. Properly handling these environmental issues will be favorable to most life on Earth, particularly its future inhabitants. We do share the problem with every lifeform but I would argue that the biggest burden lies in humanity’s hands. We possess the power to change the course of this planet. To me, this reveals our crucial role as stewards of life. We better do a good job because we only get one shot.
I will end this essay with my most favorite arrangement of words from Carl Sagan, who asked NASA to turn the Voyager 1 space probe’s camera around and take a photo of Earth from the edge of the Solar System (until this day the most distant photo of our planet).
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994
- Except for the first item, the “News Headlines From The Future” list originally came from the season finale of Cosmos: Possible Worlds TV series
Related read: https://waitbutwhy.com/2019/08/giants.html