This article appeared in The Free Lance-Star
It’s the year 2100. Do you know where your children are?
The question may sound facetious, but it’s actually quite important as you ponder who to vote for and what policies to support here in 2008. You can see why with some simple math: If medical science is as successful in extending life spans during this century as it was during the last, then by 2100 the average American should be living to nearly 110 years of age. Many of today’s younger voters can therefore expect to be alive, and nearly all of us could have children or grandchildren living at that time. In other words, if you care about making a better world for our children and grandchildren, then you should be thinking very hard about the world of 2100.
As soon as you realize this fact, you’ll also realize that most of our policy debates —especially those held by our politicians — are remarkably short-sighted. We argue endlessly about tax cuts versus tax increases, whether to be pro-NAFTA or anti-NAFTA, or whether and when we should withdraw from Iraq. But when was the last time you heard anyone speak in depth about a vision for your children and grandchildren’s world of 2100?
I don’t mean to downplay the importance of those other issues. It’s just that they should be only the beginning of our policy discussions. Issues such as education, global warming, nuclear proliferation, and our policies for the developing world, are much more important to the world of 2100. For example, unless we improve the dismal state of math and science education in this country, by 2100 we will have surely ceded world leadership to China, India, or perhaps any of dozens of other countries. The consequences of global warming, modest to date, may be quite severe for our children and grandchildren living in 2100. Left unchecked, nuclear proliferation could put weapons of mass destruction in the hands of most any petty dictator or terrorist before the end of this century. And without policies that improve the lives of people in developing nations, we will likely see an increase in wars, terrorism, anti-Americanism, and other forms of turmoil that would limit the freedom of our children and grandchildren.
At least equally important, thinking about 2100 means we must also think beyond all the problems we need to solve. We need to create a vision that will guide our civilization, so that we don’t wander aimlessly into the future. (As Yogi Berra said, at least apocryphally, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll probably end up some place else.”)
Here, I believe that we can benefit from thinking about the possibility of civilizations beyond our own. I’m a skeptic of claims about UFOs, but my background in astronomy tells me that it’s almost inconceivable that we are alone in the universe. After all, just counting (at a rate of 1 per second) the 100 billion stars in our galaxy would take you more than 3,000 years, and the number of stars in our universe is roughly the same as the number of grains of sand on every beach on Earth combined. Moreover, if other civilizations do indeed exist, many are certainly far beyond us in their technological development. This fact comes simply from the scale of time: The universe was around for at least 9 billion or so years before Earth was even born, so there’s been plenty of time for other civilizations to get an enormous head start on us.
From this perspective, we are a civilization in adolescence. We’re no longer a civilization in childhood, both because we now understand that there is much more to the universe than our own small home, and because we have acquired sufficient power to destroy ourselves, whether through nuclear war, global warming, or any number of other poor choices that we might make. But we also are not grownups: The grownup civilizations are thousands, millions, or billions of years beyond us, which means that if they exist, then they found away to navigate through their adolescent troubles and reach a stable adulthood.
Our task in this century, then, is to find our own path through an adolescence in which we do not always behave in ways that serve our own long-term best interests. If we succeed, we can grow up, perhaps joining other civilizations that have grown up before us. If we fail, then we are dooming our own children and grandchildren to a world of deepening troubles. But how do we find the path? Some basic teen psychology can help: Just as you don’t solve a troubled teen’s behavior problems by locking her in a closet and telling her that she can come out when they’re fixed, we won’t solve our societal problems if we turn only inward. If you want to change the teen’s behavior, you inspire her to believe that she has a great future ahead. In precisely the same way, I believe that we can grow up as a society only when every individual, in every nation, grows up with enough inspiration to care about making this world a better one.
That is what we should be thinking about as we create a vision for 2100. My own belief is that we should seek to inspire through exploration, investing in the space program both for science and for extending an international, human presence into space. You may have different ideas about how to help our teenage civilization grow up. The important thing is that it’s well past time for us to begin talking about it and acting on it. So the next time a politician tells you that he or she will save your job or cut your taxes, I hope you’ll respond by asking them what they plan to do about the things that really count: How will they help us all make a world that we will be proud to hand over to our children and grandchildren?