We read so often about the world’s problems that we fail to realise how much we have to be thankful for. In the West, from the end of the Second World War until about 1990, people experienced the greatest increase in health and wealth that the world has ever seen. Improvements in medical techniques and the introduction of the welfare state added 15 years to life expectancy. Access to new technologies had enabled the less well-off to enjoy a much more life-fulfilling existence. There had been no wars between major powers and West European nations had lived in peaceful co-existence. The West had been able to unite behind a common set of moral values based on the liberal principles of freedom and equality, together with humanist, scientifically inspired rationality. As a result, the West had become a much more tolerant, less violent and more caring society.
The population of all successful animal species expands until it reaches its environmental limits, then declines. So far technological developments have allowed humans to overcome natural boundaries and become the most populous mammal species. However, human population and wealth have increased so much since the end of the Second World War that we are damaging the natural world that supports us. This is manifest in climate change, loss of bio-diversity and environmental pollution.
Since 1990 life in the West has taken a step backwards, the combination of the effects of climate change, new technology and globalisation have altered the way society operates. Divisions between rich and poor have begun to grow again. Life expectancy for the less-well off has begun to decline in the USA and Great Britain. Liberal humanist values have come under increasing attack from the disaffected. Libertarian and neo-liberal attitudes have celebrated the success of the rich and marginalised those living in penury. There has been an increase in national and racial intolerance, known as populism.
So far evolutionary forces have benefited mankind. But evolution is blind it does not always lead to improvement. It appears we are being bowled along by evolutionary forces to create a divided society that is destroying the planet. If humans continue on their current evolutionary path, the effect of the disruption of Earth’s environment will be a catastrophic decline in human wealth and health. The grim reapers of war, famine, natural disaster, plague, economic failure, revolution and environmental disaster will sweep the planet.
When society changes there are always two options; either retrench, rally round the flag, try to prevent change and look after one’s own, or reach out and co-operate and try to make the new society work for the good of everybody. Right now, everything seems to be pointing towards the first alternative. Populist politicians are rejecting the rational approach of liberal humanism. Global warming is not happening, according to the populists, even though records prove that average temperatures are rising inexorably every year. America has already elected a President who denies climate change and a Vice-President who denies the scientific truth of evolution.
Co-operation across international boundaries is most successful if people share a common political culture. A dramatic demonstration of this occurred after the Second World War with the spread of liberal democracy to North America, West Europe, Japan, Korea and Oceania. All accepted the liberal humanist principles of liberty, equality and rationality. These principles have been recently threatened by neo-liberal economic attitudes and the rise of populist movements. Cross-country co-operation has declined and there has been a corresponding rise in quasi-tribal conflict between nations, religions and racial groups.
If we are to make the world a better place for our children, those that support liberal humanist values need to work together to confront the challenges ahead. Religious and non-religious alike need to reach out across national boundaries to reject tribal instincts. We need to reinforce liberal humanist principles, together with new ideas of preserving the environment. Active international co-operation, sharing the common values of eco-humanity, is the only way mankind will preserve the health and wealth of our progeny.