Guardian
Dawn of a new millennium

Saturday January 1, 2000


There have been billions of dawns since earth was first formed. But, according to the calendar most of us share, with today's dawn the human race enters the third millennium.

We may feel awe and humility, and even surprise. For more than two generations we have survived our power to destroy all life while slowly engineering the planet's asphyxiation. Somehow we have made it.

The sceptics will say that today's date is only a number; the pedants insist it is not even the right one. But for everyone else, just as the dawn marks the start of a new day, and January 1 announces the start of a new year, so today's dawn opens a new chapter in the human story.

We do not wake this morning to a blank slate: there is something deathly in that idea. We wake instead aware of the long past we leave behind. But the turn of the millennium requires us to pause a moment, turn around, and ready ourselves for the future. What will it be? Can we possibly imagine it?

The perspective of the lens in space is denied us. The century just gone is too close to disentangle its miracles from its horrors. Even the still beauty of the image is a lie because its gleaming perfection masks the potential for catastrophe.

But a millennium offers renewal. "To make an end is to make a beginning," wrote Eliot. "The end is where we start from."

Attempting to predict the coming century is more than usually foolish. Even 10 years ago we could not have imagined the internet, the speed of computing (currently doubling every eight or nine months), genetic mapping or cloning. While the mystery of consciousness may elude us for many decades, there are other large areas of our make-up which are about to be revealed. Last month scientists announced the decoding of the first of 23 human chromosomes. It is, as yet, only a rough sketch, but they will be reading the entire genome soon enough, decoding every human characteristic, working out the genes or combinations of genes which are responsible for musicality, schizophrenia, left- handedness, height, athletic prowess and aggression.

It feels uncannily as though human beings are finally getting to the roots of the tree of knowledge. No wonder today's scientists feel they are living at the most exciting time in history. While Charles Darwin discovered the probability that we evolved by natural selection, we did not understand the mechanics of that change. Soon we will. We are learning from this string of genetic information what life was for our predecessors, how it works for us - and even catch a glimpse of what we might become. In short, we will read the story life is telling us.

This new knowledge will bring untold medical benefits and pose awesome ethical dilemmas. It may be that within two decades traditional surgery will largely be replaced by gene therapy - the injection of chemical messages into diseased or malfunctioning parts of the body. The predisposition to life-threatening diseases in certain patients will also enable doctors to anticipate illness in their patients. The same technology may enable the rich to give their children enormous advantages - enhanced athleticism, height, mathematical ability, the absence of asthma. A scrap of DNA will tell any authority anything they want to know about any person. Who is to determine how this knowledge is used?

It is easy to dwell on our fears. The geniuses of genetics have opened Pandora's box. But people forget the end of the story of Pandora. At the bottom of the box was hope, waiting to break out. Our new ability to eat from the tree of life need not trigger a fall from grace. Take, for example, the fears that the science of genetics would revive the science of eugenics and give intellectual underpinning to crude racism. In fact, advanced genetics teaches us not about the biological origins of our differences, but how strikingly similar we all are to each other. Two groups of chimps found 20 miles apart differ more from each other than one human being does from any other, even those who resemble each other least: our brains are remarkably similar. As we open the book of life during the coming millennium, we should see how much we all share - and how bogus are any notions of racial superiority left over from the last century.

Nor should we blindly fear the prospect of doctors toying with our genes. We need to keep a vigilant eye on what they do, of course, but we can also afford to look forward to a world where diseases such as muscular dystrophy or Huntington's chorea can be tweezed out before they have ruined a life. Would the world really be worse off if those plagues were banished? And if genetics enables human beings to stay alive for longer, and life becomes less of a risk - with less need for the insurance policy of multiple children relied on in the developing world - then perhaps world population might start to fall, easing some of the strain on the planet.

The implications are so vast that we can barely sketch their outline. Where does God, already in retreat after 600 years of modern science, sit in a world where we feel we may one day know the innermost secrets of human existence? Will ours become an entirely godless world? The scientists do not seem to think so. Indeed, some of the most imaginative thinkers speculate that we could eventually discover the concept of right and wrong alongside our genetic instruction manual, that we will realise that the notion of good and evil exists in the universe, as real as the concept of a number: both are real, independent of our perception of them.

Cutting-edge studies of physics - of light, energy and matter - can also feed, rather than choke, our mystical impulses. Now that we can describe the entire physical history of the cosmos for all but the first thousandth of a second, scientists have concluded that, in the words of one, "it looked as if the universe knew we were coming". Somehow it seemed ready to welcome life. The result is that religion may be different in the new millennium, it may have to speak in a different language, but it will not be dead.

The possibilities are thrilling. Space exploration will continue, reaching beyond our solar system to discover... who knows what? Once we have cracked the code for life, will we be able to construct a machine that mirrors it perfectly? Will we crack the riddle of consciousness, so that computers start resembling brains - or will we discover what exactly it is that makes us so different from them? These are just some of the dilemmas that await us.

Still, there is a question that has to be solved first, one that underpins all the others. If, uniquely among all the creatures on earth, our evolution is in our own hands - thanks to our understanding of our genes and our mastery of our physical environment - what will we do with it? How will we ensure it is just? And this, tough as it may seem, is not a question we can leave to the experts. This is one for all of us. For there is a risk here that, as science accelerates ever faster, our human institutions fail to catch up. We have the brainpower to see how our lives could be improved beyond our dreams, to be rid of much pain and hardship, yet we struggle to spread these new riches fairly. So scientists develop a treatment for Aids which gives those in America or western Europe once written off as the living dead a new chance of life, and yet Aids still kills millions in Africa. This is not because our scientific creativity hits some conundrum it cannot solve in Africa: it is because one part of the planet is so much poorer than the rest. We could be about to repeat the mistake with genetic medicine. The rich countries of the north may discover how to abolish a raft of hereditary diseases forever, but in the south (or among the poor anywhere) those genes could continue to kill. If the new millennium sees us eating from the tree of knowledge, we need to work out how we can share out the fruit.

Our starting point is not easy. We live in a world where economic wealth has grown in ways few ever imagined possible - but where it has become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Rich countries such as the US are getting fantastically richer, but the poor ones are not just shut out of the new wealth party: they are getting poorer. Life expectancy, so long assumed to be ever-increasing as man and medicine become more sophisticated, is actually falling in the planet's poorest countries. Genetic research may be discovering the secret of making clever babies in London and New York, but in Mali and Malawi children are going blind for lack of basic eye-cream. If science has put humankind's destiny in our own hands, we are getting it horribly wrong.

In the past 50 years we have been so concerned with the individual rights, with self-expression and personal liberation that we have quite forgotten what we are doing to the planet in this binge of self-gratification. Capitalism becomes more global; so does the threat to the environment. What were once local problems of pollution have now merged into a huge general threat to the planet's delicately balanced ecosystem. The oceans rise along with the steady increase in global temperatures; the atmosphere is more polluted than at any stage in human history; and hundreds of plant and animal species are becoming extinct. Our need for fuel, food and living space increases every day and yet we do not have the slightest inkling of how we are going to cope as the world's population leaps from 6bn today to 10-12bn through the next century

From the industrial revolution until a projected date of 2050, we will have obliterated half the species on earth. Whether it is tiny plants, fungi or insects, we are destroying about 27,000 separate creations a year. It is a programme of devastation unlike anything the globe has witnessed before. Climate change is making the problem worse, with arid areas getting more arid and wet ones getting wetter. Land currently used for farming will become unviable, either too dry or with vital top soil washed away. Some geographers predict a kind of runaway meltdown, as global warming becomes a self-fuelling process, galloping ahead beyond our control. The melting of the glaciers will not solve our other looming problem: a world shortage of water, which could see whole swaths of the Middle East and Asia running dry within 40 years, perhaps warring over H20 the way they once battled for oil.

What can we do about this glaring paradox, which has led us to understand ourselves so profoundly and yet still organise our world so badly? Science can offer some help. It may be that a nudge in the direction of genetic modification will eventually be required to avert a food crisis, compensating for the once fertile areas ruined by global warming. Nanotechnology, the use of tiny robots to perform miniature tasks like microsurgery, could also help: the world will consume fewer resources the more adept we become at manipulating matter. The real answer, however, may be globalisation, since even the most highly developed nations seem incapable of addressing the destruction that is going on. Not the globalisation of the world economy, which currently serves to widen the gap between rich and poor, but a new, as yet unformed idea of globalised politics.

HG Wells saw the point a century ago: he realised that modern problems are worldwide, requiring worldwide solutions. Only a kind of politics which weighs up the needs of the entire human race could begin to address the water question, for example, insisting that the water-rich countries use no more than they need, while the water-poor get no less than they need. At the moment we do nothing because the problem seems too large or the cause too obstinate. This is because the growth of the most developed economies depends on the pillaging of natural resources. It is a global problem which will eventually have to be sorted out by powerful global institutions, rather than national governments. This will be the only way to prevent the Brazilians from burning their rainforest, the Americans from polluting the atmosphere with their factories and the British from dumping nuclear waste in the oceans. Each nation bears a responsibility for the terrible state of the world's environment at the end of the 20th century, but it is way beyond the powers and will of individual nations to right the damage.

The anxiety we may feel about such things might just be alleviated if the west, which has never been richer or economically more self-confident, began to construct a proper programme of third world aid, as well as taking real action on the vehicle and factory emissions, and the pollution of the seas. If we can decode DNA and invent the internet, we should be able to do pretty much do anything. The experience of the past decade in producing global answers to global problems has not been encouraging. Last month's fiasco in Seattle suggested a fatal dislocation between the ambitions of the developed world and the needs of the developing world. Europe has been at peace for more than half a century, but the struggle to establish successful pan-national governmental structures shows the difficulty of reconciling international aspirations with local cultures. The UN security council has so far been unequal to the task of dealing with the problems thrown up after the collapse of the old communist bloc and the consequent erosions of the 19th and 20th century concepts of state sovereignty. The wars in Kosovo, Bosnia, Rwanda and Chechnya all illustrated the international community's inability to intervene quickly and decisively.

But pessimism should be tempered. The emergence of global consumer power, thanks to the internet, could bring a company like Monsanto to its knees. The web is creating new political communities, scattered across the globe, but working together. To hint that all this might one day lead to a global government, democratically elected, sounds laughable now. If anyone had suggested votes for the masses at the beginning of the 19th century they would have been ridiculed, too. But it happened.

We need to pull off a shift as profound as that modern move to democracy, this time at the global level. And yet we must still remain mindful of the local. A challenge for the new century is to keep alive the belief that individuals can shape the world around them, whether it is the planet or their village. The new technology can be a friend or foe in this process - daunting us with information overload or enabling us to reach out and connect with others. We need to make sure the internet and its allied innovations work for us, not against us.

Where might our own, small island fit into all this? The answer could be quite well. Our mother tongue puts us at the forefront of the web, whose first language is English. We are also neatly situated between the old and new worlds, perfectly placed to be the pivot between Europe and America. In the effort to give birth to a new global awareness, we could be in just the right position. We will need to resolve our dilemma over our relationship with the continent once and for all, and we should do that sooner rather than later. That, in turn, may require a new understanding of Britain itself. In the imperial age it was clear what the union of England, Scotland, Wales and later northern Ireland was for. At the start of the new century, we are much less certain. But we need to work out the purpose of the union if we are not to watch it unravel in the coming decades. Until we do, it is hard to see how we can enter into any other arrangement, with Europe or others, with any self-confidence.

So vast changes are ahead of us, perhaps an unending cascade of them. A new relationship between women and men began to emerge in the past century, at least in the developed world. That process of struggle and debate will continue into the new era. But we should embrace it all. For as the scientists will keep telling us, change is in our nature. We are evolutionary creatures, granted a unique ability to ask questions about ourselves. Indeed, it is this very pursuit of understanding which distinguishes us from the animal. We should cherish this fact about ourselves, just as we cherish the intricate beauty of our existence. To quote Eliot once more: "Last year's words belong to last year's language/And next year's words await another voice." We are blessed to live now: let us make this a blessed century and a blessed new millennium.




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