This new world may be safer, being told
The dangers of diseases of the old
­­John Donne

          Year 2000 is knocking at the door and the general consensus seems to want it to hurry on by. We have been inundated by "Y2K" fears over the past year and deluged by reports that everything from the airports' air traffic control systems to your microwave at home will fail. But this near-apocalyptic warning can also act as a glass half full, an optimistic look not to the end of the world, but the end of our significant, consistent mistakes. We all know the maxim: "Those who fail to learn from the past are destined to repeat it." As we near a new millennium, let us look to our country's recent past­inventions, environmental abuse, war, the conflict between religion and science­­and use it to plan for our future.
           In 1899 Charles Duell, head of the U.S. Patent Office, said, "Everything that can be invented has been invented." Oops. Over the next several decades we witnessed the advent of, among others, the airplane, automobile, television, space flight, computer, and peanut M&M's (my personal favorite). This brings me to the internet, more specifically the World Wide Web, created solely by Tim Berners-Lee in 1991. The Web was introduced only eight years ago as Leešs attempt at creating a sort of cyber filing cabinet for the enormous amount of data he had collected. Now we have dot coms burned into our collective consciousness. The pace of discovery has accelerated since 1899, and will undoubtedly continue well into the next millennium. A century after the utterance it is the fool who repeats Mr. Duell's comments.
           It was not until recently that we accepted that the use of our intelligence has, however innocent the intentions, put us at risk. Now we are everywhere on Earth. We have bases in Antarctica. We visit the ocean bottoms. Twelve of us have even walked on the Moon. There are now 6 billion of us, and our numbers grow by the equivalent of the population of China every decade. We have become the dominant species on the planet. And at almost every step we have emphasized the local over the global, the short-term over the long. We have destroyed forests, depleted the protective ozone layer, and poisoned the air and waters. We have become, as Carl Sagan explained, "predators of the biosphere­full of arrogant entitlement, always taking and never giving back." Hollywood would title the movie of the 20th century "Manifest Destiny II."
           But where humans make problems, humans can make solutions. We must constantly reminds ourselves of our mortality; not just as individuals but as a species. The Earth is the only inhabited planet in the Solar System. We humans are amongst millions of separate species who live in a world overflowing with life. And yet most species that ever were are never more. After dominating for 180 million years, the dinosuars were extinguished. Every last one. This should have been our wake-up call long ago. No species is guaranteed a place on this planet. Just ask those hunted to extinction. Oh wait... you can't. At the dawn of the new millennium there is no cause more urgent than to protect the future of our species.
          While the environment kills us slowly, bullets and bombs do it quickly. America has been directly involved in the four most devastating wars in the history of human civilization: WWI ("the war to end all wars"), WWII (proof that the nickname of the first war was naively optimistic), the Korean War, and the Vietnam War (the latter two being ill-conceived and politically motivated). In an age of technology it is no surprise that this all happened in a span of 60 years. This is the century of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Pinochet. The terms "holocaust," "genocide," and "ethnic cleansing" are part of our everyday vocabulary. With nearly 60, 000 nuclear weapons from the Cold war floating around, the next madman may not have to send his army out to butcher his enemies, he will simply press "The Button." The frightening aspect of it all is the likelihood that the next war will be our (humans) last.
          With the proliferation of nuclear weapons to ward of the Soviet "Evil Empire" (to borrow from cowboy president Ronald Reagan), we started a chain reaction of paranoia which we now criticize other countries for. The United States comprises 5% of the world's population yet consumes 60% of its resources. We condemn human rights violation around the globe yet the institution of slavery was legal up until 130 years ago, while segregation lasted until the 1960s. There is not a more hypocritical nation in the world with greater ulterior motives, yet this is by far the greatest place on earth to live. The irony would be laughable were it not for the reality of our surroundings.
          The dueling banjoes for centuries have been religion and science, with proponents for both fervently attempting to cancel each other out. The methods of religion and science are profoundly different. Religion frequently asks us to believe without question, even (or especially) in the absence of hard evidence. Indeed this is the central meaning of faith. Science, on the other hand, asks us to take nothing on faith, to be wary of self-deception. Science considers deep skepticism a prime virtue. Religion often sees it as a barrier to enlightenment. Therein lies the conflict: the discoveries of science challenging religious dogmas, and religion attempting to ignore or suppress the disquieting findings.
          But times have changed as we teeter on the brink of the 21st Century.
          Pope John Paul II has said, "Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. . . . Such bridging ministries must be nurtured and encouraged." On the other side, Stephan Jay Gould, Harvard and New York University professor of geology and author of several science texts, concurs: "Science and religion should be equal, mutually respecting partners, each the master of its own domain, and with each domain vital to human life in a different way."
          Since the communication of truth to man from a divine source is common in all religions, this brings to mind Pilate's question to Jesus: "What is truth?"
          The 20th century has been a showcase for science, every branch having made stunning advances. The very foundations of physics have been revolutionized by Einstein's special and general theories of relativity and by quantum mechanics. Yet science is a paradox: the more we know, the more we do not know.

November 1999