‘In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes’. So it is claimed said Benjamin Franklin, one of the signatories to the American Constitution in 1787. But is it — was it ever— true? A certain future may not include taxes for all, but none of us will escape death. Fast forward four billion years or so and all life on earth will cease when our sun becomes a red giant and fries everything organic out of existence.
Although today’s world appears embroiled in more uncertainties than ever, there is much else we can be sure about. It seems certain that war and its associated conflicts, conducted both by barbarians and the supposedly civilised, will continue to afflict too much of humanity for decades to come. We talk of war crimes, but it’s difficult to see how we can consider ourselves a civilised species until we come to treat the act of war itself as a crime, certainly in so far as the instigators are concerned. The Geneva Conventions, highly laudable in their way, in a sense may be seen to reduce armed conflict between nations to the moral gravity of a cricket match – it’s okay, so long as you play by the rules! Yet as Franklin also said, ‘There never was a good war, or a bad peace.’
Then there’s the lack of serious political effort to address the continuing, unsustainable growth of human population, in itself a prime factor in wars fought over territory and resources. It’s certain that some resources are finite, and certain too that a continuing unchecked expansion of our numbers will cause ever greater problems, until comes an eventual adjustment by man or nature, perhaps even leading to an existential threat. It should never be forgotten that we are already the last surviving human species!
And the changing of our climate is certain, of course; sorry, Mr Trump. Some say it always has and always will, because of the dynamic nature of meteorology. I’m sure that’s true. But it’s now beyond reasonable doubt that the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are at record (human) historical levels, due in large part to our vastly increased use of fossil fuels (that linked of course to our population rise from around 1 billion in 1800 to over 7 billion today). The resultant warming of the planet involves, it again seems certain, great and in some cases unpredictable consequences for all life on earth.
Another of the great certainties is that religions will continue, in all their manifestations and nuances, to affect human behaviour — for better and for worse. Religion, a force for good, say its advocates. It often undeniably is; yet it’s equally undeniably a major factor in various conflicts. Many are certain of the existence of a supreme being, others believe the opposite. All that’s certain to me is that while no-one can possibly know, the rapid advance of scientifically based knowledge is answering more and more questions about human existence and evolution. Set against many of the superstitions and myths of past ages, that has to be a positive thing.
What’s also certain to me – to conclude on another positive note! – is that we have the capacity and resourcefulness as a species to overcome our primitive instincts and cooperate in solving the many problems that threaten us. Whether or not we will succeed in doing so depends ultimately on all of us. In the meantime, I wish you a happy and healthy new year.