“What if you’re wrong?”

That was the question a young lady asked Richard Dawkins when he spoke at Liberty University over a decade ago. The question, asked many times in many different ways, implies that belief in one world view carries with it great danger, while another is more or less safe.

Dawkins answered with his famous, “What if you’re wrong about the great JuJu at the bottom of the ocean?” quote. That makes a fun sound byte, but I think the question deserves a more serious answer. World views matter. And in reality, no world view is safe. Safety is an illusion.

Somewhere in space, at this very moment, is an enormous asteroid that is destined to strike the Earth. We don’t know where it is; we don’t know when it will hit. But such a strike is inevitable in the course of time. When it hits, that asteroid will cause death and destruction to dwarf 9/11, to dwarf the 2004 tsunami, to dwarf even World War II. That is, if some other catastrophe, such as a supervolcano, a global pandemic, or a coronal mass ejection from the Sun hasn’t wiped us out first.

These threats are real; giggling them off or relegating them to the world of speculative fiction won’t make them go away. If you, like I, believe that humanity is both worth saving and also responsible for its own salvation, then you must recognize an awesome and sobering fact: the only thing standing between us and extinction is the growth of human knowledge.

If your world view does not permit such a reality, if you believe market forces or some unseen deity or the law of averages will protect us, I ask you, what if you’re wrong?

Why do I bring up such gloomy thoughts on a beautiful spring day? Because today a man with no training in science, no apparent respect for the depth of human knowledge, and no articulated vision for our shared future decided to pull the United States from the most comprehensive international cooperative pact in history. The Paris Climate Accord will not protect our planet from the catastrophes I’ve described. And yet climate change, while not a threat to the planet itself, is a threat to our global economy and our building international community. By ignoring it, we doom millions, maybe billions, to futures as environmental refugees.

But more than that, the United States’ departure from the Paris accord signals that we are no longer serious about dealing with global problems on the global stage. “America First” didn’t work after World War I, and it doesn’t work now. The world is getting smaller, and ignoring worldwide problems only makes them worse. The Paris accord should have been the first tentative step toward a global problem-solving body that could have, eventually, tackled issues like ocean acidification, fishery collapse, continent-wide drought, pandemic disease, and even in time the mitigation of natural disasters from the Earth and from space. Maybe the accord still will be that first step – but for now the United States has selfishly and short-sightedly decided to take our resources and go home.

How did we get here? How did the world’s great beacon of knowledge turn itself into a global naysayer? When one looks at who voted for the monstrosity currently in the White House, you see it was predominantly older voters – voters my age. We were supposed to be the grown-ups. Our great teachers – Carl Sagan, Joseph Campbell, Maya Angelou, Steven Pinker, and yes, Barack Obama, showed us that we all are one, a young and promising species on an ancient bit of rock, striving to understand ourselves and our world. Instead of taking on this invitation to know, to grow, to survive, we’ve turned our backs on the future – on our planet, on our selves, on the generations to come who needed us to be wiser than we are.

Yet I am an optimist. I believe the human future to be unlimited. I believe we can – if we choose to – survive this time, survive all times, stretch out our arms and reach the stars, the galaxies, and all that might lie beyond. There is nothing stopping us but our own lack of knowledge. If we choose to, we can obtain that knowledge, we can learn to solve our problems, we can avoid the many disasters that might strike – including those that we’ve not yet even imagined. But it will not happen by accident. We need to decide on this future, we need to make it happen. Hiding behind slogans, ignoring the knowledge we’ve already gained, pretending it’s all a game with winners and losers tallied by electoral counts, will not get us there.

So if you say we don’t need these international treaties, we don’t need to work with the rest of the world, we only need America First, I ask you, what if you’re wrong?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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