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Our legacy: how we will be viewed in 2050

By David Swanton - posted Wednesday, 5 January 2011

When we consider our recent history, most of us are dumbfounded that people in the mid-19th century advocated slavery, that people in the late-19th century rejected women’s suffrage, and even in the mid-20th century a racist mindset opposed people of certain, particularly Asian, ethnic groups migrating to other countries.

Given that we are now more enlightened and aware of the failings of the past, it is worth contemplating how we in 2011 will be viewed historically, even by people in 2050.

Unfortunately, we are likely to be viewed poorly.

We are abrogating our ethical responsibility to future generations to enhance the human condition and care for this planet that we share in time with them.

We are ineffective in addressing population and quality-of-life issues, unsustainable resource use and climate change. Our civilisation is still encumbered with social, religious and political instability arising from intolerance, and despite improvements, there is an inequitable distribution of wealth, as many individuals have a poor quality of life.

On a positive note, we recognise that many people and governments are working hard to implement initiatives that lead to economic, environmental and social progress, although people in developed countries often seem to be the main beneficiaries.


There have been substantial technological developments, and some initiatives that are leading to a better human and planetary condition, of which we should be justifiably proud. It would however be impolitic for us to revel in these significant achievements, when we are ineffectively addressing some fundamental problems.

Over 6.8 billion people are living on our planet in 2011. This population, and its current growth rate, is unsustainable given the earth’s finite resources. If current growth continues, then the human population in 2050 could be about 9 billion people, exacerbating our population-induced problems.

If the population’s growth rate were just a trivial 1 per cent per year, then the population in one thousand years would be a factor of twenty thousand times more than today’s - an implausible outcome. If population growth needs to slow, and clearly it must, we should start now, for any delay would be ignoring our obligation to address a problem for which we are partly responsible.

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About the Author

David Swanton is an ethicist, PhD scientist and director of Ethical Rights. He is also ACT Chapter Coordinator for Exit International.

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