For more than a hundred years of human history, the words “the 21st century” were used as shorthand for the distant, advanced future. Utopians and futurists looked forward to an era of transformation, when knowledge and will would reshape human society almost beyond recognition. Now we are in the 21st century, and we can see for ourselves how those prognostications have fared. In many ways they have fallen short. We still have war, crime, disease and poverty; we do not have flying cars, interplanetary rocketships, or colonies on the moon. But, it is true, we have achieved many marvels, the likes of which people of past ages never even imagined.
Nevertheless, our technology has a weakness. Like the biblical King Nebuchadnezzar’s vision of a great statue with a head of gold and feet of frangible clay, there is a vulnerable point upon which the whole system depends.
Beneath our advanced, digital, 21st-century information economy lies a clanking, grinding, smoke-belching 18th-century industrial economy. For all our sophistication, we still depend on fossil fuels dug from the earth. The advanced electronics and integrated microcircuits that now control almost every major appliance in our homes are still powered by electricity derived mainly from the burning of coal dug from beneath America’s Appalachian mountains. Despite their sleek lines and gleaming chassis, our vehicles are still fueled by the controlled explosions of petroleum distillates wrung from the sands of the tumultuous Middle East. Although we have made improvements in efficiency, although our drilling and extraction technologies grow ever more complex and sophisticated, our society and our world is still almost completely dependent on old technology, largely unchanged since it was first invented almost two hundred years ago.
And that dependence, it has become abundantly clear, is now becoming a lethal threat. Like the ancient blue-green bacteria that once ruled the planet, until their emissions of poisonous oxygen changed the composition of the atmosphere and they wiped themselves out in a self-caused holocaust, our society is slowly poisoning itself with its own waste products. From the burning of coal and impure gasoline, we release into the atmosphere toxic mercury, acidic sulfur and nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter that produces choking smog and causes asthma and other respiratory sicknesses. But more dangerous, because less noticeable, is the invisible, insidious gas carbon dioxide, which is released in vast quantities, gigatons per year, by the combustion of all fossil fuels.
Rising into the troposphere, carbon dioxide accumulates in a stifling blanket, trapping the rays of the sun and warming our planet as surely as a hot car left in a parking lot. In the past, the biosphere had ways to prevent excessive warming by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere: the oceans absorb it, green plants drink it, rain dissolves it, carbonate rocks sequester it. But we are pumping it into the atmosphere at a prodigious rate, burning through millions of years’ worth of hydrocarbon reservoirs in decades, overstressing the balancing mechanisms and driving the system relentlessly out of equilibrium. We are carrying out a reckless experiment, gambling with our own future at stake. And decade by decade, global temperatures tick upwards, glaciers recede, species dwindle, ice caps fragment, sea levels rise, storms gain strength, the extremes of flood and drought worsen, desert spreads, and the few voices crying in the wilderness to warn humanity of the danger are denigrated and marginalized by powerful and wealthy special interests who stand to profit by mortgaging the planet. There is no telling how much damage we have already done ourselves, nor how much worse things will get before the human species recognizes its danger, if it ever does, and takes steps to avert it. By the time humanity finds the resolve to confront this problem whatever the cost, it may be too little, too late.
But combustible hydrocarbons are not the only product of the Middle East that shapes the face of the world today. From those same scorching desert sands wells another fuel. Like oil and coal, this fuel has its origins in the distant past; unlike oil and coal, this one is invisible, intangible, but like them, this one, too, seriously threatens the future of the human species. Rather than being transmitted through drills and pipelines, it travels through the air, leaping from one mind to the next, kindling wildfires of hatred and prejudice. Our economy may run on fossil fuels of oil, gas and coal, but our society runs on the fossil fuel of religion.Instead of the compressed remains of long-dead living things, the religions that dominate our world today are made up of fossilized dogmas, shaped in the cauldron of a long-gone world and compressed by the authority of time and habit into an immovable mass. Religion, too, has its impurities, but instead of sulfur and mercury, our beliefs are contaminated with impurities of tribalism and xenophobia, fractions of hate and fanaticism and glorification of martyrdom, and worst of all, the iron certainty that this is God’s will and all who say differently are evil heretics. And instead of smog and acid rain, when burned in the combustion chambers of human minds, they give us suicide bombers exploding in crowded streets, the gas chambers of the Nazis, the choking black clouds of burqas, the suffocating darkness of fundamentalism, bloodthirsty mobs in the streets screaming for holy war, the Twin Towers collapsing in flame.
In the Bronze Age civilizations where it was born, religion’s destructive ability was limited: a few local skirmishes, at worst a regional conflagration. But just like fossil fuels now underpinning the global economy, the fever of faith has spread, and is now infecting not small, roaming desert tribes, but vast, globe-spanning civilizations standing eye-to-eye with the keys to apocalypse in their hands. As terrorism spreads out of control, crowds flock to the banner of jihad, and the constitutional protections of secular democracies purchased by a river of patriots’ blood are slowly peeled back by malignant theocrats, we stand at the brink of catastrophe, and none can say whether we will turn away in time. Just as the lure of cheap and easy energy from fossil fuels has led us to hurl ourselves heedlessly toward destruction, just as we are addicted to oil and gas despite manifest evidence of harm, so too does religion give rise to the same evils. And just as with global warming, those who point out these inconvenient truths are scorned and ignored, while the looming disaster is strongly denied by those most entrenched in the system as it is.
But there is one ray of light in this gloomy picture, one path open to us if we choose to take it. Even while we put so much effort into extracting polluting, nonrenewable fuel from the ground, we are bathed in a golden sea of free, clean and renewable energy. Every day, light pours abundantly down on this planet from the Sun, the same energy that was stored to produce fossil fuels in the first place, more than enough to meet our needs if we use it wisely. And in much the same way, while we focus on religion to meet our moral and social needs – religion that inflames human groups with a sense of dogmatism and self-righteousness, that instills in them a sense of hatred toward all who are different, and that encourages them to impose their will on others by force – at the same time, we are surrounded by a better alternative, a potential sea of rational and humanist ideas, as free and glorious as the light of the sun. Free from the impurities of prejudice and xenophobia, this worldview puts an end to suspicion and hatred of outsiders, encouraging us instead to view the human race as the one united family it is. Free from the stifling weight of centuries of holy tradition, this worldview allows us to adapt to the changing needs of the modern world, and not just allows but encourages people to think for themselves. Just as with solar energy, we hold in our hands the keys to escaping our current predicament. The question is not whether the solution is feasible, but only whether humanity has the will and the courage to give up the old ways and implement it in time.