We live today in a divided world. More so than lines based on race, religion or nationality, there is a fundamental distinction that partitions human society, and that distinction is wealth. The wealthy, prosperous, industrialized nations of North America, the European Union and Japan, the ones that have the greatest influence on world affairs and shape the development of human civilization, are often called the First World. By contrast, there are a far greater number of nations, harboring a far greater number of people, that are styled as belonging to the so-called Third World. Many of these nations are bemired in poverty, possess weak or corrupt governments, or suffer from other social or natural ills that have long been eradicated in First World countries. (The Second World was considered to be the former Soviet Union and its satellite nations of the Warsaw Pact.)
In terms of standard of living and per capita wealth, there is a vast gulf between the First and Third Worlds. Fully 85% of the world’s population lives on about $2,000 a year or less, and a person making $25,000 per year, a pitifully small income by the standards of most First World countries, is actually in the top 10% of earners worldwide. To put it another way, most of humanity is extremely poor. Worse, this already-lopsided income disparity is growing every year, as the rich acquire an ever-greater concentration of the planet’s resources, while the poor become ever poorer. Issues as basic as sanitation, treatable disease and clean drinking water continue to torment the developing world, as well as, in many cases, endemic violence and political corruption that make solving the other problems far more difficult. While the wealthy First World nations do send aid to their poorer neighbors, in many cases it is the barest trickle compared to what those nations spend on other vital outlays, such as building and developing new weapons of war.
There is a vast difference in the way dwellers of these two worlds live their lives. In contrast to the First World nations, many of whose citizens think food comes from supermarkets and restaurants, there are still billions of people around the world who practice the ancient ways of life, living close to the earth – ways that are just a distant ancestral memory for many Westerners. There are many millions of others who live on the fringes of industrial society, laboring to supply its wants and subsisting on its cast-offs and refuse. It is neither lack of desire nor lack of willingness to work that hold these people back; most of them, in fact, work extremely hard. The problem is that, in many parts of the world, the resources and the opportunities needed to get ahead simply do not exist.
In fact, if you are one of the people who is able to access this website, count yourself most fortunate. You are likely one of the lucky few, privileged by the circumstances of your birth to live in a world very different from the world known by the majority of people who are alive today and the large majority of all those who have ever lived. We are not wholly at the mercy of storm, weather and disease; we have ways to buffer ourselves against the unpredictability of nature. Using technologies such as modern medicine, vaccination and contraception, and even electricity, we have erected barriers, however fragile, against the natural randomness that contributes to so much suffering worldwide. And as long as we are comfortable and safe, it is easy not to care about people from whom we are physically and emotionally distant. Most people would help a close friend or a neighbor, but when it comes to the billions subsisting in poverty worldwide, we do not see these people, we do not directly experience their suffering and need, and so most of us feel no great impetus to assist them.
Yet in a larger sense, we are all residents of the Third World. From the poorest slums of Bangladesh to the most lavish penthouses of Manhattan, we are all alike in a fundamental way.
Consider our solar system. At its center is the Sun, our home star: a vast four-billion-year-old engine of blazing thermonuclear fire, a cauldron of unimaginable power driven by the nuclear fusion of hydrogen. Traveling further out, we encounter the planets traveling in their orbits. Barren, lifeless Mercury flies past our sight, a cinder of rock boiling in the glare of the Sun. Next is haze-shrouded Venus, with a volcanic surface and an atmosphere of acid, hot enough to melt lead. No twinkle of intelligence is visible on these dead worlds, no spark of life.
But as these lifeless hells spin away, a wonder is revealed. Hanging in space, third from the sun, is a beautiful orb of blue, white and green, a temperate world with a sheltering atmosphere, cool seas, warm sun, soft breezes, and gardens flourishing with life: a sphere of paradise compared to the worlds of fire and ice that make up the rest of the solar system. This is the Earth – the Third World.
Despite the vast differences in wealth, prosperity and standard of living among human beings, we are all alike in that we all live on the same planet, and all our fortunes rise and fall together with it. In one sense, it is true that residents of the world’s industrialized nations have erected some barriers against natural disaster; but in another sense, all our technology has scarcely made us less vulnerable. We are all living a precarious existence, at the mercy of larger natural forces that could utterly devastate us. An asteroid or comet colliding with our planet – on the cosmic scale, no more than a small splash – could be the end of our civilization, possibly of our species. If a nearby star were to explode in a supernova, it could blow our atmosphere away like a puff of smoke and sear the planet’s surface with lethal radiation. And though it will not happen for billions of years, there will come a day when our own sun swells into a red giant, engulfing our world in hydrogen fire. Some of these catastrophes are in our power to prevent, although the effort required to do so would be vast. Against others, there can be no preparation.
In the grand cosmic scheme of things, we are small and insignificant. Compared to the wonders undreamed-of that await in the vast reaches of the universe, our luxuries are vain and pitiful, our ambitions to conquer and succeed nothing but the arrogant conceits of children. If the cosmic perspective can teach us anything, it should teach us that we are all in this together. Rather than strive to gain mastery over others, rather than attempting to grab as much as we can for ourselves, we should be working together to lift all people up to at least the same minimal level. Compared to what lies beyond the Earth, compared to the vast and terribly majestic expanse through which we spin, the things that make us alike and that we hold in common utterly overwhelm the things that divide us. We have a moral responsibility, not to wipe out the ways of life which other people choose to practice or to force them to adopt our culture, but rather to extend all the aid of which we are capable, so that those who wish to use the same beneficial technologies we enjoy can do so. The recognition of our common humanity demands no less.