It’s easy to be disheartened by the puniness of our existence – yet perhaps for the first time in human history, everything depends on decisions each one of us makes
9 December 2020
Do you matter?
LET’S start with the big picture: if it is significance on this Earth you are looking for, then the numbers are increasingly against you.
Go back 2000 years and there were fewer than 200 million people on the planet. When the industrial revolution kicked in from the 18th century, however, new methods emerged of feeding vastly more people and combating the infectious diseases that had kept our numbers in check. Our numbers began to shoot up, reaching nearly 7.7 billion now. Today, you are, to a greater extent than in all history, just a face in a crowd.
That doesn’t mean you matter any less to your closest friends and family. And perhaps you or your offspring may be one of those few who change the world for better (or for worse). But that is statistically unlikely. Even in spheres where we like to think we are important, such as parenting, the evidence suggests individuals don’t matter that much. Geneticist Robert Plomin at King’s College London has pointed out, for instance, that identical twins brought up in different families generally end up with the same level of cognitive ability.
It isn’t just about you
But there is another, contrary, line of thinking, that collectively all of us can make a difference on a grand scale. In the broad sweep of human history, these are pivotal times. With the development of nuclear weapons in the mid-20th century, humanity reached a point where we can destroy ourselves. In this century, existential risks have only increased thanks to the threat of catastrophic climate change, …