The State of Our World
The Earth in 2017
n 2012, director Ridley Scott brought to the Silver Screen the sci-fi film Prometheus, a heart-warming tale of how alien scientists dabble with weaponizing viruses that can hibernate for millennia until an opportune moment arises where they can infiltrate a foreign body, hyper-gestate for a few hours and then ultimately rip themselves out of their host’s abdomen. And then they take over the planet.
In this case, Earth of course was the targeted planet. In the film’s first few scenes, archaeologists uncover cave paintings from across the globe, each indicating that an alien species of super tall, uber-buffed humans kept returning to earth to chart our progress while teasingly inviting us to their world. In 2073, our scientists accept the invitation, send our internationally-selected crew across the cosmos, and the rest of the film devolves into a race to see if the scientists can escape the face-devouring, flesh-ripping virus without bringing it back home.
But let’s ignore for a minute the horror hijinks in outer space and focus more on the alien race’s patient preliminary reconnaissance of our Earth. What if over the course of our existence, a band of aliens had in fact kept checking in on us to see how we were evolving? What if every ten thousand years, they landed their little spaceships, sat up on a hill and chuckled as us humans tried to survive the elements. What would they see?
Well until about 200,000 years ago, they wouldn’t even see us at all, but probably some apelike, primate-human hybrid. So let’s start at the 200,000 years ago mark. We looked like humans, smelled like humans and made noises like humans (well, noises like fairly uneducated humans). This first version of ourselves might have physically and cognitively resembled the today “us” today, but their lives looked a heck of a lot different.
Initially, our alien stalkers would have had trouble finding a lot of us. There were maybe five to ten thousand of us scattered across Africa and on the move, but we didn’t live in large groups; instead we survived as just a few united families walking the land, looking for an animal to kill or a berry to pick. 200,000 years ago we were nomadic hunter-gatherers, and there was no guarantee we as a species were even going to survive these early years.
If the aliens returned 10,000 years later, same thing. Still hunter-gatherers, living at the tip of extinction. 10,000 years more, still the same. Another 10,000 years…yep, not much changed. Yet another 10,000 years, no surprise, we’re still picking non-fatal fruit and hoping some animal would walk by that we could kill with our less than impressive claws and pretty pathetic tools. In fact, for the next 150,000 years, our alien observers would be rather disappointed. We weren’t changing much.
But then about 10,000 BC, we made a huge leap. We started farming. We started building towns next to rivers, we spread across five continents and we began constructing buildings that might last more than a few seasons.
10,000 years later, at the zero mark, where BC becomes AD, around the time Jesus Christ walked around the eastern Roman Empire, we were looking pretty impressive. We had empires in the Mediterranean, the Indian subcontinent and in China. Our pyramids and a great wall could be seen from just inside the atmosphere. We were making more babies and living longer. We’d grown to about 200 million people worldwide, though most of us had no idea the other guys even existed. We only traded with our immediate neighbors and if you ever led an army 1000 miles in any direction, you’d get the nickname “the Great.” We were already worshipping elephant-headed gods in India, following Confucian witticisms in China and worrying about heaven and hell in the Middle East. We fought with spears, wore fairly colorful clothes and weren’t going anywhere unless an animal carried us, the wind pushed us or we walked there ourselves.
Flash-forward just a mere 2000 years this time. Let’s assume the aliens realized we were progressing at a faster clip and decided to cut short their time away from us.
It’s the year 2017. What would they see today? How far have we come since our hunter-gatherer days of isolation, our years as emerging empires, our worlds of daily toil and superstitious wonderings?
Let’s see how far we’ve come? Let’s see what they’d see.
They’d see there are a lot of us. 7.5 billion. That’s a 3650% increase since year 0. At this rate, in the year 4000, we’d be up to 285 billion people.
They’d see that 4.2 billion of us live in Asia, one billion in Africa and even a few thousand live down in Antarctica. They’d see black people, brown people and white people separated by continents, but they’d also see that we were intermarrying and making mixed-race babies like never before in our history. Stigmas of interracial marriage still exist in more conservative households, but we’re living in an age of unprecedented acceptance of EuroAsian, AfroAsian, AfroEuropean and even EuroAfroAsian unions. You’re more likely to have blood from many lands than you are to be 100% anything.
They’d see that we no longer live in empires, but we do live in ethnically-based tribes. We call them nations or independent sovereign states. There are about two hundred of them. The smallest is the Vatican City – about 840 people living in a walled structure less than a quarter of a square mile in size, just a few city blocks. The largest in size is Russia at 6.5 million square miles (1/8th the size of the planet), and in population, the largest is China at 1,387,000,000 and climbing.
They’d see we have found different ways of keeping our people under control. Most nations have a written constitution and a democratic republic, letting their people vote and maintaining order through laws and courts. Most of these republics let multiple parties campaign for elections, saying whatever they want and letting the people (each having one equal vote) decide who will create the laws and who will execute the laws and who will judge the fairness of laws. Other countries have only one political party that wins year after year after year, or they might not let everyone vote, or they might control the news, or they might not even count votes accurately. Some countries don’t even try to fake that they’re a democracy. They’ve held onto monarchies, basically just handing over rule from father to son to grandson, and he and his advisors get to make all the calls for the good of the nation (or their own pocketbooks). Still, others have blended the two forms, creating constitutional monarchies where their people still revere a king, but an elected body also hypothetically represents the people.
They’d see that we live longer (though maybe not healthier) lives. We pop pills when we’re sick, take immunization shots when we’re babies and we don’t try to kill each other nearly as much as we used to. We make more food than ever before, but we also ask our scientists to find ways to better color it, shape it, flavor it, preserve it and genetically modify it. We no longer hunt, but we still gather. We head to supermarkets and fill our baskets with plastic-bagged and cardboard-boxed collections of sodium nitrate, monosodium glutamate, aspartame and corn syrup. We’re fatter than we’ve ever been, get more cancers than ever before, yet we still wonder why the fountain of youth is beyond us.
But our alien spectators would also quickly see there is no one story of us. We are obesely rich and painfully poor. Some nations have an average annual income approaching $100,000 while other nations’ citizens survive on a mere $400 a year. Some people race around the world in Gulfstream luxury jets or Japanese shinkansen bullet trains or Italian Lamborghini Superleggera sports cars. Others walk miles to find fresh water to carry back home atop their heads, use oxen to pull wooden plows through their fields and only see a motorized vehicle every few weeks. Close to a billion people each day go without food. Another billion spend their days merely moving from one digital distraction to the next. For some, entertainment revolves around sitting with some friends, chatting about the realities of life; for others, entertainment requires trip planning, gadget purchasing and appearance improving. We are a sedentary people, spending some eight to twelve hours attached to a chair, but we also have the fastest, strongest people the world has ever seen, constantly expanding our notions of what the human body can accomplish.
They’d see that we’re sharing, interacting and commiserating like never before. You can eat sushi in Italy, spaghetti in India, tandoori chicken in Singapore, enchiladas in Egypt and kangaroo hamburgers in Tokyo. You can drink a Coke in over 200 countries, buy a Toyota in 47 African nations, wander around an Ikea showroom on five continents and at every counter there’s a pretty good chance the cashier will accept Visa. Companies send sales reps, project managers and resource purchasers across the globe looking for the best deal that will get their product to market cheaper and faster than their competitor. The Internet has truly leveled the world. You Skype a 1-800 number to talk to a bank rep and within seconds you’re talking to an English-speaking college grad from Bangalore. You need to file your taxes, you can send your paperwork to Russia and have it back within a couple days. And if you’re a kid living in Central Asia, thousands of miles from the nearest university, with a decent Wifi connection, you can download some lectures on how to make iPhone Apps from Stanford University and within a few weeks be selling your latest imaginings to the world. You can buy every product under the sun on Ebay. You can hire employees from every country in the world on Upwork. You can even go online to find a spouse, tease your friends, start a revolution or whine about the gross inequities of the teenage experience. You can upload a video to report a tragedy or you can download a virus that can wipe out your company’s research. We hold the world at our fingertips, but our top searches are Powerball, Pokemon Go and Slither.
They’d see that we still have trouble getting along. We created a United Nations that no one listens to, a G8 that spawns protests and a NATO that seems outdated. Billions of us each week go to temples on Saturdays or churches on Sundays. Each day, a billion others all stop what they’re doing five times a day, lay out a rug and pray towards Mecca. We sing songs that praise our deities, pass donation plates to help out those in need, but then listen to sermons and lectures saying our faith is the only true faith and all who oppose us must perish. We are taught to turn the other cheek, follow the Eightfold Path and honor our elders, but we still exact revenge for generations-old slights, condemn those that are different and put our elders in assisted living facilities.
They’d see that we’re still works in progress. They’d see that we’ve developed independently for thousands of years, yet we now today mingle like never before. They’d see that we’ve come a long way, but at different paces and with different priorities.
They’d wonder how we got to here.
And, in fact, most of us wonder how we got to here. But to answer that question we have to go back to the beginning, back to a time when our first ancestors stood up on their hind legs and peered out across a grassy plain. Back to 3.5 million years ago. Back to a little lady named Lucy.
But that is for another chapter.