Are we the future our ancestors dreamed of?

In the well-known Michael J. Fox film, Back to the Future, 2015 was the year in which cars would fly, hover boards would roam the streets and robot drones would walk the dog.

There is something quite fascinating about looking back at what men and women throughout history expected of ‘the future’. In the 1480s Leonardo da Vinci sketched plans for a flying machine, in the 1860s Jules Verne wrote of space travel and many others anticipated that we would achieve similarly great things.

Indeed, we can be incredibly proud of the astonishing pace at which humanity has innovated, discovered and advanced in recent centuries.

Occasionally, the unbridled optimism of historical visions of the future can give us pause for thought. When Herbert Hoover accepted the Republican nomination for the Presidency of the United States in 1928, he exclaimed to his audience that they were, “in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation.”

Just 14 months later, the Wall Street Crash triggered a 10 year financial depression, which gripped much of the western world. Nearly a century on and the numbers of people, particularly children, still living below the poverty line is cause for great alarm.

Judaism sets out a vision of what the future will ultimately hold for humanity. Our sages teach us that we must work towards a world where there is universal justice, security and truth.

Yet, although we have countless references in our religious and Biblical discourse to a utopian, post-messianic era in which these objectives are realised, they also teach us that social justice is very much achievable now. Not at some distant point in the future that we might feel is out of reach – but today, in 2015.

With remarkably little fanfare, world leaders met last week to adopt what are known as the ‘Sustainable Development Goals’. They are the successor to the ‘Millennium Development Goals’ agreed by the international community in the year 2000 and represent the most realistic and unified approach in human history to tackling global inequality, poverty, hunger and climate change, to name but a few of their priorities.

Fifteen years ago, the world pledged to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger and to achieve universal primary education (among other aspirations). Today, more than 800 million people still live in extreme poverty and there are 58 million children of primary school age not in education.

There is reason to be optimistic. The world has lifted more than a billion people out of extreme poverty since 1990 and the proportion of undernourished people in the developing regions has fallen by almost half. But what would our ancestors have made of our progress?

Would they congratulate us for developing the fastest cars and the most intricate video games or would they lament our failure to protect the most vulnerable in our society? Are we the future that they dreamed of?

Every one of us has a responsibility to convey to our political representatives the urgency of this opportunity and the moral imperative to ensure that we do not squander it.

The Sustainable Development Goals are considered by too many people to be a way of addressing somebody else’s problems – but poverty, inequality and injustice plague us all, no matter where we live or how sheltered we might feel.

Indeed, those people who are fortunate enough to feel entirely unaffected by these problems have the greatest responsibility of all to support those who are not so blessed.

As the American author, H. Jackson Brown, Jr. put it, “Live so that when your children think of fairness, caring and integrity, they think of you”.

Let us work together on delivering that as a vision for the present rather than allowing our aspirations to escape us and drift off… back to the future.

About the Author
Ephraim Mirvis is the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth
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