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The suddenly mighty creature

The fact that a millennium is ending should not obscure the obvious additional fact that a most extraordinary century, too, is now coming to a close. As we go through the various retrospectives, one essential part of humankind's experience during this century should be noted:

This was the century that our species had to confront its having the power to destroy itself, and our planet along with us.

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Imagine the shock. After living on this planet for countless generations, suddenly we spring forth with powers so great that they threaten our planet's very survival. The spiritual repercussions of this abrupt magnification of our powers should not be underestimated.

First came nuclear weapons, and with them, in the cold war, the superpowers' posture of assured mutual destruction.

For decades, all humankind watched as the dominant nations of the planet - engaged in a global struggle for power - stood poised to unleash weapons of such unprecedented power that the continuation of life on Earth came into question.

Our traditions had given us images of global catastrophe before, such as the great biblical flood survived by Noah and his family. But the role of humankind in such stories of catastrophe was limited to being the provocation of divine wrath, the object of punishment. The power to destroy belonged to the Almighty, the Creator of the universe.

With the advent of thermonuclear weapons, suddenly such seemingly godlike powers are wielded by mankind.

How disturbing, how burdensome, to discover ourselves so mighty on this planet, so responsible for its continuing existence - how threatening especially in a century where twice already, during global conflagrations, humankind had collectively shown itself with a most ugly and snarling face, as nations stalked each other across the entire planet, killing masses of people.

Then, after such wars, such a peace - one where the shadow of annihilation hung over all the people of the world.

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The second dimension of our newly discovered powers of destructiveness has been in the environmental realm. Not only did human numbers quadruple in the 20th century (unlike in any other century in history), but our impact on the living systems of the earth multiplied far more than that. For the same scientific and technological progress that made possible the weapons of the cold war also greatly magnified our capacity to harness and transform the resources of the natural world for the production of wealth. With these new productive technologies came, as a byproduct, a correspondingly unprecedented power to tear apart the intricate fabric of the biosphere on which our lives depend.

At the dawn of this century, our understanding of how ancient and organic our connection is with this earth had only begun to infiltrate and inform our world view. Even as we were still working to comprehend our lives as the fruit of billions of years of life's emergence on this planet, it suddenly became urgent that we perceive ourselves as not only living off this planet but as having to live in harmony with it if our kind and the civilization we have created are to endure.

These confrontations with our new, unprecedented mightiness have not required us to invent entirely new virtues, but they do require us to embody far more fully some virtues that have not been conspicuously evident throughout history.

Biblical tradition has given us, for example, the concept of responsible stewardship over the creation. But however ancient the idea, it has not hitherto reliably restrained our collective expressions of greed. Now we have enthroned an economic system that has no concept of sufficiency, no inherent sense of limit - a system, moreover, that enthrones self-interest as the prime mover of action. Yet the long-term realities of ecological interdependence are inescapable, and we face a significant moral, spiritual, and institutional challenge to master our greed as we enter the new millennium.

Nor is the idea new that we are called upon to exercise reason and care at times of anger, but never before this century did the survival of the earth depend upon it. It's an enormous achievement of humankind that we navigated the straits of the cold war without a global conflagration.

But in this time of triumphalism, we are in danger of stressing the wrong lesson from that achievement. Whatever may have been confirmed of those old warrior virtues of building one's strength and not backing down before threat, the most fundamental lesson of our survival of that confrontation was the indispensability, in this new era of human history, of self-restraint.

To go along with our newly achieved godlike powers, our kind is now challenged for its very survival to arrive at new images of godliness. Not just the possession of power, but its restrained use. Not just bestriding the world in a posture of mighty dominance, but fitting in and aligning oneself with a larger order that serves life.

Our history did not fully prepare us for the trauma of this century, but our continuation will require that we learn its lessons.

*Andrew Bard Schmookler writes from Broadway, Va. His latest book is 'Debating the Good Society: A Quest to Bridge America's Moral Divide' (MIT Press).

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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