Is this the end of life as I know it?

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'A thousand ages in thy sight are like an evening gone.' That was Isaac Watts's view of God's relationship to time. As one gets older, one has a rather similar sensation of the brevity of time and the accelerating speed with which it passes. My own perception of time has seemed to be proportionate; it took as long to go from two to four as from 20 to 40, and appears to be taking as long to go from 60 to 70 as it did to go from six to seven.

I have now been writing this column for more than six years, since the Independent was founded, and indeed for four dummies before it was first published. This will be the last one. Sidgwick & Jackson has just published a collection of these columns, Picnics on Vesuvius, so there is a record of what I have been writing about. I have dedicated the collection to my first grandchild, Maud Craigie, who can look forward to living through most of the next century, towards which the world is hurtling at such unstable speed.

It has not been easy, in these past six years, to distinguish between the acceleration of time that comes from growing older and the acceleration of history itself. The period in which I have been writing has seen the collapse of the Soviet Union and of Communist power in Eastern Europe, the rise and collapse of the boom of the Eighties, the waning of the Conservative revolution of ideas, the end of apartheid, the spread of Aids into Asia, the rise of crime in most countries and the virtual collapse of sub-Saharan Africa into Malthusian conditions of famine, disease and war. There has also been the shift of productive growth from Europe and North America to Japan and the Far East.

These economic and political changes are exceptionally rapid and great. They take place in a world of equally rapid technological change. The greater part of the technology now in use has been introduced since the start of the Second World War, in a period of just over 50 years. That includes most of modern medicine, with antibiotics, scans and organ transplants. It includes by far the greater part of electronics, computers, satellites, microchips and the mass use of television. It also includes mass air travel.

Karl Marx would have argued that late 20th-century political life has been driven by the development of this accelerating technological change. The survival of the free market world, and the destruction of the Marxist-Leninist command economy of the Soviet Union, has reflected the ability of the open system to absorb the new technology and the failure of the command system. China has maintained command politics but abandoned command economics; that may well prove a short-term defence of Communist power. Technology creates new classes, new social attitudes and new demands.

The Western system itself is showing the strain. The shift of productive power from the North-West to the South-East has been accompanied by a depression in the older industrial countries, including Britain. Europe and America are having to adapt to the massive transfer of technology to countries with low labour costs; China has labour costs as low as 10 US cents an hour, against dollars 10 an hour in Detroit, and even Mexico, with whom the United States has negotiated a free trade area, has industrial labour costs only a fifth of those in the United States.

In the past, advanced societies enjoyed an advantage for decades, or even centuries, and therefore had ample time to adapt. Now, the skill which used to be slowly acquired by the trained worker is programmed into the machine; technology transfer can be almost instantaneous. Investment and growth will go where the cost advantage is greatest, to the Far East and, to a lesser extent, Latin America. The wealthy economies may maintain their standards of living, but will not grow so fast, if at all.

World growth in the Nineties has been slowed by the cyclical downturn of credit in the United States, in Japan and in Europe. The world banking system has an overload of debt, based on security which has lost much of its value. The trends of government expenditure, including welfare costs, are unsustainable in most of the advanced countries.

The depression of the early Nineties seems likely to continue. It could well be followed by a major inflation, as nations panic to get out of prolonged depression. The rise in unemployment threatens the whole of the European Community.

How can mankind deal with this acceleration of change? It has already made the world's politicians look like so many pygmies. George Bush will prove to be only one of the first of the old leaders to be repudiated; the Italian political leadership has already gone. There is now no Western government which could expect to win an election; the Conservative victory in Britain last April already looks like an aberration from the general rule that governments must be turned out.

Modern politicians are trying to adapt to forces greater than themselves, which they cannot control and do not understand. They cannot save the modern world as it tries to crash through this sound barrier.

If the world is to be saved, it will be saved by the spirit. Politicians, or bankers, or soldiers, or businessmen, or even authors and artists are not the essential people. We need saints. The most relevant figures are not those who understand the world but those who can bring to the world something from outside itself, who can act as the transmitters of grace. Mother Teresa, who sees Christ in the dying people on the streets of Calcutta, or the Dalai Lama, who bears his people's suffering with serene spiritual tranquillity, represent the possibility of survival. The men of power and the students of power are like blind kittens - a metaphor Stalin once used of his politburo - compared to them.

If we are lucky, mankind as it is has about 50 years left. Most of the graphs of human development, population, ecology, technology, nuclear proliferation and the spread of disease are on an explosive curve. The lines shoot off the graph somewhere in the middle of the next century. Of course, some of these explosions will not happen; self-correcting mechanisms will come into effect. But enough will take place to make the world unliveable in if there is no change in human consciousness.

Humanity is unlikely to survive the 21st century with 20th-century attitudes. If the atheists are right, and there is nothing to reinforce human reason, then the necessary change of consciousness can hardly occur. If spiritual grace is real and is given to human beings, the possibility of a completely different and higher consciousness does at least exist.

The outcome will presumably be the result of interaction between the free choice of human beings and the divine providence. God does not force humanity to survive, but at least we are sent enough saints in each generation to show us the possibility. A world guided by saints and the spirit would not only be a better world but also far, far safer into a much longer future.

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