Stephen Hawking has penned a thoughtful appeal for post-Brexit Britain to reconsider the role that wealth plays in society, warning that isolationism and envy could even lead to the end of the human species.
In a Guardian essay, the world-renowned physicist made the case for a more comprehensive and generous definition of wealth “to include knowledge, natural resources and human capacity.”
Noticing that we’re living in “perilous times,” Hawking lists all the multiple challenges that the planet and human race face: climate change, food production, overpopulation, the decimation of other species, epidemic disease, and acidification of the ocean.
“Such pressing issues will require us to collaborate, all of us, with a shared vision and cooperative endeavour to ensure that humanity can survive,” he says. “We will need to adapt, rethink, refocus and change some of our fundamental assumptions about what we mean by wealth, by possessions, by mine and yours. Just like children, we will have to learn to share.”
The cosmologist argues that wealth played a crucial role in Britain’s decision to leave the EU, and he highlights how the verdict could be damaging for EU grants to science and research.
Money is also important because it is liberating for individuals. I have spoken in the past about my concern that government spending cuts in the UK will diminish support for disabled students, support that helped me during my career. In my case, of course, money has helped not only make my career possible but has also literally kept me alive.
On one occasion while in Switzerland early on in my career, I developed pneumonia, and my college at Cambridge, Gonville and Caius, arranged to have me flown back to the UK for treatment. Without their money I might not have survived to do all the thinking that Ive managed since then. Cash can set individuals free, just as poverty can certainly trap them and limit their potential, to their own detriment and that of the human race.
He goes on to explain how he came to see money “as a means to an end” but never as an end in itself. It’s an attitude that is becoming more widespread, he wrote:
People are starting to question the value of pure wealth. Is knowledge or experience more important than money? Can possessions stand in the way of fulfilment? Can we truly own anything, or are we just transient custodians?
Redefining wealth and learning to share it is the challenge of our times, Hawking argues. Failing to do so could lead to end of human race:
If we fail then the forces that contributed to Brexit, the envy and isolationism not just in the UK but around the world that spring from not sharing, of cultures driven by a narrow definition of wealth and a failure to divide it more fairly, both within nations and across national borders, will strengthen. If that were to happen, I would not be optimistic about the long-term outlook for our species.
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