So, that's the "no" part of my answer to the question, "Is life becoming less and less stable?" Now for the "yes" part: Yes, I do think that we humans have added a new and significant layer of instability to the already basic tenuousness of life. There are now billions of us, living closer together, creating ever-more deadly toxins and weapons and using up the planet's precious resources. So an earthquake, or a drought, or a war can affect many more people. We have altered the earth's ecosystems so radically that life is no longer possible for many species of animals, insects and plants. If we keep gobbling up habitats, stripping the forests, thinning the atmosphere and polluting the water, life for humans may go the way of the dinosaurs. Vaclav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic, sees our times as a test: "Either we will achieve an awareness of our place in the living and life-giving organism of our planet," he says, "or we will face the threat that our evolutionary journey may be set back thousands or even millions of years. That is why we must see this issue as a challenge to behave responsibly and not as a harbinger of the end of the world." That's a test I pray we pass.

There's another reason life may feel a tad more out of control these days: Unlike our ancestors, we seem to think things should be controllable. We've become accustomed to being warm in the winter and cool in the summer; if we get sick, we expect to get better; we eat three easy meals a day and rely on quick transportation and instant communication. But these are all relatively new developments in the march of human history. A couple of centuries ago, there were no such things as central heat, air conditioning, antibiotics, supermarkets, automobiles or computers. In 1903—a little more than 100 years ago—the United States bureau of statistics listed these facts about life in America: 8 percent of homes had a telephone. There were 8,000 cars in the United States and 144 miles of paved roads. Fourteen percent of homes had a bathtub, and most American women washed their hair once a month and used borax or egg yolks for shampoo. Ninety percent of all U.S. physicians had no college education. Instead, they attended medical schools, many of which were condemned by the government as "substandard." The average life expectancy in the United States was 47.

While it's much more pleasant to live with the conveniences we have become accustomed to, you have to admit they can create a false sense of security. We're horrified when "acts of God" occur—earthquakes, floods, disease, death. We take these things personally; we want to blame someone for not protecting us even when there's no one to blame but the nature of life itself. No matter how many advances humanity makes, no matter how much money or power an individual has, we will always be fragile creatures, living on a tiny planet, supported by a sun that will burn itself out, in an infinite, mysterious universe. Nothing stable about any of that!

How Elizabeth is surviving without power


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