It turns out Winston Churchill wrote an essay of predictions titled 'Fifty Years Hence'—and while he was off on the timing, some are finally coming true.
Humans have been tinkering in laboratories for millennia. Before then nature was—in many ways, remains—a laboratory itself. Agriculture was a hard-fought discovery that’s still being understood through trial and error. Given agriculture’s role in climate change, our understanding of lab work is shifting again.
We remain between two worlds, that of nature and that of meddling with nature. Sometimes a harmonious relationship exists; often it is fraught with danger. A “back to the earth” movement persists in social consciousness. The same thinkers who believe we’ve destroyed ecosystems and animal populations often welcome scientific intervention—lab-grown meat and leather are two ideas animal rights activists and environmentalists alike applaud.
Foreseeing the future is not particularly challenging in our digital age. If it can be dreamed it can be produced (or reproduced). But understanding which predictions will have large-scale consequences is another story. Richard Branson has long relied on foresight, and he sees lab-grown meat not only impacting agriculture and economics, but actually replacing animal consumption:
"I believe that in 30 years or so we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be clean or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone."
Branson is no speculative ideologue; he has a financial stake in lab-grown meat, with recent investments in Memphis Meats. Yet just as his vision of space travel could net him profits, technology and emerging markets are old bedfellows. In this case, a boon for companies that reduce suffering and carbon emissions is a win for everyone.
Today what could have taken decades seems to occur in months. Life seems to be speeding up. Nearly a hundred years ago—December, 1931, to be exact—Winston Churchill knew time is fluid, or, as he puts it in an article titled 'Fifty Years Hence', published in Strand Magazine, “constantly quickening.” Churchill witnessed civilized nations rising above the need for the bare necessities of survival to experience what he calls “culture.” Cultures have to keep progressing, he insisted, as sliding backwards would be devastating:
"Mankind has gone too far to go back, and is moving too fast to stop. There are too many people maintained, not merely in comfort but in existence, by processes unknown a century ago, for us to afford even a temporary check, still less a general setback, without experiencing calamity in its most frightful form."
Churchill’s anthropological reckoning on the economics of past societies has been updated by recent research. Yet he was an ardent devotee of history. He expresses particular adoration for Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall,” of which he said the poet's predictive couplets have come to pass—a slightly premature assessment, given the coming world war. Churchill uses Tennyson as a springboard for his own predictive powers, which he says combines historical education and scientific instinct.
Churchill proved (or is proving) prescient in his social sorcery. In an ode certainly pleasing to animal rights activists, he knew food production was about to take a serious turn:
"We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium. Synthetic food will, of course, also be used in the future… The new foods will from the outset be practically indistinguishable from the natural products, and any changes will be so gradual as to escape observation."
Frozen, processed foodstuffs would be next, however, changing the face of the planet as World War II raged on. Rather than creating foods, manufactures utilized chemistry to delay the spoiling of existing foods while injecting animals with antibiotics and growth hormones to increase their yield. If Churchill foresaw this he gave no hint, for his vision is more Paradiso than Inferno. If lab-grown meat is on the horizon, as it appears to be, it took the clearing of a large roadblock to arrive.
Production in many forms is Churchill’s great hope of the future. Not only food, but work will change dramatically. Nuclear energy replaces coal. Engines and machinery make slavery unnecessary. Robots will offer us more leisure time and less physical strain. So great is our mechanical engineering, in fact, he saw all of nature bowing to us:
"Geography and climate would obey our orders."
True, they have, the problem being we weren’t aware what orders we’ve been giving. Churchill might have missed greenhouse gases because his focus was on the structural side. He believed sunlight would be inconsequential when food is grown with “artificial radiation.” Agricultural bunkers would shorten the distance between city and country, as urbanites gain acres:
"Parks and gardens will cover our pastures and ploughed fields. When the time comes there will be plenty of room for the cities to spread themselves again."
Churchill was even clued into the development of artificial life. A London play clued him into the possibility of test tube babies. Humanoid creatures will be developed for the purpose of employment "without other ambitions.” He believed Christian civilization would prevent such an ethically indeterminate development, but we’d better stay upon on the technology as Russians might welcome robotic human beings. He writes, with more than a hint of disdain,
"There is nothing in the philosophy of Communists to prevent their creation."
Churchill’s apocalyptic message remains timely. Sure, there were oversights: Our brains are quite different than those of our ancestors “millions of years ago,” and the idea that “modern man we know so well will do the most terrible deeds, and his modern woman will back him up” would not even go over even a decade later when the women’s rights movement picked up steam during the Second World War.
Yet Churchill knew science changes the world, just as he knew that we’re doomed without an understanding of history. These messages remain particularly meaningful in a world being ravaged by climate change, piece by piece by piece, as well as tribal infighting fueled by nationalistic anxiety across the globe.
Materialistic progress is irrelevant if humans can’t get along. Not so much a prediction as Churchill simply opening his eyes. He knew technology and science offer both “Blessing and Cursing,” that we are ultimately the deciders of our fate. Optimist he was, he concluded with a sense of hope, which is sometimes all we have to keep us pressing forward.
"No material progress, even though it takes shapes we cannot now conceive, or however it may expand the faculties of man, can bring comfort to his soul. It is this fact, more wonderful than any that Science can reveal, which gives the best hope that all will be well."
Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Churchill displays a surprising amount of knowledge on a question that we are still wrestling with.
Today, Winston Churchill is seen as a cigar chomping, bulldog-faced leader from generations past, adorning offices and college dorms, where he displays a slightly jovial or else dead calm expression, and often, under his visage, stands a quote which inspires and heartens toward perseverance. Churchill was the rallying voice of the British people during some of the darkest days of World War II.
He was also among the first to see Germany as a growing threat and helped modernize and prepare Britain for the oncoming fight. His speeches during the war helped soothe and strengthen the resolve of the British people. He also coined the phrase “iron curtain” in a speech a year after the war, regarding the Soviet Union and how it was beginning to control an enormous swath of Eastern Europe.
As one of history’s foremost political and military leaders, Churchill is today looked upon with respect and admiration. What he is not well known for are his ruminations regarding science. According to a newly unearthed essay, the statesman contemplated our presence in the universe, and whether or not we are the only form of intelligent life.
Churchill was in fact a prolific writer. He’d been a military reporter and penned several books. But what’s less well documented is that Churchill also wrote on topics as diverse as nuclear fission, cells, and evolution, with articles published throughout the 1920s and 30s. Some scholars believe that this newly discovered piece may have been inspired by the 1938 radio broadcast of The War of The Worlds by Orson Welles, which resulted in a “Mars fever.”
Churchill kept close ties with scientists during and after the war, and was the first prime minister to bring on a science adviser. He spurred an interest in science in the country, supported the erecting of labs and telescopes, and even founded Churchill College, an institution much like MIT which has since turned out 32 Nobel Prize winners. During the war, he promoted the use of radar and supported the country’s nuclear program.
Churchill considered the Goldilocks Zone, and other astronomical principles in his argument.
Still, it was a great shock when this newly discovered document entitled, “Are We Alone in the Universe?” was unearthed. The 11-page article was first written in 1939 and had been edited lightly for publication in the 1950s. Somehow, it had been forgotten. Then in the 1980s, a copy was given to the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri. There it remained until the museum’s newest director, Timothy Riley, came across it in 2016.
After finding out it hadn’t been published, he passed it on to the journal Nature. Soon, two other copies were found in UK archives. The journal didn’t publish the article in its entirety.
Astrophysicist Dr. Mario Livio, who received the piece from Riley, penned the version in Nature. He told the BBC that copyright issues, for the time being, made its full publication impossible. But the museum is working to see that it will eventually be released. Livio gave insights into the famous leader’s thinking, peppering his piece with quotes from the original text. Using the “Copernican Principle,” Churchill argues that the vastness of the universe and the multiplicity of planets leads us to believe that we are not alone.
“The sun is merely one star in our galaxy, which contains several thousand millions of others” Churchill writes. From there, he presumes that there are probably other forms of “comparatively highly-organised life.” Next, he concentrates on life’s need for water. Though other liquids may support it, “nothing in our present knowledge entitles us to make such an assumption.”
Water on Mars. Unfortunately, nothing lingers there now. But life may have inhabited the red planet in the past.
We are just beginning to learn that water is abundant in the universe, and can even be found on asteroids and on the moon. Next, Churchill concentrates on areas in solar systems which are in what we’d call today the “Goldilocks” zone, where a planet is far enough from a star as not to be too hot, but close enough so as not to be too cold. Having the right atmosphere and gravity to trap gases are important too, which Churchill considered.
He then states that Mars and Venus are our only neighbors who could harbor life. Venus’s atmosphere is poisonous. But some studies suggest that it may have, at one time, been habitable. Today, astrobiologists consider Saturn’s moon Titan or Jupiter’s Europa as possible life-containing bodies.
Though Churchill says that our sun may be unique, he also states, “I am not sufficiently conceited to think that my sun is the only one with a family of planets.” Churchill’s words were extremely forward thinking, as the discovery of exoplanets only began two decades ago. He also foresaw the space program. "One day, possibly even in the not very distant future, it may be possible to travel to the Moon, or even to Venus and Mars.” But whether we could cross the great distances to see if nearby exoplanets host life, Churchill was in doubt.
The then-prime-minister ends his essay by writing, “with hundreds of thousands of nebulae, each containing thousands of millions of suns, the odds are enormous that there must be immense numbers which possess planets whose circumstances would not render life impossible.”
Then he says, “I, for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilization here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe which contains living, thinking creatures, or that we are the highest type of mental and physical development which has ever appeared in the vast compass of space and time.”
To learn more about this newly unearthed essay, click here: