What will our descendants deplore?

I have a new essay on the BBC Future website today, exploring a question that I took to a selection of the world’s brightest minds: from James Lovelock to Peter Singer, via Tim Harford and Greg Bear. The opening is below, and you can read the whole thing on the BBC Future website.

Earlier this year, I had a discussion that made me ask a disconcerting question: how will I be viewed after I die? I like to think of myself as someone who is ethical, productive and essentially decent. But perhaps I won’t always be perceived that way. Perhaps none of us will.

No matter how benevolent the intention, what we assume is good, right or acceptable in society may change. From slavery to sexism, there’s plenty we find distasteful about the past. Yet while each generation congratulates itself for moving on from the darker days of its parents and ancestors, that can be a kind of myopia.

I was swapping ideas about this with Tom Standage, author and digital editor of The Economist. Our starting point was those popular television shows from the 1970s that contained views or language so outmoded they probably couldn’t be aired today. But, as he put it to me: “how easy it is to be self-congratulatory about how much less prejudiced we are than previous generations”. This form of hindsight can be dangerously smug. It can become both a way of praising ourselves for progress rather than looking for it to continue, and of distracting ourselves from uncomfortable aspects of the present.

Far more interesting, we felt, is this question: how will our generation be looked back on? What will our own descendants deplore about us that we take for granted?

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