What will be our legacy for the generations of humanity yet to come?
I had the privilege to visit India again recently and was excited to join the thousands of tourists queuing up to see the Taj Mahal in Agra.
As I stood before the majestic structure, listening to the tour guide explaining how and why it was built nearly 400 years ago, I couldn’t help but marvel at the sheer beauty and geometric symmetry that had been created by craftsmen almost with their bare hands.
Barring an earthquake or some other natural disaster, Shah Jahan’s monument to his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal will still be one of the most famous buildings in the world in 400 years’ time.
The question I asked myself was: which of the structures we are building today will also be revered in 400 years’ time as iconic monuments; our gift to future generations, a statement of the cultural richness we have created for the benefit of all humanity? What is to be our legacy for those who will come after us, following our guardianship of this precious planet?
In short, what will they say about us?
My visit to Agra was part holiday and part research trip for my latest book, A Litany of Good Intentions. Today Agra is one of the most polluted cities in the world. The air quality can be so bad that the city is often bathed in smog which carries over 9 times the normal range for pollutants.
The sacred and once pristine Yamuna River now holds the dubious honour of being one of the most polluted rivers in India. Rising in the Himalayas, the crystal clear waters tumble down through mountain gorges and travel over 800 miles across Northern India. By the time the waters reach Agra, they have passed through New Delhi and been subjugated to untold human and chemical waste.
Shah Jahan would weep if he could see what we have done to the environment around his most famous creation.
A Litany of Good Intentionsis about poverty, a man-made disease that we as a species continue to tolerate. Our apathy towards the need to eradicate poverty allows the exploitation of the poorest in our society, be they in India, Africa, America, Europe, Asia or anywhere else. Human trafficking, child slavery, prostitution, these are just some of the bi-products of a society that just doesn’t care.
The gap between rich and poor grows wider every day. It is the age of the selfie: the billionaire: the haves and the have nots. How can we sit and watch chemical weapon attacks on innocent children: swathes of refugees with nowhere to sleep at night: starving people dying of disease in desert conditions with no food, water or medical supplies, when a few miles away there are hospitals and luxury hotels?
I want to start a debate about our legacy for future generations. My book could provide the catalyst for that debate.
I have two major concerns – firstly that they will look back at our generation and ask what were we playing at? With all the technological advancement at our fingertips: with all the knowledge we can access at the touch of a button: with all the education, computing power and research facilities at our command: why didn’t we eradicate poverty?
Why didn’t we build magnificent monuments that will stand the test of time? Why did we spend so much time and money thinking about ourselves and not the other people?
But my bigger concern is that, given climate change, escalating levels of pollution, plastics in the oceans, the risk of superbugs and our lack of progress preventing the spread of new diseases: my concern is that there won’t be anybody left alive in 400 years’ time to enjoy the Taj Mahal or the other wonders of a world that we have destroyed.
Andrew Harris, May 2018