Whitley's Journal

Will Mankind Avert Catastrophe?

Note: I have changed the title of this journal entry from "The Triumph of Mankind" because a number of readers do not appear to understand that the title contains a degree of irony. I will also quote a paragraph from deeper in the journal, which many readers apparently do not see: "This doesn't mean that our problems aren't real. They most certainly are, and any number of them are likely to give us trouble in the future. I think that the environmental problem is especially dangerous and immediate."

Now, I'll repeat the journal as it was written:

It's worth remembering, especially as a new year begins, that our world is not all doom and gloom. Far from it, the human experience, for the most part, has never been better.

Ironically, one of the greatest signs of the advance of human civilization is also the primary reason that we think our world is in such bad shape. It is that we now spend a great deal of time identifying our problems and attempting to understand and solve them. However, a side-effect of this effort is that we are liable to end up with a very dark and negative world view.

The job of the news is almost exclusively a negative one: it is the institution we have developed to identify problems. For example, it?s through the news that scientists can communicate their concerns about coming danger to the environment, causing public response and eventual government action. It?s through the news that we identify potential epidemics such as SARS and Bird Flu, so our health institutions can act in time to prevent pandemics. We communicate danger via the news. We discover those who need help. We shine light on evil.

You can look at that process in two ways: it?s a constant barrage of negativity, or it?s useful and productive warning.

But it does tend to make us feel negative about what is actually a very positive time in human history. In fact, this is not the worst of times at all; it is the best of times, and it is full of promise for the future.

Of course, this doesn't mean that our problems aren't real. They most certainly are, and any number of them are likely to give us trouble in the future. I think that the environmental problem is especially dangerous and immediate. The danger comes from the fact that the interrelated system known as the biosphere is breaking down in complex and unpredictable ways, and we depend on it absolutely for our lives. Certainly, there will be future terrorist attacks, earthquakes, storms, vast catastrophes (as, indeed, there always have been).

But they tend to come and go very quickly. What remains continuous, and will continue as long as we can maintain and evolve western civilization presents a very different picture.

Here are some statistics: In 1900, you could expect to live about as long as people lived in 1500 or during Roman times or back before civilization even began: about 31 years. Now, worldwide, that number has more than doubled to 67 years. I would suggest that this, alone, ranks as the greatest accomplishment in human history.

But it's only the beginning, and it isn't limited to the 'first world.' Of course, lifespans are shorter in the third world, and in many African countries suffering from the scourge of AIDS, it?s actually dropping back toward the historical average. But nevertheless, the third world is making progress, too. In 1950, a child born in the first world could expect to live 25 years longer than one born in the third world. Over the past half century, the gap has closed dramatically. Now, a child born in London can expect to live just 12 years longer than one born in Algiers, and it's largely because of the huge increase in lifespan in a third world that is, increasingly, becoming more developed, healthier, happier and more stable.

The rule of law is expanding across the world. Democratic principles and the rule of law prevail in more countries than ever before. In 1900, most of the world was ruled by European empires, and most of those empires were totalitarian and exploitative. Elsewhere, local aristocracies ruled, in general with an iron hand. But no longer. Obviously, a great deal of progress is yet to be made, but things are getting better. Germany, for example, suffered hundreds of years of fracture and then dictatorship, but is now at thriving democracy. The same is true of Japan, and China is moving steadily in the same direction. The rule of law prevails increasingly in places like Indonesia and the Philippines, and, with a few unfortunate exceptions, in Latin America.

Part of the reason for this is education. Global illiteracy has dropped from over 50 percent in 1950 to just 18 percent today. Not only that, more children than ever are in school rather than being thrown away in child labor. In 1960, UNICEF estimated that 25 percent of all children between the ages of 10 and 14 were working. In 2005, that number had dropped to 18 percent.

As productivity has increased, pollution has been rising more slowly or declining in the developed world, and the whole planet shows every sign of making massive efforts to expand this process, both because our lives depend on it and because it is proving to be a profitable enterprise. Led by companies like chemical giant DuPont and oil giant Shell, the corporate world is discovering that care for the environment adds dollars to the bottom line by reducing waste and making workers more efficient.

Energy is being used more efficiently as well. A simple measure of this: a ton of coal burned in a power plant built after the year 2000 produces 15 times as much energy as that same ton burned in 1900. This measure is called energy intensity, and the more it drops, the more efficient energy use becomes. In the developed world, energy intensity drops by an average of 1.3 percent a year.

Of course, carbon dioxide emissions are increasing as energy use increases, but energy efficiency means that, despite huge new demand from places like India and China, the effect of fuel cost increases have been only moderate. A doubling of fuel costs in the 1970s almost wrecked western economies. In 2005-2006, a similarly dramatic increase was absorbed with little economic effect, and caused an immediate expansion of energy efficiency.

But this isn't even the greatest of our achievements. Our new longevity is founded in two crucial areas: better healthcare and more stable food supplies. Just since 1950, food prices worldwide have declined a fantastic 75 percent, even as population has increased 83 percent. Not only that, daily food intake in poor countries has increased 38 percent since 1960. And, looking back 200 years, the change is literally incredible. In 1820, 84 percent of the human population lived in absolute poverty. The wealthiest countries in the world, such as France, England and the United States, had 20 percent literacy rates and 60 percent of their populations living in absolute poverty, literally outside of the money economy altogether, and a staggering half of their populations not getting enough food to sustain life over the long term.

It is worth reflecting that a western discovery is at the basis of all this achievement, and will also be at the basis of the successful rebalancing of nature that will define human social effort in the 21st Century. This is the discovery of the individual, which emerges out of classical Greek thought and early democratic political institutions, Mosaic law and the striking words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: "All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them."

It took many hundreds of years for us to really gain the tools that we needed to enact this most important of all ideas, but across the 19th Century, as we evolved, for example, capabilities like smallpox vaccination, we also developed institutions, primarily through the medium of the Christian community, that extended these blessings into the lives of everybody, on the theory that, because Christ considered every man of inestimable value, so also should we.

It has not been until the latter half of the 20th century that governments and now even those in non-Christian countries, have begun to heed these crucially important words, and to recognize the truth: that every human being is the pearl of great price, that the smallest baby in the poorest house in the poorest place on earth is as valuable as the fine pink child of the greatest prince of the most powerful country in the world.

So, I think it is well worth saying "Merry Christmas" and "Happy New Year" at this time of year, and thanking God for the words than have enabled us to discover the extraordinary importance and value of even the least of us, and that our shared humanity links us far more profoundly than any idea or belief or accident of birth. It is this understanding, and our increasing ability to cherish and support one another, that will gain for us what promises to be future of extraordinary promise?and our ability to discover and solve problems, thanks to the carping, negative media, that throughout most of our history we have been too ignorant to see.

NOTE: This Journal entry, previously published on our old site, will have any links removed.


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