Sunday, January 11, 2015

It's Not as Bad as You Think

There are many cognitive tasks Human beings are not very good at... one of which is discerning the differences between eras. We don't appreciate that life today is a lot different from previous epochs from which we got The Bible, the works of Shakespeare or even The Wealth of Nations.

The church I used to attend likes to look for signs of the second coming of Christ (other churches apparently believe in the Rapture instead), which is said to be preceded by great wickedness, wars, and suffering.
And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book. - Daniel 12:1
And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in diverse places. - Matthew 24:6–7
I heard people at church saying things like "we don't know when the second coming will be--it could be tomorrow!" But they know the signs — how can they think we're having sufficient famines and wars, let alone earthquakes, for the second coming?

This post is not about religion; it's just a convenient way to illustrate that many people still seem to think the world is filled with wickedness, war, and suffering. Wickedness, conservatives would say, due to phenomena like gay marriage, apathy and atheism — but don't we live in a time with less hatred than ever before? I do think apathy is a serious problem, but it's been a problem throughout all of history. Isn't war and murder far worse than premarital sex? We have much less of the former. Hatred is worse than apathy, and we have less of that. As far as I'm aware, the largest group of hateful people on earth are Muslim extremists, and they are a tiny minority of the world's population. As for war and suffering, it can be shown objectively that there is less war and less suffering today — dramatically less — than during most of human history.

When you read this, does it seem remarkable merely that you can read it? I'm not just talking about the fact that you got it from a fantastic technological medium called the internet, or that I was able to publish it worldwide without having to pay anyone a dime. More basic than that, your brain is able to decode a complicated sequence of glyphs into human thought! The remarkable thing about the modern era is that this ability of yours is so commonplace. It is remarkable, not only that you can stare at a bunch of writing and have an intellectually stimulating experience, but that most of the adults in your country can do the same thing.

Don't take my word for it. Slate has a fantastic article on the subject entitled Why The World Is Not Falling Apart.
It’s a good time to be a pessimist. ISIS, Crimea, Donetsk, Gaza, Burma, Ebola, school shootings, campus rapes, wife-beating athletes, lethal cops—who can avoid the feeling that things fall apart, the center cannot hold? Last year Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before a Senate committee that the world is “more dangerous than it has ever been.” This past fall, Michael Ignatieff wrote of “the tectonic plates of a world order that are being pushed apart by the volcanic upward pressure of violence and hatred.” Two months ago, the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen lamented, “Many people I talk to, and not only over dinner, have never previously felt so uneasy about the state of the world.... The search is on for someone to dispel foreboding and embody, again, the hope of the world.”
This must-read article systematically dismantles the idea that the world is falling apart, mostly with graphs dating from 1945. Before 1945, of course, we had two world wars, in which tens of millions of people were killed, and the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, in which 50 to 100 million people were killed.

If you look at statistics before 1900 (what few are available) you'll see numbers even worse than during most of the 20th century. Before 1900 there was no penicillin, virtually no blood transfusions, and few reliable surgical procedures. There were no radios, virtually no automobiles, no airplanes, no television, and no computers. Now you can read this article on the internet--from almost any location on Earth! Do you really understand what life was like before 1900, let alone 1800? Before 1800 there were no anaesthetics (and not much in the way of analgesics), almost no vaccines, and doctors didn't know (and had false beliefs about) how diseases were transmitted, which led to many deaths. Before 1800 there was no such thing as refrigeration, no telegraphs, no telephones, no electricity, and no tall buildings except Pyramids and cathedral spires. Forget indoor plumbing; even underground sewers were rare. Since 1800, life expectancy has more than doubled worldwide, and since 1800, rates of literacy and education have skyrocketed around the world (references: medical, inventions, life expectancy, literacy, etc).

In New York in 1915, even an idea as basic as being kind to your infant was revolutionary in some circles:
Though infant mortality had plummeted in the slums thanks to the bureau’s efforts, it hadn’t budged in wealthier neighborhoods.... At the time, medical opinion held that mothers should train their babies early to be independent by feeding them at regular intervals and ignoring their cries and babbles. Doing otherwise was thought to damage them psychologically. We now know the opposite is true. - The Doctor Who Made a Revolution
To sum up, I bet that even a cat has a much higher chance of surviving to age 5 today than a human child did in 1800.

The world could, of course, be a much better place than it is, but it could also be so much worse. The one constant is change, and the price of liberty is eternal vigilance; we must keep fighting for a better world if we are to maintain our quality of life and avoid slipping back to old patterns of war, suffering and ignorance. Thanks to nuclear and biological weapons, another world war could be incomparably disastrous. Thanks to today's severe income inequality, and the shrinkage of the job market, it's possible that average living standards may slip backward soon in some countries. But as we listen to the news and fight for a better world, let us give thanks, and not forget that we are, in fact, living in the most prosperous time in all of human history.

1 comment:

Brian P said...

I often think this myself - it takes a tremendous effort to actually make the world a better place but the speed and ferocity that the world has been improving over the past 300 years compared to the entire 3 thousand before that is pretty stunning.

These are the types of thoughts that keep me working at Facebook attempting to connect the world and the web of it's people together. still many Billions more are left unconnected - but this too will happen, and in my lifetime I am sure of it.

the ability for every person to strive for a better life, and have access to the information needed to make it happen is hastening the transformation you are talking about.

I for one am tremendously happy that I live in the modern era and not in any of the times you mentioned. Truly this is the most peaceful, and positive time so far - may the next 100 years see this trend continue.