Yes, this is my traditional first post of the new year in which I follow a fairly standard format. You know, giving thanks for the important things, etc. It’s become fairly predictable, but is still an important exercise, by my reckoning.
This is a very very special year for me, for reasons that I will make public in due time. (Don’t pester me about it.) I know I’ve said that before, but this time I mean it.
So let’s get that out of the way. In no particular order, I am thankful for:
- The miracle of still having my parents with me at their (and my) advanced age, still relatively healthy and present and self-reliant.
- The unspeakable joy of having siblings you can rely upon 100%. I never realized how uncommon this is until I started looking about at other people’s sibling relationships. Having people that you know will always have your best interests at heart is, well, an indescribable blessing in life.
- A certain Blonde Girl who, some years ago, kicked me out of my complacency and allowed me to become something resembling a functioning autonomous adult, however late in life. She may yet rescue me from the inferno.
- A certain curly-haired quadruped who reminds me that love knows no species boundary and that true joy is to be had in continual giving and in caring for others.
- My career and employer, both of which I deride at at every opportunity, but frankly, both of which I am enormously fortunate to have stumbled into. Being a tenured professor at the University of Ottawa gives me freedom, flexibility, honour, respect, *money*, and community…. some of the most important ingredients in the recipe for happiness and fulfillment.
- Being alive in 2020 in the Western world.
Okay, that last one is going to bother some people. And I left it for last deliberately because it’s what I really want to talk about. President Obama was fond of asking audiences, “If you could not choose your race or gender, where and when would you want to be born.” In his view –and mine– if you did not answer, “here and now”, then you were ignorant of history.
Because forget what you think you know from time travel movies. Here and now is the best time and place ever.
Right now, the common narrative I hear mostly from young people, and increasingly from older people who should know better, is that the world is shit and getting worse every day. I understand why people think that. Climate change, the oversteps of certain totalitarian governments, the threat of war, and reports of cruelty and suffering are ladled upon us every day via the news and mostly via social media.
But a sober glance at the data reveals a startlingly different conclusion. To the best of our knowledge, data quality being what it is, right now human beings on Earth are experiencing the least crime, the least war, the least poverty, the least gender imbalance, the most access to education, the most democracy, the least hunger, the longest life span, the least child mortality, the least disease, and the most access to information in the history of civilization. In fact, all indicators except two show significant positive trends. Those two exceptions are Climate Change (and related environmental impacts) and the gap between rich and poor, which is growing.
You’ve probably already read Nicholas Kristof’s viral piece in the NY Times about how 2019 was probably the best year ever. Or maybe you’ve heard one of many of Hans Rosling’s lectures about how things are soooo much better now than even a few years ago. (If not, here’s a brief interview.) Or maybe you’ve read Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now or The Better Angels of Our Nature, both of which argue that the arc of history bends toward progress.
Now, the data are not perfect. And an overall upward trend does not mean things are better everywhere, or even that things will always be getting better. In fact, I gave an entire lecture on this topic not so long ago.
But remember two things. First, that two things can be simultaneously true: that things are getting better, and that things still suck for a lot of people. Second, that things can start getting worse at any moment… and you’d better be damn sure that they will if we don’t do our best to preserve the gains we’ve already made. There’s no finer way to lose those gains than to suddenly believe and claim that those gains don’t even exist.
The anti-poverty interventions and global health strategies of the last few decades have been nothing short of heroic. It really pisses me off when someone claims that things are not better than they were even 20 years ago, because that attitude shits on the sacrifices and hard work of generations of my intellectual brethren and forebears who donated sweat, blood and treasure to drag continents out of poverty, to stop endless cycles of war, and to bring about law and order and egalitarianism into an expanding global liberal order that celebrates the rights and sovereignty of the individual.
This was a hard won paradigmatic shift that oft gets conflated with the worst oversteps of so-called late stage capitalism, but that does not get the credit it deserves for the positive transformations of lifestyle, health, wealth and even happiness for billions of people.
The world is not going to shit. The world is still mostly beautiful and transcendent. But it has some serious problems that need fixing. Let’s focus on those two big exceptions I mentioned earlier.
First, the gap between rich and poor is widening, and it’s mostly to do with the rich getting richer much faster than the poor are getting richer. But here’s the thing…. the poor are getting richer. They are. The poor of today are leagues better off than the poor of 20, 50, 100 or 1000 years ago. They’re just not as better off as the rich. And wealth is moving from the West to the East, so wealth growth in our part of the world is not as rapid as it was for the latter half of the last century, though it’s much better than at any other time in history.
In fact, I would argue that the lower classes of today in this country have better lives and more access to services (health, education, information, etc) and to the things that create a high quality of life than did the upper classes of almost any other age in human history. That’s how good modern society is, from a certain point of view.
That’s not to say that there is’t a problem. Of course there’s a problem. Societies historically do not survive a surfeit of disproportionately wealthy strata. That tends to lead to revolutions and new economic tinkering. This might be something akin to Eric Weinstein’s idea that the peace of Rosling and Pinker is a kind of potential energy that will be transformed into –and was transformed from– the kinetic energy of war and crime. But frankly, Eric Weinstein says a lot of bullshit that is supposed to sound smart but that really is some vapid nonsense.
This wealth gap a fixable problem. You know what doesn’t help fix it? Whining that the world is shit and that we should just give up on it. What we need is a new generation of thinkers able to process the challenges of New New Deal Capitalism, globalism and AI automation. And yet what I see is generations of students increasingly disengaging from these hard topics, preferring instead to wallow in the Apocalypse narrative.
Now the second of my exceptions is Climate Change and environmental degradation. I’ve long argued that this is the most important crisis facing humanity, and will continue to be so for at least a couple of generations. We’d better get used to that idea.
But that’s not to say that we are in an Apocalyptic spiral. There is yet a way forward, progressively.
In fact, of late I have become strangely optimistic about the Climate Change threat. I’ve long argued that the large scale economic changes that must happen to make a technological human civilization sustainable will happen too slowly for us to avoid the worst of Climate Change’s impacts. The latency effects just don’t work well with the attention spans of modern peoples and modern governments.
What has changed in my mind remarkably has been a reconsideration of new technologies. Battery technology has improved by leaps and bounds in short order, and with it a cultural change that sees electric cars as not only viable, but cool. And while nuclear fusion has always been 20 years away, now I think it actually is a mere 20 years away. The rush to mine the Moon is part of this transition, as the fuel for fusion is to be found most commonly on the lunar surface.
Innovations like London’s artificial trees are examples of the most exciting category of new technology: carbon capture. And it’s carbon capture that I am most bullish on, as it holds the promise to not only halt the warming of the Earth, but also to reverse the effects of Climate Change. All it takes is a one trillion dollar global investment in perfecting and distributing carbon capture technologies, and a further one trillion dollar investment in creating a carbon capture economy to store and recycle captured carbon.
I’m very excited to see that carbon capture is getting serious attention. As a proposed solution, it suffers from but one major barrier: political will. But that’s a good thing. Human will is at least a real thing that we can work to change, rather than a magical technology or deus ex machina solution that we can only dream about.
I know that this post has triggered/angered some people. Before you press the “comment” button understand what I’m saying: (1) according to measurable indicators, the world is better now than ever before; (2) that doesn’t mean suffering does not exist or that suffering will not return; (3) tools and opportunities are at hand to fix even our most intractable problems. Therefore…. cease your depressive wallowing and nihilistic mainstreaming of your outdated emo ideation.
The world needs sober consideration of data, which means the acknowledgement of all that is good, before we can properly address the real needs of the suffering. Retreating from society does no one any good. So go back to school, you whiny kids.