The Human Condition:

Worst of Times, Best of Times – February 3, 2013

A lovely little video is going the email rounds these days called “Our Story in Two Minutes.” It is rumored to be the product of high school students doing some kind of social studies project, but the production values—selection and pacing of the images, quality of the music—seem a bit too professional. Like the opening credits to the popular TV comedy The Big Bang Theory, the video covers the creation of the Earth, the evolution of life and then of humankind, the span of recorded history, the development of modern technology, and the rise and fall of 20th-century dictatorships at lightning speed. It’s lively and fun to watch … until you get to the end.

The final seconds—the coda, if you will, to where we stand today—is a vision of endless war, plague and death, and environmental catastrophe. As horrible as some of the images from the preceding four billion years might be, the future promises to be worse—bleak, damaged, despairing, and ultimately subsiding back into primordial chaos. If this video is indeed a student project, I fear for the students. If this vision of the future is what they are learning in school and parroting back in their assignments, the next generation has some rethinking to do.

As I’ve said before, I’m a technological positivist. I believe that the quality of human life and the human future are, overall, on the whole, and for most people on this planet, pretty good and getting better. I am aware of the hardships and the dangers. I know that many people around the world may be suffering. But taken against the backdrop of human history, I think these are the best of times. Here is why.

Endless War

We have not had a world war—a truly global conflict with armies mobilized, battalions clashing, fleets engaged, beaches stormed, capital cities bombed—in more than sixty years. Not since World War II. We have had global conflict. First came the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, played out in local attacks and vicarious wars in Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, and elsewhere, with much churning among diplomats and intelligence agencies in between. Then came the terrorist campaigns of Jihadists from the Middle East, played out in local attacks and wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere, including a devastating strike at New York City.

These are brushfires. The United States has fought them with less than full mobilization and, in the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq, put these wars on its credit card instead of making sacrifices at home with national conscription and widespread rationing such as during World War II. War as a matter of invasion of a neighbor’s territory and subjugation of its people, such as Hitler fought in Eastern Europe and then the Soviets fought right back in the final days of the war, is practically a thing of the past.1 Aside from homegrown “liberations” and guerrilla efforts, the modern war is fought with ideology and economics, not with large armies.

I credit nuclear weapons with this achievement. Anyone who marches across a border and tries to capture a capital, as the Third Reich did in Poland and Russia, will be met not with mobilized armies but with a barrage of MIRVs. With total annihilation as the backstop to any argument, you become cautious about the fights you pick. I speak as a citizen of the only country that has ever set off a nuclear bomb in anger—and that was a truly sobering experience. It changed war forever on all sides.

The concern these days is for “proliferation” of nuclear weapons. But … realistically? … the genie is out of the bottle. The technology is known and reproducible although, as the Iranians are finding out, difficult and costly to achieve if you want more than one or two black market bombs that you don’t know how to maintain or mount as warheads. Becoming a serious nuclear power takes effort and dedication—and that’s a good thing. Once a nation, “rogue state” or not, has invested that much time and treasure in becoming a nuclear power, its perspective changes. It knows there are bigger boys with more toys just down the block. That makes them cautious.

No, nuclear weapons have changed the face of global conquest. Today the issues are technological and economic. Why invade a country and subdue its people with soldiers and guns when you can conquer them with ideas, productive capacity, and financial influence?2 It’s easier and less painful to make their Lexuses and iPhones; buy their companies, shopping malls, and treasury bonds; and hold the mortgage on their future.3

Plague and Death

We live in a remarkably healthy time—not just here in the up-to-date western world, but in places that used to be called “the Third World” and “developing countries.” When I was a child, places like India and China were reputed to be pits of misery and starvation. True, most of the population in those countries still has a sub-western standard of living. Some people are desperately poor and subject to diseases that we brush off with a childhood vaccination or a round of antibiotics. But standards of living, levels of education, and access to medical technology are improving all the time.

The Green Revolution is making more food—and often in hardier, more nutritious varieties—available through improvements in agricultural practice, seed and livestock selection, pest control, and genetics. Famine still exists in the world, but in most cases it is due to political disruption, intentional malfeasance, and disparity in economics rather than simple scarcity of supply.

People are living longer, not just in the western world, and not just those with access to adequate health insurance. Infant mortality is declining worldwide along with natural birth rates. Good nutrition, better access to clean water and air, and simple medical techniques like vaccination and antibiotics are improving life chances.

In the western world the old killers, infections and transmissible diseases, are no longer the chief topics of medical conversation.4 Now we deal mostly with the second-rank players—heart disease, stroke, cancer, various forms of dementia—which only become dominant when people reach a certain age. And we’re making headway against them through advancing medical technology and consciousness of healthy lifestyles.

The fact that obesity has become a huge driver of illness in the west is both sobering and heartening. Obese people are clearly not starving, and for most of humanity over most of history, periods of famine have been the norm while periods of feasting have been the exception. And obesity is easily controlled—well, compared to intestinal parasites or a broken leg—through education and modified life choices.

Today we live with bulging granaries and bulging medicine chests, and we wonder how to keep our elderly populations supported, productive, and amused. That is a huge reversal of the human experience in ages past.

Environmental Catastrophe

As a child growing up, I remember smog and air pollution being a real problem. Basin cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco-Oakland, and Pittsburgh suffered with gray skies over a brown layer of haze. I remember being warned about falling overboard in San Francisco Bay—keep your mouth shut so as not to ingest the polluted water. I remember the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland catching fire. And I remember rivers in the East running brown under clots of dirty foam.5

Today, through a combination of regulation and technology, we have cleaner air and water with more people, more vehicles, and more industry. We’ve shown that we can clean up local impacts and repair the deterioration. We now live more lightly on the land. We are taking better care of the planet than at any time in my experience.6

We are now concerned with longer-range, wider-impact effects like climate change. Whether the global temperature range is increasing or decreasing, whether sea level is rising or falling, whether the cause is human-made or natural … is not the point. If the immediate cause of climate variation is not the burden of carbon dioxide from industrial activity or the sudden release of methane clathrates from tundra, it will be sunspot activity or changes in the ocean biota or something else. To expect that global temperatures should not drift from century to century, or that the high-tide mark should remain fixed along the seashore, is to live in a fool’s paradise.

As a species, humans—and we’re talking Cro Magnon–type Homo sapiens, not some variant of ancient australopithecine—have experienced an entire Ice Age coming and going, with sea levels falling and rising by hundreds of feet and glaciers covering whole continents a mile deep in ice. True, we went through these upheavals in a nomadic state without having trillions of dollars of development and infrastructure perched on the shoreline, but those things are only money. Humans have been remarkably adaptable. Our ever-accelerating technology makes us better able to cope and adapt, perhaps even to combat the effects of change. Human activity may cause problems, but it usually brings its own antidotes.

I wouldn’t trade life today for any period in the past. You might have experienced a satisfied, enriched, and fairly long life as a Roman patrician or a Renaissance nobleman, but for the mass of people—among whom the birthright lottery would have placed most of us—life was a desperate grind filled with hunger and disease in any society at any time. Today’s population—and especially in the technologically developed West—has it easier by far. And even what we used to think of as the Third World—China, India, Indonesia, sub-Saharan Africa—is seeing more advancement through technology. I’m not blind to the problems we have today, but I wouldn’t trade them, and the tools we have for dealing with them, with any other place or time.

1. The exceptions have been (1) the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which was an technologically advanced army marching in against a nation of goat herders—and the goat herders did pretty well, with the backing of U.S. arms and money; and (2) the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which the Iraqis always viewed as a former province lost to them during international bargaining, and the U.S. contested that invasion at the behest of the alarmed Saudis. For the rest, modern war has been a matter of infiltration, civil and economic disruption, and active sniping.

2. Go back and ask Hitler or Stalin what they had to pay in terms of military garrisons, continuous police presence, and diplomatic effort to hold down the populations in France, Greece, Poland, or any other non-German-speaking or non-Russian-speaking country they invaded and tried to dominate. Running a slave state is barely economical. You might do it to get some border protection, as the Soviets did in Eastern Europe, but in other terms you’re buying yourself a generation or two of simmering revolt.

3. Of course, as the Japanese found out and the Chinese are quickly learning, competitive advantage has a shorter half-life than the transuranic elements. And, as the Saudis are finding out, great big piles of money or indebtedness erode even faster. The world is a slippery place.

4. Yes, we are currently seeing a rise in treatment-resistant infections like tuberculosis, pneumonia, and Staphylococcus aureus. The organisms behind these diseases are fast growing—experiencing millions of generations in the course of a single human lifetime—and are subject to the same evolutionary winnowing as any other species on this planet. The competition between medicine and evolution is an arms race. The good news is that the current upward curve of our knowledge and practice in the life sciences makes this a race that humanity is better and better prepared to win.

5. If you look at those old Matthew Brady pictures of Civil War battlefields, you see vast hillsides of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia denuded by logging for fuel and local construction. Today those same hills are green and leafy with trees because we’ve advanced to burning fossil fuels instead of vegetation and building with steel, cement, and glass. Tomorrow, we’ll harvest sunlight, wind energy, and other, less polluting resources. Things do get better.

6. Well, except for the Chinese and their current pollution problems. But they’re a resourceful people. They will learn.