Following on my theme of our arriving ordeal, juxtaposed as it is against the narrative of our ‘great escape’, I read this weekend a long interview by Stephen Pinker defending his book Enlightenment Now. The summary of his defense in this interview parallels the summary of his book, specifically the following, “If measures of well-being, such as health, prosperity, knowledge, and safety, have increased over time, that would be progress. In fact, they have. As Rosling and others have shown, most people deny progress not out of pessimism but out of ignorance.”
The reason you right now are shaking your head is the very reason that this is hard to swallow. It comes from the nature of America’s “fierce urgency of now” problem – immediatism that exists in the paradox of seeing fires everywhere but not really believing that any of them are ours. The “morally hazardous” urgency of elites who will return after their day exhausted from fighting ____ (fill in the blank) evil to their pristine communities nestled in verdant valleys.
That makes it a faux emergency, a faux crisis, a faux urgency. Because Americans see themselves as fundamentally safe. “You (and Kaplan, so I’m in good company) should come back to the suburbs,” was a friend’s response to me after he read my recent piece on Dubai. Africa may be burning, but the minimart is open 24 hours and the electricity never goes out!
Part of America’s problem is her extreme isolation related to having no external enemies and rarely any contact with places where things have gone desperately wrong. Also her tremendous prosperity, product of our extraordinary productivity has allowed enough runoff somehow for people with a limited good world view to ignore that one fundamental aspect of economics – scarcity (the rich have too much, but there’s enough for everybody without limits??). We think we are immune to enemies, to bad ideas, terrible laws and to incompetent representatives; that the consequences of stupidity will not fall upon our shores and shoulders but instead the brunt of them will be born by others in faraway lands who we do not have to witness or consider. This is the arrogance of empire talking; and it is true, for a season. That season is coming to an end.
I am a bit of a space enthusiast (this year we even bought my little boy a new telescope with which we observed the lunar eclipse from our perch here in West Africa, where the show was spectacular). I often wonder, if there are aliens out there, what they think of us? What they think of our “great escape”. They would probably chuckle a little at the hubris of Pinker and Deaton; a brief blip in human history smoothed over and buttered by $200,000,000,000,000 in fake-printed money, a mortgage on our future that is rapidly coming due and the scraping of 20,000,000,000 more tons from off our swiftly desertifying planet than she can recover from. Have you seen the soil in Africa?
But we need not go that far – President Obama once famously said “If you could choose any time to live, you would choose now”; as if closing the book on Pinker’s argument. But even that statement is naïve. Most Americans I know would rather live in the 1950s; most Malians during the great empire of Mansa Musa; most Venezuelans in the epic period of “La Venezuela Saudita”; most Congolese under Belgian rule; most Italians (if they consider it) under the tremendous period that was the glory of Rome. The Greeks look back upon their Agoras from their food lines and wonder what went wrong; the Iraqis to Babylon – and the list goes on. Oh sure, we have better widgets these days – technological advances which progressives mistake for progress.
Because hidden deep in Pinker’s interview lies the counter-point to his entire argument. “At the same time, progress does not mean that everything gets better for everyone everywhere all the time. That would not be progress. That would be a miracle. Progress is not a miracle; it’s the result of solving problems. Problems are inevitable, and solutions create new problems that must be solved in their turn.” Does anybody think we are solving problems particularly well these days? Lets be honest, we haven’t solved a real problem as a nation since we dispatched the Nazis; despite our flat screen TVs.
But I’m also not entirely pessimistic. “Life finds a way” was the famous line in Jurassic Park before all the tourists and engineers got eaten by their lab projects. Recently LiDAR revealed from under a dense jungle that 1000 years ago basically all of southern Mexico was a huge megalopolis which probably beat out Paris and London for sophistication and wellbeing (who knows they might even have had smart-phones…). Then something happened – probably inflation product of loose fiscal management and soaring debt – and the society returned to the stone ages. Our planet will heal itself, after we all die off. Hell, we recovered from five great extinctions, and as we perpetuate the sixth we must consider that we will probably be the seventh. So what are the progressives worried about? “Never miss an opportunity to take advantage of an emergency” they say, always as they do so with their eyes aching for the chance to again provoke the extreme belt-tightening exercises necessary to coax their utopias out of a bread line (exercises which will accelerate our ordeal, not slow it. But who’s noticing? They sure sound nice on TV). Nothing new here. As for me, I am worried about the future world for my little boy who I hope is still able to visit the great African savannas to see lions and owls and to dive the deep seas without fighting his way through plastic bottles and used Qtips.
Jose Ortega y Gasset once wrote, “What makes a nation great is not principally her great men, but instead the stature of her innumerable mediocrities”. Utopians are always looking for that one savior who will free them from ____ (fill in the next blank). Hunger, despotism, racism, violence, plastic, traffic, Sunday morning church. What I do agree with Pinker about is that the enlightenment changed this and gave us a world in which we all are agents of our own future, and the future of our nations. We have the knowledge to save ourselves from ourselves – but do we have the will?