It’s a strange time we’re living in. By any accounts, humanity is enjoying its glorious apogee. Using any measure, we are at our best moment. Famine has been mostly ended (in 2016 we had an unprecedented four: Nigeria, Yemen, South Sudan and Somalia. All of these were due to conflict; which itself is coming down and down. To be sure, there are probably pockets of famine in Venezuela right now – that is due to communism, which represents the industrialization of misery and poverty. These are exceptions which highlight our tremendous achievements in human development, for those willing to see). Our market system has succeeded in making food plentiful and cheap despite the billions of new mouths. Extreme poverty has been halved and halved and halved again. Literacy has swept the world. There are more tourists than ever (sparking a mini-crisis of its own). Diseases have been eradicated. Knowledge has exploded. These days if people die before their time, it is mostly of their own doing. You can inform, but if there is anything we learned in the 20th century it is that coercion represents a societal cul-de-sac, one to be avoided. Free societies, for all their mess, tend to find answers more quickly and permanently.
Most importantly I think, our choices have increased; and it is all about choices. For the people of the middle ages the privileged only had three choices: the clergy, the military or the court. The peasants had one: farming. Nowadays in most of the world the choices abound. Not only what employ to seek, but what to study, where to study, what to eat, who to marry and – perhaps the greatest revolution of all – the revolution of leisure. Movies and books and games. Even the poorest the world over have unprecedented choices of things with which to fill their time. Yes, there are places left out – Africa, “The Bottom Billion” are caught in a trap, mostly of their own making. As all traps, they have to find their way out; but that doesn’t mean we can’t try and help.
All in all it’s a great time to be a human.
There is of course a counterfactual. Because so much of this growth has come at the expense of our natural environments; the situation of our planet is not great. Mechanization, motored on by the internal combustion engine (pun intended) has given us tremendous prosperity but it has come at a cost of the overuse of carbon and trees; industrialization has through division of labor caused tremendous deflation which has increased purchasing power of the poorest but also resulted in an explosion of trash. Over-fishing to meet the varied desires of our developing palates; strip-mining to feed the assembly lines. Technology, a great force for good, has also caused new problems such as the plastics industry, while though putting much-needed tools cheaply in the hands of billions has also created a glut of something of which we are finding it difficult to rid ourselves.
There is hope, of course – the environmental Kuznets curve has begun to trend in our favor in most places. America and Canada and Europe are re-greening; planting millions of new hectares, taking animals off the endangered species lists. Urbanization is making us more environmental. Our global population is leveling out; for the first time in history there are more elderly than children. Our populations will continue to grow for another twenty or thirty years, and will then collapse. Old age management – that is the story of the 21st century, as our dependency ratio inverts (it already has in Japan and South Korea and northern Europe). This will have profound effects on our market model – because the older you get the less you buy; downsizing and consolidating. Consumption related growth might be a thing of the past, as the world catches up and then gets old. Whole countries will empty out – Japan and China, those who do not embrace immigration. America, Canada, Australia will thrive as people increasingly seek wealth on our shores.
And inequality? Yes, it exists – but perhaps mostly in the rapidly diminishing third world. Those who complain most loudly about inequality these days are actually using that word as a proxy for their own envy and greed. Consider this: how much softer is Bill Gates’ bed than my own? Does Jeff Bezos’s air conditioner cool better than mine? Does not Mark Zuckerberg’s desk hold paper just as well as yours, does not his chair support his back as does that of my father? Do I not have access to the same good vegetables as Tom Hanks? To be sure, he watches his own movies on a larger television; he travels in a private plane; his house has more rooms to wander through than mine, when we are pensive. But do we not both have a roof over our heads, food on our table, does not our airplane (private or commercial) arrive to our destinations in equal time? Sure, I go to Sandals and he, to a private island. But is not the sand equally hot and the beer equally cold? Now compare yourself, you who have a computer to read these things I am saying and become angry with me, to “Charles, From the Camps” – the protagonist of my fourth novel. Is not the measure of your existence so much greater than his, than is Tom Hanks’ of yours? Be grateful – you who can read this (which thanks to Google translate is most people in the world), that Charles’ story is increasingly an anachronism, while yours is not. Our “Great Escape” has done this for you, and joining you have been more people than ever before.
Yes, be grateful for a moment. Then let us set our mind joyfully to the task at hand – preparing for the unprecedented challenges of our 21st century. Preserving our prosperity and our liberty; healing our environment; solving Africa – for it is the one last insult in a world flush with wealth; and preparing for our coming aging.
OK – lets get to it!!