In more than one post on this blog, I have stated that we live in a barbaric age. We do. Of course this is not something that we fell into recently – barbarism has been the state of human society from its beginning. I have also stated previously that we face some very formidable problems, not the least of which is that our technology continues to advance quite rapidly, while our obsolete political and economic systems lag behind. At some point I think we will be scared straight – confronted with a big crisis that will force us to ask ourselves deep questions, questions about how to organize our world.
But the truth is, crises are inevitable over time. Even nature has its crises, without any help from us – earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, floods. Why should human civilization be any different? It’s the crises in American history that have often moved us forward – crises like the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II. I hope, and I believe, that the future will be along similar lines.
Meanwhile, we see a lot of apocalyptic pronouncements, pessimism, anxiety, and cynicism. In a previous post, I discussed apocalyptic thinking and how it relates to education and income. Every year, the Gallup organization takes a poll of Americans. It asks them, “In general, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time?” Here is how Americans have responded since 1980:
Notice that the vast majority of the time, less than half of Americans have reported that they were satisfied with the direction of the country. There were very brief spikes in 1986 and 1991, and a period of “good feelings” from 1998 to about 2003. But by and large, Americans have been consistently dissatisfied. And in every single year, at least 30% of Americans reported that they were dissatisfied.
Were they dissatisfied because crime increased? Not really. Crime in America was increasing steadily in the late 1980’s, yet satisfaction levels were relatively high. Crime in America spiked in the early 1990’s, and has declined ever since. Yet the percentage of Americans who are satisfied today is a fraction of what it was 25 years ago. Were they dissatisfied because the economy went down? Not really. The economy did very poorly for a few years after the September 2001 attacks, yet satisfaction remained high. The economy has recovered significantly since the crash in 2008, yet satisfaction remains quite low. Were they dissatisfied because of violent conflicts and tensions? Not really. After the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, satisfaction remained low. Yet even as American forces became involved in the Bosnian war, satisfaction grew. In the early years of America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, satisfaction was quite high.
So what is it that affects Americans’ satisfaction with the direction of the country? It’s the media. It’s the PERCEPTION of crime, the economy, war, and so on, not the reality, that drives people’s satisfaction levels. Quite generally, the perception that’s created is overwhelmingly negative, and it takes a lot of “good” news to counter it – an economic boom, at lot of flag-waving patriotism after an attack, or simply a nice old president who the media calls “the great communicator,” and who goes on about how it’s “morning in America.” In the late 1990’s, the dot-com boom was underway, gasoline was less than $1.00 per gallon, and media figures were openly using the word empire to describe America. The attacks in 2001 put that talk to rest. But again, the media was all gung ho about invading Afghanistan and Iraq, and for a few years Americans reported high levels of satisfaction. As those wars dragged on, satisfaction dropped and has never recovered.
If you ask the average American about trends in crime, health, and the economy, you will likely get negative answers. Everything is getting worse. Of course, they won’t be able to cite figures for you. They just have a general feeling that things are getting worse. You would likely have gotten a similar response from an average American in 1992 or 1978. The country’s going to hell.
How about the world? I suspect you would have gotten a similar response there. World hunger, environmental destruction, wars and rumors of wars, the world is going to hell. This kind of negativity is consistently popular. You see it on television, in films, on the internet. In fact, just take inventory some time of Hollywood films that take place in the future. What percentage of them paint the future as brighter and happier than the present? Better yet, what percentage depict the future as anything but a dystopian disaster?
The irony is that the real problems our planet faces are, by and large, not the ones people are concerned about. The real problems we face are long-term, and most Americans show little interest in long-term problems. In fact, many would argue that there IS no long term, not for our civilization – that an apocalypse is approaching which will sweep it away and usher in something completely new. Even among those who don’t believe in this particular scenario, many have a vague feeling that we are in a downward spiral that will lead to some sort of catastrophe before long.
If you believe that:
- Crime is increasing, and will continue to do so
- Human health has declined, and will continue to do so
- Prosperity has declined, and will continue to do so
- Violent conflict has increased, and will continue to do so
it follows logically that you believe civilization must come to a breaking point. There will be a general collapse. The problem is that in all of these cases, the trends are positive, not negative. World hunger and poverty have declined significantly in the last 30 years. In the early 1990’s, 18.6% of the world’s population was estimated to be chronically undernourished. By 2014-2016 that figure was down to 10.9%. In 1981, it was estimated that a whopping 44% of the population in the developing world lived on less than $1.90 per day. By 2011 that figure was down to 12.7%. In China, where 18% of the human population lives, the improvement has been astonishing. In 1990, 67% of the Chinese population lived in extreme poverty. By 2013, this figure had dropped to less than 2%!
Global longevity has improved dramatically over the last century. In 1950 it was less than 50 years. Today it is more than 70 years. Health care has improved virtually everywhere, but Latin America and the Far East particularly have made great strides. Japan now holds the world record in life expectancy. Life expectancy in Costa Rica is now higher than in America! In general, the third world is beginning to catch up with the first world in longevity. Globally, the mortality rate for children under the age of 5 was MORE THAN HALVED from 1990 to 2015.
Access to social services has improved dramatically over the last 30 years. From 1990 to 2015, an estimated 2.1 billion people gained access to improved sanitation. The number of people defecating in the open was halved. The proportion of the human population without access to safe drinking water was also halved. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of out-of-school children was halved. Two-thirds of developing countries have achieved gender parity in primary education.
The decline of war is perhaps the least noticed of the major trends our planet has seen over the last 70 years. Our preoccupation with international terrorism is all out of proportion to its threat. Since 1975, about 3000 Americans who have been killed by foreign-inspired terrorists – the vast majority of them on a single day in a single city. 3000 people is of course a lot, and it was a terrible day. But give me a break. In a single year of the Vietnam War, 1968, more than 16,000 Americans died. Since that terrible day in 2001, more than 300,000 Americans have committed suicide with a gun. Since that terrible day in 2001, more than 7000 Americans have died in ACCIDENTAL shootings. Your chances of dying from a fall or from drowning are much greater than those of getting killed by a foreign-inspired terrorist.
Global population trends are another often-cited problem. The world’s population has indeed grown dramatically in recent years. It was only about 2.6 billion in 1950. By 1980 it was well past 4 billion, and by 2000 well over 6 billion. Today it is well over 7 billion. But as I have explained above, the percentage of hungry people has actually DECLINED over these years. Average longevity has INCREASED. This tells us that the planet can indeed sustain a lot of human beings. And just as importantly, the population GROWTH RATE has been declining since the 1960’s. It is now a less than half of what it was then, and will likely continue to drop. By the end of this century the human population will barely be growing, if at all. The peak population is expected to be about 10 billion – a big number, to be sure. But if there are FEWER hungry people in the world today, with more than 7 billion, than there were in 1990, when there were only 4.5 billion – well, you tell me. Does it seem like we can’t sustain a population of 10 billion, at least at a basic level?
Ironically, the most serious problems our civilization faces, which have to do with the effects of these billions of people on a small, very finite world, are probably the least important to Americans who are most anxious about the world. The very real problem of climate change is dismissed by huge numbers of them. Climate change is quite real, and in the short term, quite irreversible. We will have to deal with the consequences for years to come. Yet even here the signs are unmistakable that the world is on a path to long-term recovery. Energy production from renewables has more than doubled since 2000. World coal consumption is not expected to grow significantly. A great deal depends on China, which already consumes far more coal than America and Europe combined. But China has committed itself to a great deal of renewable energy production, and even in China, coal consumption is not expected to grow. As a whole, the world is expected to rely much more heavily on natural gas than coal in the coming years. Natural gas has less carbon intensity than coal. Worldwide, carbon emissions are expected to grow in the future, but at only half the rate that we have seen since 1990. And after mid century? It is much more difficult to predict, but it seems high likely that advances in technology will bring an accelerating trend away from fossil fuels.
Unfortunately, our ongoing attachment to fossil fuels is locking us into decades of continued warming. But it’s quite possible that within decades we will achieve breakthroughs that will enable us pull enormous amounts of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Many approaches have been under study for years. One example is bio-energy with carbon capture and storage, which PRODUCES energy yet REDUCES carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Every moment, plants convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into biomass. This plant material can be burned to produce energy. Since this burning merely returns carbon dioxide to the atmosphere that was originally captured by the plants, the whole process is carbon-neutral. By taking the released carbon dioxide and injecting it deep underground, the process becomes carbon-negative – producing energy while actually reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, bio-energy with carbon capture and storage is not cost-effective with current technology. But this is likely to change.
The problems our civilization faces – wealth inequality, violent conflicts, climate change – are not being ignored by world leaders. On the contrary, there has been ongoing, sustained, organized effort to combat the problems faced by our world. What is so striking to me is that our media and our political leaders here in America have painted a very different picture for us – a picture of profound negativity, of threats everywhere, of fear and cynicism and alienation.
The hostility of the average American to his own government is an affliction that pervades our society. Trust in government has never been lower. It is a vicious cycle. Support for anti-government ideology leads to the starvation of government at every level. This leads to poor education and increasing wealth inequality, which in turn leads to cynicism and declining trust in government.
It hardly needs to be said that hostility to the United Nations, or any system of global governance, is even stronger in America. If you don’t trust your own government, you certainly won’t trust a coalition of governments. Yet educated America, even Republican educated America, understands that the world is not zero-sum, that the world is highly interdependent. So we have a curious internal contradiction – having sold its base on anti-government ideology, the Republican party turns around and tries to argue for free trade and a strong engagement of America with the rest of the world.
This vicious cycle of anti-government ideology and mistrust in institutions is unsustainable. The only question is when someone will step forward to break the back of cynicism and alienation. It will happen, it’s just a matter of time. As the rest of the world moves forward, while America wallows in cynicism, questions will inevitably arise that conservatives don’t want asked.