Would you believe me if I told you that we are living in a golden age? Despite rampant cynicism coming into 2015, we are arguably living in the best time in human history. Sure, the challenges we face are numerous and daunting, but let’s take a moment to put what we do have into perspective.
By Wen-xi Chen
Every Generation Thinks It’s the Last
We humans are guilty of being rather gloomy at times. Faced with the insignificance of our individual mortalities, generation after generation have imagined a collective doom; the end of days. The media has a way of focusing on the bad while the incremental improvements we experience on a day-to-day basis rarely make the headlines. Though there is a tendency to view the past through rose-tinted glasses and to think that the younger generation are delinquents who will, surely, drive society into the ground, the truth is we’ve never had it so good. Infant mortality rates are at an all time low, life expectancy is at an all time high. Our knowledge of the world around us grows rapidly every day; we’re ever closing in on vaccines and cures for malaria, HIV, Alzheimer’s… even some types of cancer.
Technology is hitting new milestones at an unprecedented speed. In the last year alone, the world has seen its most detailed brain map ever, been introduced to microscale 3D printing, came one step closer to the widespread use of virtual reality, started using agricultural drones that can increase yields and reduce crop damage, and landed a probe on a comet. That’s only a few examples out of a myriad of technological and scientific advances, and in just one year!
The speed of advancement is breathtaking, yet at the same time, global pessimism is high. 2014 saw the most widespread outbreak of the Ebola virus in recorded history, high levels of unemployment, the rise of religious extremism throughout the world, uncontrollable forest fires, and record-breaking weather extremes. Concern over climate change and environmental protection is rife; the rate of polar ice cap melt is higher than we had ever anticipated, and our major cities still choke under the haze of smog that came as the price of progress.
Looking back over the collective news output over the last century, it does seem that every generation, at some point, thinks it’s the last. Best-selling economist Robert Heilbroner wrote in 1974: “The outlook for man, I believe, is painful, difficult, perhaps desperate, and the hope that can be held out for his future prospects seem to be very slim indeed.” Or best-selling ecologist Paul Ehrlich in 1968: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s [“and 1980s” was added in a later edition] the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked on now … nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” Or Jimmy Carter in a televised speech in 1977: “We could use up all of the proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end of the next decade.”
A decade and a half into the 21st century, we’re still here. While the optimists have every reason to be optimistic, the pessimists also have ample ammo for their gloom. Are we facing imminent end of days? Or will we invent and discover our way out of our predicaments like we have always done? Who is right? We look at reasons to be happy, or sad, about the future of our world.
Economist magazine is predicting that 2015 will hold echoes of the late 1990s; a financial crash in Russia brought on by low oil prices and Western sanctions, a resurgent American economy, weakness in Germany and Japan.. it may sound similar, but there is the key factor of China at play. China, almost negligible on the world stage in the 1990s, is now the largest economy in the world by purchasing power parity and second largest by nominal GDP. Contributing disproportionately to global growth, China is one factor that needs to be taken into account from all aspects of global economics. In fact, increasingly, the future of the world economy will be determined by what happens in the BRIC countries. Utterly different in terms of geography, culture, resources and politics, the BRICs are linked tenuously by label only in their position as the world’s four largest emerging economies. With an aging population in China, economic growth is set to slow in the coming years, while a embattled Russia will continue to experience serious challenges throughout 2015 in the face of low oil prices and sanctions. Brazil, once speeding along with a growth rate of 7.5% in 2010, is now barely crawling at near-recession rates, promoting The Wall Street Journal to call it “a wilting giant”.
With 700 million fewer people living in extreme poverty in 2010 than in 1990, the picture of global economics has been completely redrawn; many of the countries that used to be poor are now thriving economies. Along with wealth and power comes national pride, and 2015 will inevitably see international cooperation tinted with nationalism.
The idea that the next generation will have shorter lifespans on average compared to this one in some developed countries is a startling one. For centuries we have experienced only progress in our life expectancies, to hear that it will get shorter is a shock to the system. It is, essentially, a first world problem. As food becomes easier to acquire and consume, paired with ever more sedentary lifestyles, obesity has skyrocketed in the West. Heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cancer… all these are the side effects of overeating.
Even in China, were obesity was virtually unheard of just a few decades ago, it has become a major health concern. The obesity rates in major cities here have hit over 20% in come places. Despite the relatively low rate of obesity on average in China (less than 5% nationwide), the sheer size of China’s population means that over one fifth of the world’s obese are Chinese. Like everything else in this country, the rate of growth of this issue has been shockingly fast – statistics from the Chinese Health Ministry reveal that urban Chinese boys are now 5cm taller and over 3kg heavier on average compared to 30 years ago.
On the other hand, medical innovations are coming in thick and fast. Predicted for 2015 by the Cleveland Clinic, which comes up with a list of new treatments and inventions every year, includes a vaccine for dengue fever (almost half of the world’s population are at risk), precision cancer treatment thanks to the development of antibody-drug conjugates, and a pill that prevents heart failure.
Amid all the worry about Ebola, swine flu, or whatever else is the threat of the moment, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that this generation is the healthiest in recorded history.
Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan… the conflicts never seem to end. Yet according to Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, the world has actually more peaceful now than it has ever been before. Charting the decline of violence from Biblical times to the present, Pinker acknowledges that it seems counter-intuitive and even obscene given many recent events, but facts are facts. For all the violence we see on the news, the world hasn’t had a World War in 70 years. Arguably, the statistics going from horrendous to slightly less so may not be the heart-warming news you wish to hear, but it’s still progress in the right direction. In China, there is stability after the unrest of the 20th century. In Europe, the various nation states have stopped trying to kill each other, as was the norm for thousands of years, and are working together for common prosperity. In South America, the harshest dictatorships of colonels and generals that once ran so much of the region are now gone.
“(The biggest misconception people have about violence is) that we are living in a violent age,” Pinker tells American Scientific in an interview, “the statistics suggest that this may be the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.” While some people believe that the nuclear bomb should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for being a deterrent of the rich nations going to war with each other, others believe that the horrors of WWII is itself an effective deterrent.
In developed nations, violence against women, homosexuals, corporal punishment, and other previously accepted forms of violence are in decline and will continue to do so. However, civil wars, terrorism, and repression in the developing world will continue to be a problem and are too capricious to predict. For the time being, we can be happy in the fact that we are living in the least violent age of recorded human history.
One of the great challenges of our age will be climate change. Our planet’s climate is a fluctuating one, it has gone through seven cycles of glacial advance and retreat in the last 650,000 years, with the last ice age ending just 7,000 years ago. While these changes have been attributed to variations in the orbit of the Earth, what makes this most modern of climate change sagas stand out is that it is almost undoubtedly one of mankind’s own making. Ice cores drawn from Greenland, Antarctica, and tropical mountain glaciers show that the Earth’s climate responds to changes in greenhouse gas levels. Evidence is compelling; global sea level rose some 17cm in the last century, global surface temperatures have steadily increased, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have decreased in mass at an unprecedented rate, while the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice has declined rapidly over a span of just decades. If left unchanged, the evidence points us down a path of catastrophe.
Though slowly, world leaders are waking up to the potential consequences of climate change. In a “game-changing” move last November, President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama pledged to reduce carbon emissions, sending the message that the world’s largest economies (and largest polluters) were willing to work together on climate change, and to quicken the pace of implementation of green energy and sustainable technology.
Various climate change mitigation measures are being set up. There is a great drive to switch to alternative energy sources from carbon fuels, partly due to the inevitable depletion of fossil fuel resources, but also out of awareness of the damaging effects of carbon dioxide on our climate. The hope is that, once again, mankind can innovate ourselves out of impending disaster; “Doom-sayers have tended to underestimate the power of innovation,” writes popular science writer Matt Ridley in an article for Wired magazine. And indeed it’s true; we have innovated our way out of the whaling boom of the 1800s as petroleum replaced whale oil as our preferred source of fuel. We have innovated our way out of a global food crisis in the early 20th century by way of fertilizers… surely we can come up with a definitive solution for climate change.
In all likelihood, our battle to reverse the effects of carbon emissions will be long, expensive, and arduous, but an absolutely necessary one.