Things Are Getting Better
Jim Blair

"The truth is, that many more people are living much longer in greater comfort and safety than is true in the entire history of the world"--Harold Bradshears.

"Bullshit"--Jay Hanson

Are things that bad?

Harold's proposition is obviously true, both because there are more people today than ever before in history and because of modern technology, more of them (especially in the industrialized world) have better food and medicine than ever before in history. This is so obvious that you look silly trying to deny it. Did you see the PBS program on TB (tuberculous)? In the last century one in four died from it, and no one knew how to prevent it. It was worse than AIDS times ten. People in Japan and much of Africa were small because of diet limitations, life span was short, etc. Of course they are better now. There are some places (Yugoslavia, central Africa, parts of the former USSR) where the average people are worse off than ten years ago, but for the vast majority things are better today than ever.

But will they stay that way?

You are on much stronger ground when you claim that with ever more people, things can't keep getting better. That there is a limit. This is an open question, but until/unless we reach beyond the earth it seems to me there is some limit on our growth. But I want to call attention to some of your claims.

What does "living better" mean? While there may not be a precise definition, I think most people would agree on many of the factors that are measurable, and for all (or maybe almost all) of these, things are better today for a higher percent of people than any time in the past.

Life

Is Longer Better? Lifespan for one. Do you doubt that it is longer now than in the past, not just in the US but in most of the world (excepting Yugoslavia, parts of the former USSR and central Africa as I noted before). Notice your GPI factors in the lifespan of products but not of people.

Food

Maybe we eat too much! Nutrition for another. In Japan and much of Asia people are bigger than before WWII because now their growth is not stunted by limits on nutrition. Even in the US and Europe people are bigger (but not as much) for probably the same reason. When I was young it was common for people in the mid-west to have swollen thyroid glands (goiter) due to iodine deficiency, but this is very rare today. In every society in human history the rich tended to be over weight and the poor were under weight. Obesity has long been an indicator of wealth. But today, in the US at least, this pattern is reversed. This is the first time in history when the poor suffer health problems from overeating.

Are people getting stupid (or does it just seem like it)?

Did you see the Knight-Ridder report on the World literacy survey printed in the Sunday paper (12/18/95)? There is much comparison between countries (the USA doesn't look very good) but as an aside they remind the reader of a fact well known in psychology: IQ scores have been rising about 7 points per generation for about as long as they have been measured. There has long been a debate over whether people ARE getting "smarter" or just getting better educated in "test taking". At any rate, they have to keep shifting the 100 mark to keep it as the "normal".

Communication and information

One measure of "better", I think, is access to information and the means to communicate with others: people don't like to be cut off or isolated. In this area, even you must admit that most are better off today than in the past. I mean could anyone talk with or send an instant letter to someone on another continent even 150 years ago? Now millions do this every day. And you can "surf the net" or go to any library today to get information that was not even known to anyone 50 years ago.

Bigger, faster and more skilled

It is well known to coaches and sports fans that athletes are bigger and faster than ever. Mile runs and hundred yard dashes that won world records and Olympic Gold metals less than 100 years ago are routinely topped in high school track meets today. And in music, in the 1870's when Tchaikovsky wrote two concertos (one for violin and one for piano) they were rejected by the most skilled players of the day as being too difficult to perform. Today both are performed flawlessly by high school students every week.

Compared to what?

Finally, did you see the essay for Thanksgiving by Hillary Clinton? She reminds Americans about life in the nations she recently visited. Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The title was "It's Easy to Forget How Lucky We Are". (And even they live "better" than in the past!) I know that when ever I bring up this, the usual reply is that since we are Americans, we can't be compared to anyone else in the world. As if we were some sort of different species. But I claim that other countries today and other times in the past are the only meaningful standards of comparison!

Is Africa the wave of the future?

The Coming Anarchy item gives West Africa an the example of where the world is headed. But with a low population density (in the conventional units of people per unit area) and a rejection of free market economics and industrialization, you could as well cite that as an example of what the world has as a future if we reject capitalism and growth. That is, most of Africa is at the trailing rather than the leading edge. See below for a comment on the logic of "correcting" for technology when estimating carrying capacity.

Another concern of yours has been the alleged drop in sperm count for men. Whether this is real or an artifact of the way it was measured is a matter of dispute. But my question is this. If population growth is our most serious problem, why isn't a drop in male sperm count a good thing?

GDP or GPI?

I hope I have made it clear that I am not considering better or worse in just economic terms. And I agree that economic parameters like GNP or GDP could tell only part of the story even if they were an accurate reflection of the economy. And they are not. I read in the paper this week the GDP figures are being "corrected" to reflect a new way of including inflation based on the falling cost of computers. As a result, some of the much discussed "productivity gains" of the past several years didn't really happen! But the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) is also very uncertain and very subjective in what it considers and on how much weight it gives to the factors. I too am concerned about the breakdown in families and the selfish attitude many adults have about kids. (See America's War on Kids). This may well be worse than in the past. Crime is a problem but probably not more than in the past. Income distribution may be slightly more uneven than in the recent past, but this MAY be overstated by the increase in taxable income (see my TDE ECONOMICS posts). At any rate it is less uneven than in the last century, or in most of human history. Resource depletion is more an indicator of future problems than a measure of the present and ignores the discovery (or creation!) of new resources. Notice that they include the lifespan of durable consumer goods but not of people. Does this reflect misplaced values??

USA vs. the world

This opens a whole new issue: are we concerned with only the USA or with the whole world? The America-First Isolationists (Buchanan, Gephart, anti-NAFTA, anti-GATT types) may well have a point. In the short run foreign trade and especially foreign investment may harm low skill US workers as it helps low skill foreign workers. Jobs shift from our poor to their poor, and living standards equalize around the world in part by increasing slower in the rich industrial countries. Lets face it our poor are much richer than their poor. I will have some information on this on the web page soon. This effect also increases the rich-poor gap in the US even as it reduces the rich-poor gap world wide, since the skilled (and rich) here have the inside track on a world wide market- Madonna sells her CD's worldwide. Remember that after WWII the US had almost all the industrial capacity in the world. There were relatively unskilled US workers with high paying jobs, largely because there was little foreign competition. Could we have kept it that way? Should we have tried to?

Carrying Capacity

With humans, unlike the situation with deer or birds, the carrying capacity of the land is a function of the level of technology. But the Ehrlich article turns this on its head. Yes, the earth would now be unable to support its current population if agriculture had not been "invented" and we were all hunter-gathers. But we do have agriculture. It does seem that as technology permits the land and resources to support more people, the population rises to keep the pace. Ehrlic seem to say "cut the population back to the most primitive technology." The "pro growth" crowd says "bring technology up to the level needed to support the population growth". I say advance the technology but restrict the population growth. There should be a margin of safety.

I am not a Pollyana!

Things are better than ever (now!) It may or may not continue that way. I think there are serious potential threats. Ozone depletion from CFC's and CO2 release have the potential to be very serious. Read my essays. As I see it, these are the best of times, but the future could go either way.

Essays on related topics...

General Futurology
Title Author
Progress from 1950 to the Present Jim Blair
"2020 Vision" Jim Blair
Will China Again Lead the World? Jim Blair
"The End of Work" Jim Blair
Fukuyama's "The End of History and the Last Man" Jim Blair
Negative Population Growth Jim Blair
The 'Right' Level Of Population Growth and Immigration Jim Blair
That's SCIENCE, Man! Jim Blair
"The Future Of Capitalism" Jim Blair
Challenges Facing The World In 2000 Steve Kangas [off site]
The World Isn't Going To Hell In A Handbasket Steve Kangas [off site]


Number of unique visits to Big Issue Ground so far...


visits so far...