Looking Up

2002-11-26

People like to think that the old days were good and that we're now standing at the crossroads of history, with apocalypse just around the corner unless we do X (where X is your favorite prescription for change). While such doomsaying sells books and may scare up some support in political campaigns and fundraising drives, the bare fact is that life has never been better. In America during the 20th century, life expectancy increased by 30 years; poverty and infant mortality plummeted; per-capita economic output increased over six times; the cost of food fell significantly; pollution of land, air, and water decreased dramatically; the average workweek went from 50 hours to 35 hours; educational and career opportunities opened up for women and minorities; and the list goes on (details here).

"Yes, but!" That is the usual response to the glad tidings of human progress. "But what about environmental degradation?", wail the Greens -- glossing over the fact that on all measures, pollution is decreasing and we're taking better care of planet earth than ever. "But what about our spiritual bankruptcy?", moan the religious -- missing the fact that human beings are living more fulfilled lives than ever. "But what about the loss of precious freedoms?", complain the libertarians -- ignoring the fact that more human beings are more free today than at any time in human history. "But what about our atomistic alientation?", cry the communitarians -- oblivious to the fact that people have more time and money to help others and devote to associations of interest than ever before. "But what about wage slavery and the exploitation of the masses?", shout the socialists -- disregarding the fact that most people actually like their jobs and that the lines between work and play are increasingly blurry.

I hate to break it to you, but these are the best of times. This is not Pollyanna-ism, it is simple reality. And it's only going to get better, because we continue to apply human ingenuity to problems unsolved and challenges unmet. Power generation is becoming cleaner and safer; communication methods are exploding in variety and bandwidth while falling in price; medical knowledge and technology are advancing at an incredible pace; computing power increases by a factor of ten every five years; food gets cheaper; people live longer and better. We find ourselves in the midst of an age of abundance.

And we're not accustomed to abundance. Most of our thinking is driven by notions of scarcity: of wealth, time, resources, technology, talent, freedom, trust, fellow-feeling, equity, knowledge, and so on. As much as we wish for it, we don't know how to deal with abundance. So we continue to look for scarcity even when it's increasingly hard to find. We are spooked by dangers that are positively minor. We fret that the sky is falling when in fact the sky's the limit. And we ignore the evidence of our senses because we're afraid that the reality of our lives is too good to be true.

The chattering classes are especially afraid of the good news of human progress, because it robs the experts of their reason to rule. Connected individuals successfully pursuing their own fulfillment in an age of abundance don't have much need for the political process, which may be why most Americans are politically apathetic.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that everything is perfect, nor am I ignoring the fact that there are problems in the world (e.g., whole regions of this planet are sadly benighted and wracked by conflict and desperation). But I am saying that life is better for more people than at any point in history, and that this progress shows no sign of abating. We have not even begun to grapple with the implications of abundance for society, ethics, or politics. It is high time we did so.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal