Sorry Pollyannas, the World is NOT Getting Better

Yes, I have this feeling things are not going well, and it seems I’m not the only one. See these recent articles from The Guardian and New Scientist. And we were doing so well. For centuries our world was on a clear path of improvement. Freedom and democracy expanding, knowledge and technical ability increasing, prosperity and wealth growing. Western civilization has been on an upward path since the beginning of the Enlightenment, right? Darwin, the Suez Canal, Wright Brothers, penicillin, first man on the moon…upward and onward.

We built a wall, we built the pyramids.
Math, science, history, unraveling the mysteries.
It all started with the big bang!

‘Big Bang Theory’ theme lyrics

But no more. Mankind is facing terrible and daunting problems, and in fact the decline has already started. I assumed we all saw the same things and had reached the same conclusion, until I heard someone say that “liberals are optimists and conservatives are pessimists”, implying that liberals actually believe the world is getting better! True?

My guess is that the authors of the Guardian and New Scientist articles are actually new converts to the doom and gloom school. Until recently the sophisticated class seemed convinced we were on an upward path, citing trends like these as evidence:

  • Modern medicine has increased life spans, and the increases continue.
  • Violence has been declining for centuries, and the decline continues.
  • We’re better educated than ever before.
  • We’re wealthier than ever before, and global wealth inequality is at an all-time low.

All of these are reasonable points, although I would argue the point about the decline in violence.

Here is my list of terrible problems:

Death of the oceans Whether the cause is acidification, microplastics, over-fishing, or global warming, there are no feasible solutions available. The oceans cover 71% of the earth’s surface and contain 97% of the earth’s water. The ocean is doomed, therefore we’re doomed.

Nuclear holocaust If a nuclear war starts we’re likely all dead, and a recent Newsweek headline blared (yes, in all caps): TRUMP COULD CREATE NUCLEAR HOLOCAUST IN FIVE MINUTES.

Antibiotic resistance leading to a pandemic According to an article on the Reuters news web site: “Infections resistant to antibiotics are the greatest threat to human health, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned last month, and by 2050 some 50 million people a year may be dying of drug resistant infections”.

Groundwater pollution Almost all the water we use for agriculture, industry and drinking water is either groundwater or was groundwater at some point. We’re polluting our groundwater with leaking storage tanks, septic systems and landfills; and overuse of road salts, fertilizer and pesticides. The cost of cleaning polluted groundwater sites in the US was estimated in a 2012 report from the National Academy of Sciences at $127 billion. An article in The Guardian reports that nearly 60% of groundwater in China is polluted. Northwesterners are familiar with the never-ending cleanup at Hanford, which is all about groundwater and keeping radioactive contaminants out of the Columbia River. See the bottom photo on this DOE page, and this pdf from the environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper.

US government debt As of 12/21/17 US government debt was estimated at 104% of GDP, and increasing. See the following chart from the US Federal Reserve.

Debt versus GDP

I see two dividing lines in the getting better versus getting worse debate. One is geographic: people in North America and Europe see the world on a downhill trend, the rest of the world, notably China, is more optimistic. See the chart below, from the American Council on Science and Health.

Opinion by contry

The second dividing line is based on time: some people seem frightened by the political tone following the 2016 elections in the US. Note that the optimistic articles I cited above are all pre-2016, and that the articles from The Guardian and New Scientist are post-election and focus on political factors:

• Political strife, crippling inequality and climate change mean the West’s time is now up.
• Environmental breakdown, coupled with the self-destructive behaviour of governments, has set us on a road to ruin.

Is the world getting better, or worse? Maybe if you’re Chinese you have reasons for optimism, but I think the Chinese are ignoring facts that we’re all facing in common. Maybe engineering fixes using technologies like CO2 removal and water filtering will save our bacon…if we don’t kill ourselves in a nuclear war.

Crash the North Korean Economy – Here’s How

For years human rights activists have launched balloons carrying leaflets and digital media into North Korea. At the same time, North Korea manufactures and circulates counterfeit foreign currency, including US currency. Is there an opportunity here?

The balloon campaign has gone on for years, supported by at least one western human rights organization and North Korean defectors located in South Korea. A New York Times article documented a claim that activists launch “between 700 and 1,500 balloons a year, each carrying 30,000 to 60,000 leaflets.”

At the same time, a Congressional Research Service report says that at times North Korea has earned from fifteen to twenty million dollars per year from counterfeiting:

The United States has accused the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) of counterfeiting U.S. $100 Federal Reserve notes (Supernotes) and passing them off in various countries … What has been confirmed is that the DPRK has passed off such bills in various countries and that the counterfeit bills circulate both within North Korea and around its border with China.

North Korea is also extremely poor. CNN published a story in April of 2017 that said two of Korea’s three major revenue sources were cybercrime and forced labor. Bloomberg published a story in December 2017 with a comparison between the North and South Korean economies:

In a report published by South Korea’s statistics office Friday, per capita income in North Korea in 2016 was estimated at 1.46 million South Korean won ($1,340), or about 4.5 percent of that of the South. Total trade volume was less than 1 percent of South Korea.

Also, on December 23, 2017 the United Nations Security Council approved a new set of sanctions on North Korea.

So, place these items side-by-side:

  • North Korea is extremely poor and facing tightening international sanctions,
  • North Korea is a currency counterfeiter,
  • North Korea is unable to stop a multi-year amateur bombing campaign that drops anti-government media across the country.

My proposal: use those leaflet-carrying balloons to ‘airmail’ massive amounts of counterfeit North Korean bills from one end of of the country to the other.

If the US can in the normal course of business print official US currency, surely it can also print high-quality counterfeit North Korean currency. North Korea’s official currency is the won, which circulates in bills sized between ten and 5,000 won. I suggest printing the 5,000 won note. Thousands and thousands of them. If one of our balloons can carry 60,000 leaflets…well that’s a lot of won! (5,000 won X 60,000 bills per balloon X 1,500 balloons = 450 billion won.) Eventually, the North Korean currency will become worthless. The economy will collapse.

It was hard to believe I was the only one to think of this, and of course I was not. Researching this blog post I found the following article published by Forbes magazine: Bomb North Korea–With Its Own Money. Much more authoritative than this piece, and what a great title!

It would be easy and cheap. So why not? Maybe because it would be seen as an act of war and push the crazy little fat guy over the edge. Maybe because once you do it the cat is out of the bag and the US is vulnerable to the same trickery.

No one is going to do this, for a variety of reasons I don’t even know about. Someone should sell it as a movie concept.