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.
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.
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.
THE BOTTOM LINE
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.