The Best of Times, the Worst of Times
Posted by Dave Bath on 2011-06-26
My strengthening suspicion is that my life has fortunately come at a tragic time – lucky to see another peak of human civilization, yet with the sadness of the pointers to another fall already in sight.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way- A Tale of Two Cities – Dickens
Let me show you some of those pointers – both the big and the small:
- When I was born, the US could not put astronauts in orbit – only the Russians could.
- As a child, humanity set foot on the Moon, the film "2001 – A Space Odyssey" showing what seemed a realistic rate of advance.
- Within bare weeks from now, the US will no longer be able to put astronauts in orbit.
- Education: Forget the number of bits of paper given by universities, the "grade inflation" politicians encourage to make themselves look good – and look at what proportion of the population can actually do things. For example, I’d wager the percentage of the population that could even tell you what integration and differentiation are, let alone look at a curve and sketch the integral or derivative, will have peaked and fallen – and there is a fair chance that it’s not just in relative numbers, but absolute numbers. And then, there is the proportion of people who can spell with moderate accuracy…
- When I was a kid, the average person was motivated by anti-rascist sentiment, Martin Luther King was saying "I have a dream" in the US, a referendum here in Oz on treatment of indigenous peoples passed almost unanimously – and today, regardless of legislation, politicians are willing and able to push buttons in the majority that rely on unacknowledged, covert, and even admitted, rascist sentiments.
- Health standards: While we live longer, I’d wager the age at which strong medical measures need to be taken has fallen – mainly due to diseases of affluence, the national waistline expanding, the incidence of diabetes II, along with expansion of the costs to the community to manage those diseases and their consequences.
- The secular society ideals of the Enlightenment have receded, as the more non-sensical wings of religion gain in both popularity and influence. This could well be a cause of the other problems, but even if not, it’s certainly comorbid and accelerates the pathology. When I was a kid we had Vatican II providing evidence of churches being dragged into the 20th century, and now we have a Christian Taliban, lead by the likes of Arch
VilliansBishops Jensen and Pell, wanting to drag society back to the religious domination and interpersonal intolerance of the time of Constantine, and the freedom from secular controls over the clergy. It’s a cause for despair and shame among those calling themselves Christian that the more humane messages of Jesus have been again vanquished by the inhumane attitudes of Paul and Leviticus.
- Even on the mundane levels of time with family we have gone backwards, the progress to the 8-hour day undone, trumped by the rise in unpaid overtime driven by fear, a donation to the plutocrats of time that removes the opportunity for employment of others – indeed a double donation to the plutocrats, by the pay-as-you-go employees covering a greater percentage of their wages to cover the unemployment benefits of those kept out of employment by that donated overtime. Families are caught behind the looking-glass, the Red Queen chewing up family time, parents and partners running harder than ever to stop going backwards.
- When I was a kid, there had been the "better living through science" meme (even in the counter culture, the "better living through chemistry" applied to synthetic psychoactives). The basic scientists were trusted more and more, while their paymasters and their agenda were being trusted less and less. Consider the difference in trust of the scientists versus paymasters then, compare the advances against Big Tobacco then with the losses against Big Carbon now. The death threats against Australian climate researchers remind me of the horrific torture and murder of Hypatia who dared to promote education in the wake of rising Christianity. That’s a regression of nearly two millenia.
The pointy end of all these things is the threat to stability, and indeed civilization, posed by climate change and humanity exceeding the carrying capacity of the planet.
Despite the logic and evidence being as peer-accepted and strong as for evolution a century ago, and probably because of falling levels of rigorous thinking combined with the rise in magical thinking, there is no real change for the better on lifestyle carbon intensity by the most privileged, and even the most basic prudential measure of cutting population growth is unused – indeed it is being flouted by such things as a baby-bonus.
The hopes of meeting the needs of a 2 degree average increase in temperature, and all the atmospheric fury implied by even that amount of extra energy, as well as our ability to adjust, are receding. A 4 degree incease might not be containable, the runaway feedback in ocean current failures, the dead zones it will create on top of rising seawater acidity and collapse of food chains … it fall in line with some of the worst projections in New Scientist a couple of years back – the possibility of a 90% drop in the human population by 2100: an ugly culling full of conflict and suffering because we cannot control ourselves, cannot create a managed drop of even 50%, an unwillingness to even contemplate the obvious possibilities of increasing human happiness with a contracting population and economy.
There are more politicians inflaming the worst in us now than there were politicians decades (or even centuries) ago seeking to make us aware of, and correct, our worst flaws. The appeals are no longer to the better angels of our nature, but to our demons.
It is hard to see anything that can fight the decline. Perhaps a radical education overhaul and get-tough policy on magical thinking might do it, for it would attack the causes of so many problems, but there are too many inhibitors to expect a return of the flame of Englightenment ideals in enough hearts to make enough of a difference in time.
And how complete will the collapse be? How much more difficult will it be to rebuild civilization given the resources needed for an industrial age of steam and fossil fuel will be unavailable? Any future renaissance, any climb from the new Dark Age, will be much slower than the last time.
It will be worse if the resource scarcities and geographical pressures cause those nations with nuclear weapons to use them in a desperate bid to command resources and decrease demand from other nations.
So, I’ve witnessed many wonders never before seen by humankind, the timing of childhood and young adulthood to be such a witness the best in 100 millenia of human experience – lucky me. But I’ll also be one of a generation that, for the first time since the collapse of feudalism, looks at my grandson and cannot hope he will live in a better world, indeed, has justifiable fears that his world will be the worst since the Black Death swept Europe – woe is me.
If there is any hope to encourage action, it is not for a better world any more, it is merely to try and stop the world falling so far and so hard, the hope that things won’t be so bad that the Dark Age won’t be so long.
- I do see the life and times of Hypatia as providing useful inside into modern times, the signs of the inevitable fall of civilization amidst apparent wealth, and the victory over reason by the power-hungry using religion and anti-intellectualism to gain power over an increasingly stultified and fearful population. See these posts for more.
- I stress the loss of the Enlightenment Ideals rather than the Renaissance, because of the motivations of the Enlightenment being superior in my view to that of the Renaissance. From Wikipedia:
The Age of Enlightenment (or simply the Enlightenment or Age of Reason) was a cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe to mobilize the power of reason to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted intellectual interchange and opposed intolerance and abuses in Church and state.
There are few appeals to true reason from modern politicians at the top of the major parties, we don’t get good reasons but bad rationalizations to exonerate evils, in the manner of Dr Pangloss.
- We should not forget the Scottish Enlightenment, which was not as limited to politics, but productive science, with improvement not only in the power of citizens, but their virtue. Again, from Wikipedia:
It was this latter feature which gave the Scottish Enlightenment its special flavour, distinguishing it from its continental European counterpart. In Scotland, the Enlightenment was characterised by a thoroughgoing empiricism and practicality where the chief virtues were held to be improvement, virtue and practical benefit for both the individual and society as a whole.
Those aims for society as a whole have been happily brushed aside, even by the majority (fortunately not all) who use Hume and Smith to justify political decisions. Those regressive modern capitalists, deny the validity of trying to improve human behaviour like the Scottish thinkers, yet while agreeing with the contemporaneous but English Malthus that human nature could not be improved, reject rational Malthusian warnings about population exceeding carrying capacity.
- While you may not be able to see the article "Science as a threat to far-right fringe" (doi:10.1038/467788d) in Nature on threats to science and prescience on death threats to scientists (how long has it been since it was acceptable for power to "show the instruments" to Galileo), you can see the editorial "Science scored" in peerless peer-reviewed Nature 467, 133(09 September 2010) doi:10.1038/467133a:
There is a growing anti-science streak on the American right that could have tangible societal and political impacts on many fronts — including regulation of environmental and other issues and stem-cell research. … In the current poisoned political atmosphere, the defenders of science have few easy remedies. … As educators, scientists should redouble their efforts to promote rationalism, scholarship and critical thought among the young, and engage with both the media and politicians to help illuminate the pressing science-based issues of our time.
The author of the "Science as a threat to far-right fringe" article is, I believe, wrong that the enemies of reason are on the fringe of anything but coherent thought- but is absolutely correct to write the following in a comment on his piece:
I would be interested in hearing, in confidence, from any scientist that has received death threats based on their research (email to firstname.lastname@example.org). These are not normal times.
Actually, they are too often normal times – civilization goes backwards as often as it progresses.