A frequent critique of the daily news flow is that it is filled with negative events. This is partly a product of the human nervous system. We react very quickly to perceived threats and more slowly to hope of gain or pleasure. Editors and reporters know what will grab people’s attention which is why the old adage—if it bleeds, it leads—still applies.
There are, of course, heartwarming stories about miraculous recoveries from illness and injury, rescued animals, and saintly persons doing amazing charitable acts. And, then there is a sub-genre of the feel-good story which I’ll call the you’ve-been-living-in-opposite-land-things-are-actually-getting-better story.
Now as an antidote to the relentless negativity of the news, this kind of story gets attention. And, sometimes we need to be reminded, for instance, that life expectancy continues to rise, child mortality continues to decline, and smoking remains in decline. Humans are capable of making progress by certain measures.
“By certain measures” is the key phrase because what we typically measure when we say that things are getting better are measures of human well-being. Those who tell us not to fret about the doomsday predictions of environmentalists very craftily conflate two categories: the state of the natural world and the state of human well-being by telling us that the “world” is actually getting better.
Well, “world” in its primary definition means the planet. Other definitions are narrower and some include only humankind. If you are not paying attention, you will miss this sleight-of-hand used by apologists for the destruction of the natural world who tell us that the “world” is getting better—while carefully omitting any mention of the natural world or cherry-picking a few narrow and misleading trends concerning the environment.
If by “better” these apologists mean that generally accepted measures of human well-being continue to rise in across the entire global population, then we might grudgingly agree. (There are, however, plenty of trends that are negative in human affairs, but that discussion is for another time.) What the apologists don’t tell you is that human well-being is being purchased by the widespread, uncontrolled destruction of the very systems in the biosphere that have sustained humans in such great numbers to this point: the climate, the soil, the fisheries, the fresh water supplies, the air we breathe (through toxic pollution), the biodiversity of the plants and animals—and disruption of key systems such as the carbon cycle and the nitrogen cycle. A Google search reveals this unconscionable omission in practically every top search item purporting to give us the good news.
And, this gets us back to the problem I have often noted regarding how we perceive risks. We have been indoctrinated into the ideology of cost/benefit analysis which blinds us to the fact that no benefit can be justified if the risk or cost involved is the destruction of the very system which gives us the benefit—in this case, a biosphere with a habitable climate and resources from Earth systems sufficiently abundant and free of toxicity in order to sustain human life.
These necessities are no longer assured far into the future. Yet perversely, we seek to exploit resources and undermine climate stability faster because this leads to better measures of human well-being—that is, until the day the Earth systems we rely on become so depleted and altered that the general level of human well-being goes in reverse, possibly rather quickly.
A system that is designed for collapse lies outside the category of “progress” by my definition. I am reminded of Sisyphus condemned for eternity to roll a rock up a hill only to have it roll right back down and repeat the process. Of course, it seems like it has been a very long roll uphill for industrial civilization. But actually 200 years is a minuscule period in the life of humankind. It represents 6/100ths of one percent of the time homo sapiens have been around (about 315,000 years). The most likely path on our current trajectory is a tumultuous and destructive return to agrarian society.
All of this commotion we call industrial civilization understandably looks like progress to those living through it and fortunate enough to die before the decline begins. It’s a kind of progress, I suppose, but the kind that rushes toward collapse. And, that’s not the kind the boosters of the the-world-is-getting-better meme want you to know about.
Image: Illustration of Hugo Gernsback’s speculative article on what cities will be like in the future. February 1922. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Science_and_Invention_Feb_1922_pg905_-_Cities_of_the_Future.jpg
“The city of the future, 10,000 years hence, will not be located on the surface of the Earth. It will be floating up miles high, and such things as snow, rain, and storms will be unknown to the city dwellers of the future. It will have perpetual sunlight, and weather will never bother our future citizens. Just as our leviathans of the sea are built to remain on top of the water at all times, so the floating city of the future will remain afloat constantly, supported by shafts of electro-magnetic rays, which, nullifying gravity, keep the city raised up by reaction. The city dweller of the future will not be bothered much by diseases such as tuberculosis, because all of these are now transmitted by the high density of the air near the surface of the Earth. Three or four miles up bacteria are not so common as they are near the surface.”