Taking Stock

Often when we are absorbed in meeting the exigencies of everyday life we lose our broader perspective. We “can’t see the wood for the trees”! Consequently we fall into the trap of feeling insecure and convincing ourselves that our lives are somehow threatened by modernity.

I suppose reading the newspaper doesn’t help. Bad news dominates the headlines day after day. There is always another fatal traffic accident, traumatic house fire, devastating flood or terrorist attack to report.

But on many fronts the world has made considerable progress. Yes, there are still people starving and suffering from outbreaks of infectious diseases. But on a per capita basis these human tragedies are gradually dwindling in scale.

On some fronts modern capitalism has much to answer for, but as a mechanism for improving material well-being it has been hugely successful. To the chagrin of my grandchildren I can point to my youth when there were no refrigerators or TV’s which is a scenario beyond their imagination. And think how recently mobile phones, the internet and social media entered our lives.

On something of a whim just recently I replaced our little car with a new one. I bought a similar vehicle for my wife in 1991. Our new vehicle cost almost exactly the same but has so many more features. Adjusting for inflation, our new car would be less than half the real cost of its predecessor and is much enhanced.

Of course we could be prey to something insidious here. Matthieu Ricard, the marvellous Buddhist monk I have quoted in previous blogs has written, “The excessive importance accorded to consumption and a taste for the superfluous, as well as the reign of money, made me think that many of our contemporaries had forgotten the ends of existence – to achieve a sense of fulfilment – and gotten lost in the means.”

And again, as Ricard points out, this trend has caused us to elevate the famous, the rich and the powerful and that those who are merely “wise” are no longer the main objects of admiration.

But putting this aside for the time being, we have seen real progress on many fronts. Improvements in health have seen us largely outlive our parents and with the prospect that our children will probably substantially outlive us. Even though the aging population might force us to take some unpopular economic steps to sustain it, most would concede that it is a good problem to have!

And as we watch the evening news to be told of the latest atrocity committed by Boko Haram in Africa, advances by ISIS in Iraq or Syria, fresh outbreaks of violence in Ukraine and terrorist activities all around the globe, it is easy to believe that the world is being overwhelmed by violence. And yet research by Harvard professor, Steven Pinker, as outlined in his book Better Angels of our Nature, shows that violence in all its forms has been on the wane for centuries. No doubt, there is much more to do, but overall the world is becoming more peaceful and safer.

And again, after watching the news we could easily come away with a very pessimistic view of human nature. But this too is changing. Whereas in the past there was a tendency to highlight the selfish tendencies of Humankind, in recent years, research has begun to unearth considerable evidence to suggest that altruism is a widespread trait amongst us. Indeed evolutionary psychologists have demonstrated that altruism, counterintuitively, has, in Darwinian terms, “survival value”. The writings of the psychologist Daniel Batson (The Altruism Question and Altruism in Humans) in particular, throw light on the question and promote a more positive picture of human nature.

Now, I am sure you will know from my other writings that I don’t succumb to the Panglossian notion that this is the best of all possible worlds. There are many ways this world could be improved. But it seems to me that there is considerable evidence to suggest that overall our lots are improving.

However it seems to be the nature of Humankind if not to exaggerate, certainly to highlight existing insecurities. During the Cold War we were inordinately afraid of nuclear annihilation. Alan Watts, the populariser of Eastern wisdom traditions captured the angst in his writings at that time.

(There is) the feeling that we live in a time of unusual insecurity. In the past hundred years or so, many long established traditions have broken down – traditions of family and social life, of government, of the economic order and of religious belief. As the years go by, there seem to be fewer and fewer rocks to which we can hold, fewer things we can regard as absolutely right and true, and fixed for all time.

But it doesn’t take much research to find that such expressions of insecurity have been made frequently over the millennia. Watts continues:

As a matter of fact our age is no more insecure than any other. Poverty, disease, war, change and death are nothing new.

But in reality, as we saw above, even these threats seem to be generally on the decline.

The betes noir of the current generation seems to be climate change and the threat of militant Islam.

A staggering proportion of human activity is motivated by the desire to feel safe and secure. And yet this quest to feel secure doesn’t always lead to security, still less to happiness.

What’s more the advance of technology has inflated our fears about things that are unlikely to happen to us. In ancient times a person would create their defences in response to the threats they perceived in their own locality. Most times this would provide an adequate platform for managing their risk. But if you are in the habit of watching a daily news bulletin, the very purpose of which is to scour the globe for the most lurid scenes of mayhem, you will be misled into focussing your worry on threats you don’t actually face.

As Alan Watts pointed out in The Wisdom of Insecurity a lot of our insecurity comes from our reaction to change. But the world is always in a state of flux and there is little we can do to stop it. Indeed our ongoing progress is dependent on it.

A sober look at the world suggests that most of us are doing better and the threats to our security, whilst real, are no greater than they have ever been.

6 Replies to “Taking Stock”

  1. I agree Ted that we have certainly made amazing advances through science and engineering, and maybe even in geopolitical stability overall. But, it has come at a significant cost that we are only just beginning to realise. The enormous loss of natural capital and to a degree societal disfunction (we may be better off in material possessions, but I doubt that we are happier). Unfortunately, our current economic paradigm is at the end of its use by date – capitalism as we have evolved it to date is destroying the very ecosystem services that all life needs to survive. There are very big challenges ahead. Just about everything we do today is adding to an evolving problem. Habitat loss, and the greatest species extinction ever on planet Earth (happening right NOW); global warming and consequent climate change from unabated GHG emissions; loss of clean air and abundant fresh water; destruction of our aquifers and our best agriculture land; toxins throughout the environment and in our bodies like never before; loss of human empathy with nature and with each other; and more……

    However, like you I maintain hope that we can change, and engineers must take the lead in bringing together all disciplines, finding the solutions, and better communicating with society to effect implementation. It may need civil disobedience as many great leaders are now urging, but as Al Gore says do not despair, because despair is a form of denial…

  2. I believe we need something to worry about at all times. When we have nothing, we make something up and that is usually far worse than what life normally throws at us. I don’t worry too much about terrorism; it’s a bit like sharks. They exist and get plenty of publicity when they misbehave but there is a lot of water mixed in with them. As far as global warming and climate change goes, the big news is solar activity which science is now suggesting is about to go into a period of inactivity that has not been experienced for hundreds of years. The last time was the little ice age back around 1300 to 1500. The Thames froze over and arguably the trees grew so slowly that Mr Stradivari made violins out of wood that has not been available since. So don’t worry about rising temperatures, it is the big freeze we need to worry about but even that might result in some good violins.

  3. What wonderful, even if contradictory, comments from Greg and David! Perhaps you each might like to respond to the other’s comments and I and my readership can just sit back and be vastly entertained!

  4. Hmmm, not easy to object to David’s comments Ted because they seem pretty accurate to me based on the best evidence available and being an Engineer I can’t disagree that engineers have a place in solving many of these problems. I think it is all about how you look at it though. If you go back a few hundred years our cities were covered in dung, the air in winter was so thick with polluting smoke that people struggled to breath, most men and women worked very long hours doing work that was often very dangerous and life expectancy was about 50. So I don’t think any reasoning person would disagree that the world is a lot better place right now than at any time in the past. The question that I think worries you most though David is, are we destroying our future and the future of our planet for this generations comfort and joy? Are we greedy and selfish stealing from the future to create an unsustainable present? Well there are 2 issues here. Our future and the planets future. First up I think we should get the planet out of the way. It has been lots hotter and lots colder and come out of it just fine, what ever fine might be. If it is true that man made climate change exists and that is far from a demonstrable theory and certainly not a fact, then if it goes unabated in the worst case scenario it could result in the end of our species and many others. Of course a few hundred thousand years or so later things will evolve to some new normality without us and if at some stage some new consciousness evolves they may look at our engineering remnants and marvel out how their very existence is dependent on us for creating an environment that was suitable for them. To explain… the first serious life on earth were plants and they so polluted the earth with oxygen that they threatened to destroy themselves before animals showed up. It must have been a real worry for the ferns back then and I don’t see it is too much different today.

    Our evolution as a species is all about preserving our genetic linage so it is natural that we care greatly about our species extinction but sooner or later it is going to happen. Are we hastening it? Perhaps, but I doubt it. Will the world be different in the future? Yes it will, but again change is not necessarily bad. We fear change that is ahead of us but ignore change past. As an example. We dam a river and have great fear of the damage it will cause. If the dam is there for 50 years and we want to drain it we have great fear of the damage it will cause. What we fear is change and not the outcome. We also have a habit of blaming ourselves for everything that goes wrong that we don’t understand. The crown of thorns starfish is an example of this. The population explosion in the 70’s that was supposed to destroy the reef was blamed on human factors. The numbers subsided and now science accepts it as a natural phenomenon.

    The world we live in is still pretty good I think and I suggest better today than ever. We have climate change problems, terrorist problems, poverty problems, emotional well being problems and plenty more. We are also very good at solving problems.

  5. Hi Greg, First, I have not made anything up, nor have the thousands of climate scientists that confirm AGW is real and the consequence, climate change, is happening – the evidence is clear and present. Yes, I worry about the environment that our current activities are leaving for my 6 year old granddaughter. It does not look good! I wish that your coming cooling was real, but it is not. Sun spot/solar activity activity has negligible impact on the energy being absorbed by the planet – currently at the rate of 400,000 Hiroshima atom bombs every day over the pre industrial levels, and all due to CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels (isotope signatures tell us that), and the radiative forcing they cause. Sharks, no worry. If we venture into their home they have every right to eat us….. And just by the way, terrorism is in fact a manifestation of the ills we have wrought upon earth/life systems…

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