The 20th century marked an inflection point — the beginning of humanity’s transition from its ancient crises of ignorance to its modern crises of invention. Our science is now so penetrating, our systems are so robust, that we are mostly endangered by our own creations...Our transportation networks are now so fast and far-flung that they transmit diseases worldwide before cures can catch up. The next epidemics will play on our strengths, not our weaknesses — fighting them will mean canceling flights, not killing fleas. This Horseman of the Apocalypse has dismounted and now travels coach.
Indeed, our machines have multiplied so much that a new crisis looms because of the smoke coming off them as they combust. Future food crises, if they come, will be driven by anthropogenic climate change. Famine will descend not from the wrath of God but from the growth of gross domestic product. We ourselves are outfitting the Horsemen of the future, or perhaps it’s better to say that we are creating them...Whether humans can overcome their coming crises of invention will turn on the philosopher’s old question of whether individuals are essentially good or evil, which is a hard question — but recent news will tempt many thumbs to turn downward.
A more positive answer emerges if we switch to a systems perspective, evaluating humanity as a whole as we would an ecosystem or a complex machine. What happens when humanity “adds” energy to itself ... as it’s done massively in the transition from wood and muscle power to fossil fuels and alternatives?..Something is happening to our species, and especially over the last 70 years. The years since 1945 have seen many horrors...Yet this has also been the most prosperous time in human history by far. And by a long way the time with the greatest increase in democracy around the world. It has also been the most peaceful era in recorded human history. As Joshua Goldstein puts it in “Winning the War on War,” “We have avoided nuclear wars, left behind world war, nearly extinguished interstate war, and reduced civil wars to fewer countries with fewer casualties.” Goldstein continues:In the first half of the twentieth century, world wars killed tens of millions and left whole continents in ruins. In the second half of that century, during the Cold War, proxy wars killed millions, and the world feared a nuclear war that could have wiped out our species. Now, in the early twenty-first century, the worst wars, such as Iraq, kill hundreds of thousands. We fear terrorist attacks that could destroy a city, but not life on the planet. The fatalities still represent a large number and the impacts of wars are still catastrophic for those caught in them, but overall, war has diminished dramatically.
...the big picture of postwar history shows significant improvements in nearly all indicators of lived human experience. The average life span of humans is today longer than it has ever been. A smaller proportion of women die in childbirth than ever before. Child malnutrition is at its lowest level ever, while literacy rates worldwide have never been higher. Most impressive has been the recent reduction in severe poverty — the reduction in the percentage of humans living each day on what a tall Starbucks coffee costs in America. During a recent 20-year stretch the mainstream estimate is that the percentage of the developing world living in such extreme poverty shrank by more than half, from 43 to 21 percent.
Humanity does learn, painfully and often only after thousands or even millions have died ...humanity learns as identities alter to become less aggressive and more open, so that networks can connect individual capacities more effectively and join our resources together.
What we take for granted frames the size of our concerns. We’ve come to expect that mayors and police chiefs will not endorse, much less order, the lynching of minorities. Within that frame, racial profiling and deaths in police custody are top priorities. After decades, we’ve come to expect enduring peace among the great powers. Within that frame any military action by a major power, or a civil war in a resource-rich state, rightly becomes top news.
We can’t relax; the upward trends in time’s graphs may crest at any point. Yet batting away the positive facts is lazy, and requires only a lower form of intelligence.