For the holidays, someone sent me this link:
The upshot of this link was that there were five things that were getting better in time; poverty (less), literacy (more), health (child mortality down, vaccinations up), freedom (more democracy), and education (more). Yay, science and technology! Yay, Progress!
As mentioned to the sender of the link, this is all fine, well, and dandy. Who could complain? My initial reaction was to look at these charts, starting at 1800, and consider these charts (from http://www.pelicanweb.org/solisustv08n05page6.html); world energy consumption, and per capita energy consumption:
See any correlations? These are the kinds of things that should make anyone who is looking at the first “Things are getting better” charts consider why things are actually getting better. Perhaps, more importantly, the very definition of “better” should also be examined in more detail.
For one, we have been able to get more of that better “stuff” because we have had energy slaves (close to 150 of them, working 24/7, and possibly even more if you are an American), and many of those gains can be attributed to clean water, telecommunications, and the spread of knowledge, all made possible by cheap fossil fuels. Any reasonable person knows that these cheap fossil fuels are going away; so, it isn’t hard to think that those gains won’t be swept away as well. Without cheap fossil fuels, much of these gains (and those energy slaves) will be going away. Yes, we may have some renewables, and yes, we may keep some of our technology; radio, some basic knowledge like the germ theory of disease, the ability to make simple antibiotics and so on, but really advanced technologies (semiconductor fabrication plants, launching of communication and weather satellites, for example) may not be viable. As cheap energy and the complex infrastructure that comes with it goes away, we will lose those things, no matter how useful they may be (yes, that means even possibly you, Internet). We may keep some levels of 1960s technology for a while, even, but my guess is that some technologies won’t be able to be maintained for more than a few decades. The best description of the world we might inhabit might be JMG’s well thought out Retrotopia. Things will be a bit more low tech, but our lives might actually be considered better.
The second item to consider from those graphs above are that the metrics themselves don’t tell us anything about the quality of life that people are leading, or the quality of the things that are being measured. Yes, you can measure “poverty” in dollar amounts, but nobody seems to want to consider or measure the poverty of modern life, when things like good relationships, community, purpose and meaning are brought up. Yes, it is good that extreme poverty is being reduced; this means things like sanitation, clean water, and vaccinations are becoming more widespread. But certainly, this is due to the increased amount of energy that has come with the increased use of fossil fuels. Very few of us want to trade comfortable middle (or upper middle) class lives for lives of relative poverty, but relative wealth will be decreasing in the future as cheap fossil fuels become more scarce.
When considering the education and literacy graphs, we should also be asking ourselves how much “better” our “advanced” secondary and post-secondary education actually is. Are people smarter, and making better decisions because they have gone to high school, college, or grad school? Yes, Snopes makes the point that this may not be true, but certainly the ability of students to do complex calculations, or make critical analyses is subject to extensive and vocal debate. Considering the rise in educational costs, certainly, the efficiency of our educational system has most definitely been lowered, especially in the United States. Literacy has been on the increase because people aren’t in subsistence lifestyles, and when you are in subsistence mode, expanded literacy isn’t high on your list of priorities. With some modicum of effort, it will probably be worth it for people to have the basics of readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic. But will people in a de-industrialized future require knowledge of computer programming, algorithms, advanced mathematics, exotic high energy physics, gender studies, advanced neurobiochemistry, anthropology, hotel chain administration, and sports management? Yes, those topics may still be of interest to a few wealthier individuals, but for most people, they will be irrelevant. If computers aren’t used in daily lives, who will care about programming them, and how much of an impediment will it be to daily life for most people not to know about those topics? The new skills people will be learning (carpentry, husbandry, boat building, fishing, farming, practical electronics and radio, low-tech medicine) will be more useful, yet on this chart, they would not register. If anything, as people learn those skills, they will become more resilient, independent, and better adapted to a changing world.
The last item on the list is a touchy one – democracy. Yes, those plots show that more people are living under “democracy”, but as much as one hates to put it in quotes, one has to wonder what sort of “democracy” those of us actually have. Are these true democracies, or are they just for show? The late and great George Carlin, quoted here before, sums it up nicely (full transcript is here) in his bit on the “American dream.” In theory, yes, we have a democracy, but more and more people are realizing that no, they don’t have a say, and a few folks have even written it up in investment advice, and had some commentary by the business press. According to some, we are more likely living in a plutonomy. Maybe, maybe not, but when analyses like these are made by banks, one has to wonder. Will the Internet lead to more democracy? Or not?
My final take on these “things are getting better” graphs is that yes, some things are getting better, but the final question will be for how long can these “better” things be sustained? Anybody can stay up for hours on end, powered by coffee or amphetamines, but is that sustainable? Likewise, the measurement of “better” is a tricky one. Is measuring wealth in financial terms the only way to measure the goodness of our lives?
- What do you think of these “better” graphs?
- Which one do you think will start to reverse first?
- Do you think it will be possible that although some of these metrics will “fall” in value, we will have better lives? Which of these metrics is the most inflated or warped, with respect to reality?
- One thing not shown here is “GDP” (nor its relation to debt). By the official measure, an increase in GDP happens when an oil spill occurs, since it the “economy” is boosted when you have to clean it up. Does this make any sense?
- There are alternate measures of a health of society; instead of GDP, there is Gross National Happiness; can this be measured in any realistic way?
- Looking at the per capita consumption of energy, if we exclude things like oil, natural gas, and nuclear, we might get back to a 1910 level of energy consumption, but with the knowledge we have now. Perhaps we wind up somewhere between steampunk and dieselpunk?