Life was nasty, short, and brutish for 99% of the population for most of recorded history, until less than 300 years ago. Then, a series of scientific, political, and industrial revolutions swept the world. Together, those revolutions dramatically improved physical welfare and infused society with fantastic ideas about science, curiosity, human rights, and individual freedom.
Life expectancy doubled in nearly all countries over a time period that is like the blink of an eye of civilization. Child mortality rates have plunged by 90%. In 1820, only 12% of people on earth could read and write–now over 85% can. Average income has grown ten-fold. In the past forty years alone, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has fallen by 90%.
In parallel, there has been an astonishing expansion of freedom and civil rights around the world. In 1800 only 1% of the world’s population lived in a democracy; now most do. A century ago, almost no women had the right to vote anywhere in the world; now most do.
Yet, as both material and political progress has accelerated, the rate of improvement has differed sharply across groups, increasing inequality, straining social cohesion and community wellbeing, which ultimately hurts us all. Racial disparities have been particularly acute.
More recently, many people are sliding back economically – with many young people now believing their standard of living will be lower than their parents. Democracy, the rule of law, and human rights are under attack in both new democracies and old ones.
Rapid progress has caused obesity, diabetes and heart disease because habits developed during times of scarcity caused us to overindulge during times of plenty. Mortality rates have suddenly started rising among even white middle-aged Americans.
Environmental degradation has, in some areas, spun out of control as we’ve forgotten our forests and wildlife are not infinite. Global warming now threatens our very way of life.
In the last three centuries, our democracies and market economies have powered astonishing advances for us, yet they increasingly allow those with economic power to pervert the key ingredients of open access, equal opportunity, and fair play.
It’s time to pause and reflect on the incredible luck we have had over the last 300 years and resolve to renew it, not squander it. We need to take stock and make deep reforms in our economies, political systems, and ways of life to avoid going backwards. We need a second wind for humanity to resume progress and make it available to all people. And we must do this in a way that safeguards our environment so we can bequeath a thriving future to our children and grandchildren.
Central to our efforts of renewal will be re-discovering the importance of community, re-affirming that we depend on one another in myriad ways. Society can only be as healthy as its weakest and most disadvantaged citizens.
We must acknowledge and embrace a diversity of viewpoints and values, which is part of the elixir of modernity. And at the same time we must re-commit ourselves to the core tenets of the scientific revolution – in other words, to be open to persuasion based on new evidence, new insights, and new logic. That will require deeper listening and humility about what we think we know.
We must step back and re-kindle the incredible benefits of the constitutions that embody the most fundamental rights we have come to take for granted. The right hand of any constitution is the rule of law which (however imperfectly) provides the guardrails that turn those rights from theory into practice – and more generally nudge us toward fair play and order in our societies.
Looking forward, we need to forge consensus on a broad vision for our future, even though we will not agree on tactics, timing, or strategy. A few things to keep in mind:
Not too fast, not too slow: Most of us (including me) are uncomfortable with radical or rapid change, so it’s our responsibility to find ways to help each other feel comfortable with the changes we can embrace.
Power begets power: Many at the top of the power structure will resist changes they perceive as harming them, and they will resist any re-carving of a pie that is not growing.
It’s a relay race: It took humanity tens of thousands of years to get this far, so we will not achieve nirvana in a year or even a decade.
Can’t do everything at once: Hard choices will need to be made about which battles to fight, how to fight them, and when to fight.
We need to combine idealism with realism. We need to keep our eye on the overall arc of justice and be willing to defer certain issues when others are more serious or riper for action. Few of us will find total satisfaction in our lifetimes, we must not let dissatisfaction with our progress cloud our judgment about next steps.
We must do what we can, and then prepare to hand the baton to the next generation, cheering them on as they sprint around the track’s next turn.
When the final bugle blows, we can only hope that our friends, families, and neighbors say, “You moved the ball down the field; you did good. You gave us the vision and the encouragement and the shoulders to stand on to reach ever higher.”
Dennis Whittle Jacksonville, Florida May 20, 2020