Grateful to live in the 21st century developed world
Lately I’ve been thinking about how absurdly affluent our society is at this time in human development. There is still a lot of work to be done to extend this level of material security to the rest of the world, but I think many people lose sight of how far our species has come in the past 200,000 years, and then particularly in the past 100 years. This is not to diminish the great work that is needed to bring all of humanity into this fold, but rather a celebration of how life has improved for at least half of humanity.
To set a frame of reference, let’s imagine what life was like for a pre-sedentary human – a hunter and gatherer. While this type of human society is often romanticized, it was not an easy lifestyle. Food would have been relatively scarce, and you had to hunt meat and forage tubers and berries. We would have been filthy dirty most of the time, and even something as simple as an abscessed tooth would have eventually killed a person. 30 was probably an old age.
Fast forward maybe 10,000 years, and imagine being a peasant in a feudal society in Europe. The year is 1400 in a sedentary agrarian society, and unless you were in the .01%, you would have been a peasant farming someone else’s land. In the winter time, you would have been freezing cold and your dinner would have consisted of a stew cooked with some low-grade meat (like a fatty bone), some stored root vegetables, and water. Again, medical care was non-existent. Only the clergy would likely have been literate.
Now, fast forward to the year 1900. We are now well into the period of industrial society. Few people have electric lighting, and only the well-off in the city have flush plumbing. Only the .01% of the population have cars, and medical care is still quite crude, but improving. On a recent trip to the house of a Vanderbuilt family member (one of the richest families of the era), I saw how the most well-off lived at this time: horse carriages with maybe a car as a novelty, but most transport was done by rail. This most elite house had electric lights and flush plumbing, but no others in the countryside did. The telephone would have been in its infancy, so most likely telecommunication would have been conducted by telegraph. Even the most expensive medical care was still quite crude, and death from a burst appendix or infectious disease was common. Trans-Atlantic transport would have been by steam ship, and would take more than a week. Illiteracy was still very common.
Finally, let examine our modern lifestyle for a middle class family in close detail, to illustrate how absurdly-advanced our society is.
The modern American has a diet of unbelievable variety. We can walk down to the grocery store and purchase fresh produce from thousands of miles away. Fresh strawberries, kiwis, bananas, and oranges are available year-round. The same goes for vegetables. Meat is cheap and easily available (if one chooses to partake), as is milk, cheese, and eggs. Our advanced society produces food in such abundance that some middle-class people choose to purchase organic food that is farmed using more traditional methods because it may be more healthy.
Further, it is quite common for families to go to restaurants, where a staff of employees will prepare a meal for your entirely family for less than $100. Some people choose to go to high-end restaurants, where food becomes a sort of gustatorial art and the price tag increases to nearly $100 per plate.
Modern housing is generally ubiquitious. While our society has homelessness, much of the reason for this social problem is caused by drug addiction or mental illness, rather than material scarcity. Our housing stock provides for warm, dry, secure quarters year round. In the summer, air conditioning is nearly ubiquitious. I can cool two rooms in my apartment on the hottest days of the summer for about $75 per month. Further, our housing includes as standard, required items: clean running water, hot water, flush toilets, a gas stove, and food refridgeration. Extra items may include a microwave, which in a modern miracle can heat food nearly instantaneously. Electric lights are now four times as efficient as those earlier incadescent bulbs from 1900. The same electricity also powers machines that wash dishes and clothing automatically, and even robots that clean the floor.
We have reached a point in telecommunications where the wired telephone connection is anachronistic. Most households now have high-speed internet access, and sometimes that access is provided entirely wirelessly. Our telephone systems are now often provided entirely over the internet, and they allow us to communicate to anyone anywhere in the world affordably by text, voice, or even video-chat. Further, most of us carry tiny computers in our pockets that can do any of these tasks from anywhere with cell service. These tiny computers in our pockets are more powerful than high-end home computers in 1990, and they are available used for maybe $100. At a moment’s notice, we can use this device to recall a great amount of information, either for free or a small price. These devices can store thousands of books, as well as almost any song recorded in human history, for a nominal price. Information is essentially free.
Our medical care is of incredible quality. Most infections can be easily treated with antibiotics, and broken bones can easily be x-rayed and set to heal. Diabetes can be treated through artificial pancreases (pumps), and heart disease can be treated by medicine, pacemaker, or balloon surgery. Even cancer can, in some instances, be treated with a good chance of long-term survival. Surgery is no longer a likely death-sentence, and the removal of that abscessed tooth is an outpatient procedure.
Our society is generally non-violent and secure. Isolated instances of violence are rare, and most people live without the threat of violence in their daily lives. There is still much work to be done here, but it is much better than even 50 years ago. Instead of lynchings in the south, we have a national debate about racism. Instead of widely-accepted homophobia, we have legalized gay marriage.
Our society is more educated than ever. Illiteracy in the US is extremely low, and the majority of young people have at least the chance to attend educational institutions beyond the secondary level.
Most Americans have available highly-efficient, reliable, and safe cars to transport them a few miles or a few thousand miles. These cars now regularly can travel almost 40 miles on one gallon of gasoline, and they have safety features that make surviving a collision the norm. Most cars have mandatory heating and cooling, which is remarkable in itself.
Air travel is relatively affordable, and one can travel anywhere in the world at 500 MPH for a few thousand dollars at a moment’s notice. This allows amazing mobility of the global population.
I could go on, but I think these examples make my point that we live at a remarkable time in human history, one that would be irrecognizable to my great grandfather. I think this progress will continue, and the impacts of electric cars, autonomous cars, super-insulated housing, new urbanism, biotechnology, renewable energy, and other advances remain unforseeable. Things will likely only continue to become more remarkable for those in the developed world.
However, I think the imperative for our society is to extend the incredible material affluence of our society to the rest of the world, including the global poor. This will take a long time, but it is possible with continued development. We face the challenge of a warming climate, but the advancement of society can limit population growth, and the application of technology (modern farming, renewable energy, etc.) can provide the means of achieving material abundance with lower CO2 emissions.
This is the great ethical debate of our time. How can we help the global population to achieve material and intellectual actualization while protecting those same people from a changing climate? There is a balance that must be struck that neither extreme side of this debate fully acknowledges.
We can leave these social engineering discussions to the academics for now. However, the points above raise questions about how we should each live our lives. I think the imperative personal ethical question is: how can we enjoy the luxuries of the modern world with the least impact?
Can we enjoy modern housing with its dry warm/cool air, hot water, cleanliness, refridgeration, and automation in a smaller space, with less cost and less carbon emissions?
Can we choose to drive an efficient compact or hybrid car, and to drive it for many years before replacing?
Can we use modern telecommunications to limit our air travel? Can we be conscious of conspicious consumption by keeping our smartphone for 8 years rather than upgrading every year? Can we buy quality clothing and keep it for years, rather than buying the latest fashion each season?
Can our society agree that national healthcare is essential, and that higher education of all citizens can only improve economic life for everyone?
Can we decide that war and global instability is the greatest threat to material security? Can we use militarism for only just purposes like stopping genocides, while recognizing that military adventurism has created such genocides in the past and present?
There are many considerations at a personal level as we consider how to consume, how to vote, and how to engage with our society. I think we live in an amazing time, and I’m hopeful the future will allow more people throughout the world to enjoy the same modern advances that so many of us in the developed world enjoy on a daily basis.