Are These the Best of Times or the Worst of Times?
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair….
If he were alive today, Charles Dickens would have plenty of things to write about.
Dickens’ most acclaimed novel, A Tale of Two Cities, depicted common life in London and Paris during the late 18th century. As troublesome as his stark portrayal was to readers during his day, the desperate plight of those earlier times now seems downright gentile compared to the lurking dangers and anxieties of living in a seemingly dystopian modern world now filled with nuclear weapons, global terrorism, and the outbreak of killer epidemics.
In so many ways, it seems we are living in the worst of times. If there’s any doubt, take a look around. Generations before never had to worry about crazed fanatics crashing airplanes into skyscrapers, or releasing biological or chemical weapons into our major cities. Our ancestors lived mostly quiet lives on farms or in urban centers and kept to themselves. They had much simpler lives. Sundays were for church. No one needed a Xanax. Sure, daily life wasn’t always a picnic for ordinary people. Life could certainly be hard. Then again, the average medieval villager never had to endure a TSA search or suffer an IRS audit.
So then, it would seem these are — the worst of times.
But are they really? Let’s think about that for a moment.
Actually, the answer is — no.
In fact, these are the best of times — and by a very wide margin. Living conditions are constantly improving by leaps and bounds each and every year. People are much healthier and safer now than in yesteryear. As hard as this might be to fathom given all we read and hear about all the horrible things going on in the world, compare the status of people living today with any other time in history.
In today’s essay, I shall do precisely that:
GENERAL HEALTH AND WELFARE — Science has eradicated horrible diseases that used to kill and cripple millions. Smallpox, polio, malaria, measles, and many other infectious pathogens which once posed the greatest danger to human life on earth are now all but wiped out. And so long as science continues to make progress (make that, is allowed to proceed in the face of religious opposition), we’ll eventually put an end to other harmful ailments, as well.
Think about this: Even with the sicknesses we can’t cure yet, science through various medications and treatments can still prolong life and make living far more comfortable for those who would have suffered horrible pain in previous times. Even the dying have it better now than before.
FOOD/NUTRITION — People all over the world are eating better now than at any time in history. Starvation and malnutrition used to be commonplace on every continent. While some areas continue to suffer due mostly to overpopulation, the vast majority of the world’s people have never enjoyed better, more balanced diets. In fact, the problem within many developing countries today is the opposite — one of obesity. The diversity of plentiful food products, GMOs, and a globalized network of efficient transportation and delivery systems has enabled most of us to enjoy unparalleled nutritional sustenance.
Think about this: There used to be just one kind of spaghetti sauce. Now, go to a grocery store. Or better yet, a specialty market. There are scores of different flavors available — from sweet to spicy, from meat to vegetarian, from low-fat to gourmet. Food isn’t just more plentiful, it’s also more enjoyable since it’s customized to different tastes.
WAR AND PEACE — Terrible things are certainly happening in the world today. But while we focus on the images that shock us, like beheadings and other horrible acts of violence, more people are actually living in peacetime than ever before. For centuries, Europe was a basket case of conflicts. Now, war between former rivals would be unthinkable. Tribal conflicts that once produced misery for millions have diminished significantly. Consider that a century ago World War I killed 20 million. After that, World War II killed another 60 million. Then, there was the stalemate of the Cold War that could have wiped out the entire planet. While we do face serious threats to peace and some parts of the world remain entangled in chaos, most of the regions of North America, South America, Europe, and Asia aren’t plagued by wars, deaths, and mass population displacement.
Think about this: A few generations ago, all able-bodied adult males in just about every nation would have been compelled serve in the military, and if commanded by superiors, to go off to war, fight in battle, and die. That was the prevailing ethos of all countries and a prerequisite stage for gradual acceptance, even in the most advanced societies. Today, increasing numbers of countries continue to demilitarize.
PERSONAL SAFETY — Our ancestors were faced with constant danger, from being attacked by wild animals to dying from insect bites. Once we eventually began gathering and living together in groups, next we faced the threat of neighboring tribes and fiefdoms invading our space, murdering our families, and stealing our goods. A large segment of the world’s population living on all continents also had to fear being turned into slaves. In more recent times, undeveloped territories were just as dangerous. Cities and towns were centers of violence. Today, most of the world’s population enjoys daily lifestyles where threats to personal safety are minimal.
Think about this: Violent crime in America has been decreasing steadily over the past 20 years. There are similar statistics for most parts of Latin America, Europe, and Asia.
QUALITY OF LIFE — Our ancestors froze in colder climates and were forced to endure sweltering heat during the hottest months. Daily life became a arduous ritual simply to stay warm, keep cool, and be as comfortable as possible. Now thanks to heating and air conditioning, everyplace from our homes to our workplaces to our places of leisure to out transportation systems to our cars are now climate controlled. This advance goes for every developed nation on earth, even in regions with constant turmoil. Counteracting what was once an environmental nuisance has led to increased quality of life for just about everyone. That’s just one measure of how things are much better now than before.
Think about this: The construction of sewers and major advances in waste water treatment has saved millions of lives from infectious disease. Cities would be virtually unlivable today were it not for the modern infrastructure of what we now take for granted — conveniences like toilets, sinks, baths, and showers which constantly recycle fresh water into our lives for readily use. Fortunately, these advances continue in the Third World, which will make the lives of those people better.
INFORMATION/COMMUNICATION — We’ve gone from living in a world where very little of what goes on was recorded or shared, to a virtual world of constant circulation and interaction. With the explosion in numbers of smart phones and social networks, what happens now will almost certainly be captured as an image and shared with the rest of the world. What used to take hours or perhaps even days to disperse now takes just seconds. We now benefit from things like weather and storm warnings to announcements about what’s on sale at the local department store.
Think about this: At this instant, you can text a message to someone positioned on the other side of the world and communicate directly with that person in the form of a conversation. A decade ago, such a conversation would have required a costly long-distance telephone call. A century ago, it would have required a telegram that taken a few days to receive. Before that, global interaction would have been impossible.
ENTERTAINMENT OPTIONS/LEISURE TIME — Most of the world enjoys more free time than ever before. Most modern nations have adapted a 40-hour work week. The most progressive nations even require time off for vacation. This has created more television stations and programs, more movies in different languages, a greater variety of music, more things to read, and in short, more leisure options than we’ve ever been able to enjoy. The rise in popularity of spectator sports (now in just about every nation) is perhaps the best example of more people with more free time on their hands. On the Internet, there are websites for every interest and taste. There’s so much information out there now, it’s become a big challenge to decipher fact from fiction.
Think about this: Advances in machinery and technology have even given many of us more leisure time in the workplace. We no longer have to dig out coal mines by pick and shovel when there are now specialized gadgets to perform the labor with the pull or a level or press of a button. Meanwhile, the heavy machinery operator can listen to music on his iPod.
TRAVEL — In the middle ages, most people never traveled outside the 20-mile radius from where they were born and raised. A trip to another town or village was a really big deal. Now, we’re become thoroughly mobile. We can be anywhere in the world within just a day. We can move around and pack our belongings to any country where we want to live. This convenience of mobility forces us to interact with each other more and inevitably creates relationships which benefit everyone.
Think about this: Not only is travel more readily available to everyone, it’s also much cheaper. Transportation used to be cost prohibitive for many people. Crossing an ocean was limited only to the rich and those who went off to war. Now, with such a vast network of cars, buses, trains, ferries, airplanes, and other mass movers of people, just about anyone can travel a reasonable distance for an affordable cost.
ENLIGHTENMENT — One upon a time, all human thought was restrained. All intellectual pursuit emanated from a political or religious authority, which were often one and the same. The freedom to pursue invention or creativity was non-existent. While such institutionalized retardation continues to afflict many parts of the world, more people in more nations are now able to think freely and pursue paths of self-enlightenment. This is due to increasing networks of information, the frailty of governments to restrict thought and behavior, and the declining role religion and superstition in many modern societies.
Think about this: If you are female, a person of color, or gay — multiply all of the above many times over. Most of the people within these classes, which far outnumbers the rest of the population, lacked the freedoms of opportunities most enjoy today. Discrimination, prejudice, bigotry, and sexism were both ritualized and institutionalized. This made the pursuit of happiness all but impossible for a majority of people on the planet.
Is everything great now? Or course not.
Open up a newspaper, turn on the television, or click a website on the Internet, and the world seems to be falling part. But it really isn’t.
While most of the world is getting better, our perception of what goes on is clouded by the constant ringing of alarm bells. What we’ve actually become is more connected and increasingly aware. Even the news of a teenager harming a kitten will most certainly outrage the world and get million of hits on Facebook. Instances of evil are not increasing, but our awareness of them is.
So long as we continue to care about what goes elsewhere, we’re in pretty good shape. So long as we still concern ourselves with people and places we don’t know, that’s a very good thing. The harbinger of compassion is wisdom.
Even Charles Dickens would have to agree. These are the best of times. And as crazy as it seems, they’re likely to get even better in the future.
Special thanks to Mr. Tony Mangnall who prompted this topic of discussion in a lively debate in a Pittsburgh bar which included lots of alcohol.