Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Heading for the hills?

So here's the paradox of our present lives. Those of us sitting here on the commanding heights, in the wealthy countries, have the most secure lives any humans have ever experienced. Not even the greatest potentates of older times -- Alexander the Great or Henry VIII -- or the wealthiest of people as recently as the early 20th Century, for that matter, enjoyed the expectation of long, reasonably healthy life and the very low probability of sudden death or disability that the most disadvantaged of Americans take for granted today. We haven't known widespread hunger or deprivation for 60 years, considerably longer than most of us have been alive, and even the Great Depression didn't represent nearly the hardship known routinely by European peasants as late as the 19th Century, for just about anyone.

We don't need to fear smallpox, or polio, or essentially any bacterial illness; wild animals, hunger, war coming to our towns (though we seem more than eager to take it to others); sudden, inexplicable death from causes we now understand to be overwhelming infections, autoimmune diseases, childhood leukemia, and so on. We take it for granted that our water is safe to drink, our food is safe to eat, our streets safe to walk. Even when whole communities are destroyed in wildfires, the people evacuated in time, and they are insured. The exceptions get enormous attention precisely because they are not ordinary.

And yet this is an age seemingly characterized, above all, by anxiety. A couple of days ago the NYT carried a lengthy article about the boom in survivalist supplies. All sorts of well-to-do suburbanites are stocking up on canned graham crackers and home emergency surgery kits because they fear the collapse of the world economy and empty supermarkets. The prospect that more people than usual might catch the flu for a couple of months produced the greatest cataract of hysterical headlines since the outbreak of World War II. The chance that a few delusional guys in the foothills of the Himalayas might send a few pals over to blow up an airplane or shoot up a shopping mall caused the country to spend $2 trillion committing mass murder 800 miles to the west, suspend its constitution, and hold mass rallies to burn the country music albums of people who didn't like all that. Earlier, we had to coax all those people down from the hills who expected civilization to collapse on January 1, 2000 when the computers were going to get confused about the date, and of course half of Americans believe that God is about to bring the world to an end just because it says so in the 2,000 year old memoir of a hallucinogenic mushroom eater.

While all this craziness is going on, yeah, we do have some serious problems to worry about. As I indicated yesterday, and as I'm sure I don't have to convince anybody who reads these rants, we have heedlessly built our entire society and way of life on means that cannot long continue. Oddly, it seems that the same people who are most likely to be obssessed with the imaginary menaces in the preceding paragraph are least likely to take any of these real dangers seriously.

On the other other hand (or the third half of the show), these real problems do not, as many people seem to imagine, threaten sudden, overwhelming catastrophe -- with one exception, and it seems to be the one people have been thinking about the least, lately. Rather, they are all about long, slow emergencies: gradual constriction of essential resources, producing lengthy periods of painful adjustment and harming the health and well being of various groups of people here and there; displacement of populations; massive, but foreseeable destruction in coastal zones, which can be abandoned in advance; wholesale elimination of some industries and livelihoods, with large but surmountable challenges of replacing them and finding new ways of doing things; truly dangerous pandemics of infectious disease (not influenza, which at the very worst will be a brief disruption), that will tax our science, our generosity, and our compassion. None of these portend the collapse of civilization or the decimation of the human population. Things may get really tough for a lot of people but we won't put the genie of science and industry back in the bottle. We know how to solve problems and bend nature to our will, and I'm sure we'll keep on finding ways.

As for that one exception? Our greatest folly, nuclear weapons. We may damage the world and our selves and society by our greed and short-sightedness, but we won't destroy them. We'll muddle through to the post-industrial world. But we can indeed blow it all up through our malice and fear and hatred. Our greatest challenge, and the continual frustration I often express here, is how to get people to focus on the problems that really matter, and take the long-term view that's necessary to address them. It just doesn't seem to be human nature.


kathy a. said...

there is absolutely nothing that a private citizen can do if the nukes start falling. that has to be handled on a national/international level.

you and i and that whippersnapper obama were all raised during the cold war -- remember the "bomb drills," where we were supposed to dive under our desks for protection? they've been re-purposed as "earthquake drills" in CA, and are OK for that purpose, but they aren't worth anything for a nuclear strike.

my poor dad was ready for the acopalypse. when he died a few years back, we thought we knew where the guns were, but kept running across more, sorting through the garage-o-stuff. he had bins of emergency supplies, too -- rotting socks and camping equipment and c-rations.

i'm not anxious to go back to cold-war-style panic. it's not a good way to live, having the kids think they'll be blown up any day. the nuke threat is still there, though, and i still remain hopeful that this particular administration can deal with it thoughtfully and effectively.

roger said...

the safe air and water thing seems to be going away too.

if society falls apart how long will those emergency rations last? and then what? better to learn how to grow food. we may have time for that.