Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


I didn't post yesterday because I had to deal with snow removal in two places, with a substantial travel ordeal in between -- including following a rolling roadblock of snowplows down the interstate at 20 miles an hour. Whenever we have a big weather event like this, it makes me think about the curses and the blessings of modernity.

The big news -- which is still dominating all the networks 24 hours after the storm pulled away -- is all the unfortunates stuck in airports. That is truly unpleasant. On the other hand, air travel wasn't a routine habit of the ordinarily affluent until 50 years ago, at the most. Either you stayed close to Waga Waga where you grew up, or you just said goodbye to your parents and sent them Christmas cards. If you did go to see them once every few years, it took several days anyway.

Streetcars made suburbs possible, but they were a different kind of suburbs than the ones we know today, spawned by the automobile. Streetcar suburbs -- which to a large extent have been incorporated into their parent cities -- were organized around town centers where the people could walk to stores and church and taverns. Automobile suburbs are monocultures of houses on landscaped quarter acres from which people drive to shopping centers and soccer practice.

There are environmental consequences, which are obvious, but the social consequences are just as profound although we think about them less. Most of the friends I have made in the course of my life are hundreds or thousands of miles away. That's basically normal. Growing old nowadays often means becoming alone, but lots of younger people are pretty isolated as well.

When we adopt new technologies we are entirely short-sighted. We see what they do for us immediately, but have little thought of how they will change the fabric of life. Truly, we probably could not predict that anyway.

Many people think and write about these issues but they aren't much a part of popular consciousness or political discourse. We have a bedrock assumption that innovation equals progress. On balance, perhaps, it seems true to most people so far. Deaths in automobile crashes are more than balanced out by children not dying of infectious diseases. Routine tourism to exotic lands is fun, although perhaps not as enlightening in most cases as we would like to think. Global trade fills our world with stuff, even if it leaves a lot of workers behind. But it's worth thinking about the balance sheet much more carefully than we ordinarily do, and having more concern about how all these bargains will look in a few years.

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