Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

May 19, 2010

We live in Utopia!

Filed under: Culture,Futurism,Matt Ridley,Optimism — Razib Khan @ 6:40 am

Rod Dreher mulls his bias toward declinism while evaluating Matt Ridley’s new book The Rational Optimist. Here’s a portion of Ridley’s argument:

But with new hubs of innovation emerging elsewhere, and with ideas spreading faster than ever on the Internet, Dr. Ridley expects bottom-up innovators to prevail. His prediction for the rest of the century: “Prosperity spreads, technology progresses, poverty declines, disease retreats, fecundity falls, happiness increases, violence atrophies, freedom grows, knowledge flourishes, the environment improves and wilderness expands.”

Dreher gloomily observes:

Well, I would certainly love to be wrong; neither I nor my descendants gain anything out of a world of decline. But it would be useful to go back and look at how 19th-century progressives expected the 20th century to be a wonderland of peace, prosperity and progress. Didn’t quite work out that way. I suspect the truth is that nobody knows anything about tomorrow, and that we can only make our best educated guesses based on history and the wisdom of experience.

Looking at the imaginings of past futurists is often pretty amusing. And Ridley’s projections of plentitude and prosperity seem to involve an extrapolation of the conditions of the past 200 years, whereby a greater and greater proportion of humanity has broken the shackles of the Malthusian trap. The reality is that for most of human history innovation was always immediately counter-balanced by population growth so that median wealth never increased. Only in the 19th century did a new social pattern and demographic dynamic emerge whereby prosperous individuals did not reproduce to a greater extent in keeping with their greater wealth. Rather, societies went through the “demographic transition”, and greater wealth for future generations became the new norm. There’s no reason that this doesn’t have to be a transient state between long epochs of Malthusianism, so I think assuming that the new normal is the normal forever more is a step too far.

That being said, it seems to me that we do truly live in a utopia in any objective terms when viewed from the 19th or early 20th centuries. The Dickensian lot of the poor no longer characterize the lower classes of the developed world, and obesity is actually a feature of the lives of the poor, as opposed to starvation. The period between 1800 and 1970 witnessed a massive shift in earning power to the working classes, and a closing of the wage gap between skilled and unskilled workers. Infection has not been abolished, but it is no longer so deadly. Violence has decreased, despite the periodic outbreaks of industrialized genocide. And so on.

Utopia is always over the hill, and the new normal was the aspiration of the past, not the bliss of the present. But the past and the present and the future are actually instantiated simultaneously. Consider three airports which I have sharp experiences of. Dhaka airport is the past. John F Kennedy airport is the present. And Munich airport is the future. If you took a flight from Dhaka to Munich you would have thought that you’d been transported to utopia.

I don’t take these utopian dreams as an injunction toward complacency. Rather, we should appreciate all that modern science, technology and government has achieved, and be vigilant. Before we despair at all which might be lost, remember this famous chart:


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