The last century has been an era of unprecedented change created by the acceleration of human knowledge, science and technology. It has revolutionized travel, manufacturing, medicine, agriculture, communications, and access to information. Who could possibly have stood on the threshold of the last century and predicted space-age travel and the micro-chip? We are astonished, as Nelson Mandela once put it, not by man’s ignorance but by his knowledge, not by his weakness but by his power.
This brave new world has not been welcomed by everybody. It was not welcomed by the Luddites who went on their rampage smashing up machinery thought to be costing human jobs. It is not welcomed by the Muslim terrorists who fear that this kind of modernism is a threat to their religious values. And it is being called into question by the conservation movement because it fears that technology and economic growth will irreparably damage the natural environment.
Despite the stress and the angst associated with this century of change, and despite even the setbacks and casualties along this road of progress, the overall benefit to mankind has been enormous. As Julian Simon has put it, “There has been more improvement in the human condition in the past 100 years than in all the previous centuries combined since man first appeared on the earth.” The average human life span has more than doubled. Infectious diseases that regularly wiped out millions of people have largely been conquered. Infant mortality has been lowered at least 10-fold. The human race today is healthier, stronger and even taller. In the developed world we are eight times wealthier than our forbears were two hundred years ago. Food is several times cheaper and we have much better nutrition. Medical advances have been breathtaking. We have more education, better housing, more conveniences and access to abundant sources of cheap energy. We not only have more leisure time, but access to the world’s best cultural, entertainment and sporting events from the comfort of our own lounge rooms. The microchip puts the accumulated knowledge of the world almost instantly at our fingertips. In all developed countries at least, even the poorest are fabulously rich compared to the wealthiest of the human race in past ages. And the developing world is rapidly catching up.
Just as astounding as the material progress has been the progress in civil rights, democratic freedoms, religious tolerance, gender equality, labour reform and measures directed toward creating equal opportunities across racial, religious and gender boundaries. We have come a long way since the White Australia policy, blackbirding of south Sea Islanders and discrimination against women in the workforce. Much remains to be done in creating a better society, but let us not be unmindful of the gains that have been made.
The century of change has not only benefited humanity with better living conditions, it has benefited the environment. At the turn of the 20th century, people were worried that their cities were going to be buried in stinking horse dung. The internal combustion engine and the oil age not only cleaned up the putrid streets, but returned millions of acres that were tied up in horse pasture to forestry. High-yield agriculture has also returned millions of acres to forest cover.
There is no question that earlier industrial
progress belched unacceptable levels of pollutants into the air or into the
waterways. Or that high-yield agriculture had problems with pesticides levels
or nutrient runoff into rivers and lakes. But with economic growth and greater
wealth has come better technology to lessen the human impacts on the
environment. Today it cannot be disputed that the wealthiest countries have the
cleanest air, the safest water to drink or swim in, the purest food and overall
the best environment in which to live, work and play. The air of
The most environmental friendly technology ever is the semiconductor and the microchip because it has almost nil impact on the environment. There is not an industry that has not dramatically increased its efficiency in some way through computer technology. It has not only dramatically raised the standard of living for everybody, but it has done more to advance human equality than anything else in that it has given everybody unlimited access to the greatest variety of music, entertainment and information in the world. The microchip has done all this without any negative impact on the environment.
The great paradox is that the better things get, the more we pay attention to those who preach that doomsday is just around the corner. As health and longevity has improved, the more we worry about getting sick. It is generally not any scarcity that gets us quarrelling, complaining or even going to war, but the sheer abundance and generosity of the cosmic order makes us worry that we are going to run out of something, or that someone else is going to diminish our enjoyment of the abundance. Like our widespread obesity, the culture of doom and gloom is the doubtful luxury of a generation who has never had it so good.