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If you’ve ever listened to and/or read the work of Canadian cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular-science author, Steven Pinker, you’ll know that he’s been at pains to tell us, replete with facts and figures, that as a species we’ve never had it so good.
Life expectancy is up across the globe, child mortality levels have never been lower, there are fewer devastating wars, the list of positive indicators, when looked over time, is practically endless.
Indeed, even the millions, nay billions, who have been spooked into believing that covid-19 — that is to say the infection caused by the coronavirus, not the highly questionable, damaging measures introduced to curtail contagion — is an ‘unprecedented threat’ need only look back at history to realise that as pandemics go, we’ve got off lightly.
In fact, as many high-income nations marvel at the rapid rollout of their vaccination programmes and with it a decline in hospitalisations/deaths linked to covid-19 — cause-and-effect questions aside — talk is shifting in some quarters to a roaring twenties for the 21st century, akin to what some countries experienced in the 1920s after World War One ended and the Spanish flu petered out.
Yes, it is true that practically everyone has been disrupted in some form due to lockdowns and a halting of what was once called “normal life”. However, it would appear many in the comfortable classes who have been able to continue working and earning throughout the pandemic largely as before — a prolonged home office being the main change — have boosted their cash reserves. And now, green light pending, they’re ready to splurge.
It is also true that most countries have increased their debt burden in order to keep their economies ticking over after having shut down a host of finance-generating activities. (That debt does have to be paid back, doesn’t it? Or is it just numbers on a page? Or a stick to continuously beat the masses with? ‘Time to tighten your belts again, guys.’)
Whatever the case, hope exists that with post-pandemic elation, we’ll spend our way into a boom.
That’s the optimistic take. Yet, as hard as Steven Pinker et al. try to convince us otherwise, the age-old human tendency to believe that the current epoch is the worst, that the apocalypse is nigh, is unlikely to lessen in intensity.
On the contrary, the indicators are that the opposite will happen.
I say this because of a vociferous, activist and, importantly, influential group of largely affluent people from the global West that sees virtually everything associated with Western values and its way of life as the root of all our problems. The fact that their own comfortable existence, nay their existence at all, is thanks to the West’s achievements doesn’t seem to register.
Now I must state that I’m all for correcting what we recognise as bad practices. Materialism and its disposable, waste-heavy living tend to bring out the worst in human behaviour. Finding truly sustainable, reliable energy sources to continue to drive positive advancements is not just worthwhile, it’s essential.
However, those West-is-evil virtue signallers tend to be spectacular hypocrites. ‘Everything must change, except us.’ They thrive off an alarmist agenda, convince themselves that they’re doing their bit to save humanity/the planet, safe in the knowledge that they’ll never have to face the real consequences of finding that delicate balance between progress and sustainability, between life and death.
‘It very much feels like a rather open, liberal period is giving way to one that is quite the opposite.’
That the worst is yet to come is due to what I see as the pursuing of a regressive agenda, one that if implemented would actually deepen the divide between the haves and have nots. A case of, ‘everything’s been built on false premises, tear it all down and start again.’
To give such an approach its due, the argument can be made that there would indeed be a temporary decline while we readjust to new ways but we’d soon power on again, cleaner, greener and leaner.
Staying largely positive, take the following observation from the epilogue of J.M. Roberts’ mammoth The Penguin History of the World, 1997 reprint:
‘There are still no reasons to believe that the ways of discovering techniques to meet problems in the past cannot again be brought to bear successfully. We have no grounds either logical or empirical for thinking that the steady accretion of control over nature which has marked all history until now will not continue. All that is different is that change is quite simply more sweeping and faster than ever before. But this applies to the search for solutions as well as to the emergence of problems.
We know of nothing in the nature of the problems now facing the human race which in principle renders them incapable of solution. They may be more urgent and potentially more damaging, but this is only to say that their solution may require more urgent and radical methods, more drastic political and social change, not that they are insoluble.
We may have to decide to live in a different way, but we need not assume mankind will be extinguished … We have plenty of evidence of human adaptability in the past. The only clear warning which does stand out is that, whatever we do, we are likely to be gravely misled about the future if we simply extrapolate present trends. We must prepare for discontinuity as well as continuity.’
How continuity and discontinuity manifest themselves will be the key to success. Or failure. For me, the signs are not good.
It very much feels like a rather open, liberal period is giving way to one that is quite the opposite.
This brings to mind the remarks of Steppenwolf in Herman Hesse’s classic novel of the same name, worthy of being reprinted in full here:
‘Every age, every culture, every custom and tradition has its own character, its own weakness and its own strength, its beauties and ugliness; accepts certain sufferings as matters of course, puts up patiently with certain evils. Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap. A man of the Classical Age who had to live in medieval times would suffocate miserably just as a savage does in the midst of our civilisation.
Now there are times when a whole generation is caught in this way between two ages, two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standard, no security, no simple acquiescence. Naturally, everyone does not feel this equally strongly. A nature such as Nietzsche’s had to suffer our present ills more than a generation in advance. What he had to go through alone and misunderstood, thousands suffer today.’
It certainly appears that some people seem intent on ensuring that suffering is a widespread constant. In an Orwellian sense, suffering is joy. Indeed.
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