Closing Thoughts

Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.
Ecclesiastes 7:10

I’m going to close my thoughts on declinism (mercifully, as I know most of you aren’t as interested in it as I am) with a few interesting observations others have made about it across the centuries.

“There are few suppositions which have passed more currently in the world than this, that the former days were better than these. It is generally supposed that we now live in the dregs of time, when the world is, as it were, grown old; and, consequently, that everything therein is in a declining state….

Is it not the common practice of old men to praise the past and condemn the present time? And so it will be, till we, in our turn, grow peevish, fretful, discontented, and full of melancholy complaints, ‘How wicked the world is grown! How much better it was when we were young, in the golden days that we can remember!’…

But let us endeavour, without prejudice or prepossession, to take a view of the whole affair. And, upon cool and impartial consideration, it will appear that the former days were not better than these; yea, on the contrary, that these are, in many respects, beyond comparison better than them.”
John Wesley, 1787

“We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who say society has reached a turning point – that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us and with just as much apparent reason. … On what principle is it that with nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”
Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1830

All men are possible heroes: every age,
Heroic in proportions, double-faced,
Looks backward and before, expects a morn
And claims an epos.
Ay, but every age
Appears to souls who live in it
Most unheroic. Ours, for instance, ours!
The thinkers scout it, and the poets abound
Who scorn to touch it with a finger-tip:
A pewter age, mixed metal, silver-washed;
An age of scum, spooned off the richer past;
An age of patches for old gabardines;
An age of mere transition, meaning nought,
Except that what succeeds must shame it quite,
If God please. That’s wrong thinking, to my mind,
And wrong thoughts make poor poems.
Every age,
Through being beheld too close, is ill-discerned
By those who have not lived past it.
***
‘Tis even thus
With times we live in, evermore too great
To be apprehended near.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, from “Aurora Lee” (1856)

“Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place. Besides, persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of the disturbance, as we know from our own times. After absorbing the news of today, one expects to face a world consisting entirely of strikes, crimes, power failures, broken water mains, stalled trains, school shutdowns, muggers, drug addicts, neo-Nazis, and rapists. The fact is that one can come home in the evening — on a lucky day — without having encountered more than one or two of these phenomena. This has led me to formulate Tuchman’s Law, as follows: “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold” (or any figure the reader would care to supply).”
Barbara Tuchman, 1978

“It’s easy to focus on the idiocies of the present and forget those of the past. But a century ago our greatest writers extolled the beauty and holiness of war. Heroes like Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Woodrow Wilson avowed racist beliefs that today would make people’s flesh crawl. Women were barred from juries in rape trials because supposedly they would be embarrassed by the testimony. Homosexuality was a felony. At various times, contraception, anesthesia, vaccination, life insurance and blood transfusion were considered immoral.”
Steven Pinker, 2011

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Good News?

If you find yourself at a cocktail party searching for a conversation starter, I’d recommend working in the opening line of a recent Bill and Melinda Gates Annual Letter: “By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been.” Although people will react with incredulity at the very possibility that things could be getting better, they’ll welcome the opportunity to straighten you out. Just be prepared for the inevitable recitation of the daily headlines—bad news piled on top of even worse news—that will inevitably follow. Virtually everyone I’ve mentioned this quote to is sure it’s wrong.
Steven Quartz

That’s been my experience as well. And in all fairness, until a few years ago I would have been one of those people–confident that things are getting worse all the time.

Yesterday I posted a long list of ways the world has improved and is continuing to improve. I began by claiming, “humanity’s amazing progress, which has accelerated in recent decades, may well be the most significant and least-appreciated story in human history.”

So  if that’s true, then why isn’t humanity’s progress more well known? Why aren’t we not only seemingly ungrateful for it, but generally oblivious to it?

Here’s some further food for thought, which I also find fascinating. Keep in mind all of the facts I posted yesterday as you read this.

According to a recent survey, only 5% of people believe the world is getting better. 71% say it is getting worse.

According to Pew’s research, every year since the early 2000’s  a majority of Americans surveyed have felt that crime has increased since the year previous. The most recent Gallup poll found a full 70% of Americans think the crime rate is currently increasing. This despite the fact that crime rates continue to fall precipitously, and are now about half what they were just 25 years ago.

56% of Americans believe gun deaths have increased over the last 20 years. In fact, gun deaths (that is, deaths caused by gunshots) have fallen by nearly a third during that period.

Two-thirds of Americans believe that extreme poverty has doubled over the past 20 years. Only 5% of those polled responded that extreme poverty has decreased during that time. In fact, 95% of Americans are greatly mistaken–extreme poverty has been cut nearly in half over the last 20 years and may soon be eliminated entirely.

In poll after poll (and presumably at all the cocktail parties attended by Steven Quartz), respondents answer that the state of the world is worsening, even when objective data shows the contrary. Why?

Some attribute this to the media, and its emphasis on bad news. But in fact the human bias toward pessimism and the belief that humanity is becoming worse over time, long predates mass media. It is found in the two thousand year old poetry of the Roman poet Horace, and four centuries before Horace in Plato, and four centuries before Plato in the writings of Hesiod, and before Hesiod 6,000 years ago in Egypt. It seems that humans have always preferred the “good old days.”  I suspect the supposed deteriorating state of the world has been the subject of campfire discussions since the dawn of time.

There are interesting scientific theories for why we have a cognitive bias toward viewing the past favorably and the future negatively (the phenomenon called “declinism”). More on that HERE and HERE.

When I became aware of this phenomenon a few years ago I found it intriguing and fascinating, in part because of the fact that the actual state of affairs (that the world is not declining but instead is progressing rapidly) is so counter-intuitive, especially to my old-fashioned mind. But being aware of our natural bias has helped me resist pessimism and negativity. It’s helped me to keep the daily barrage of bad news in perspective. It’s helped me to better appreciate human nature and human potential. It’s given me good reason to look forward to the future, rather than dread it. It’s helped me resist despair and selfishness.

I find it much easier to be an optimist now that I’m confident that it’s not just wishful thinking. And that feels good to me.

 

Good News

There has never been a better time to be alive. Conditions in the world have never been better than they are today. While far from perfect, there is less violence, less war, less ignorance, less disease, less hunger, less poverty, less injustice, and less human suffering today than ever before. Indeed, humanity’s amazing progress, which has accelerated in recent decades, may well be the most significant and least appreciated story in human history.

Just consider this incomplete list:

There are 200 million fewer people suffering from malnutrition than there were 25 years ago.

Globally the infant mortality rate has fallen by 49% since 1990.

The global literacy rate is now 84%, up from 66% in 1967.

Over the last 150 years global life expectancy has doubled. Worldwide, life expectancy has been rising steadily for well over 100 years. In the U.S, life expectancy was around 40 in 1880 and is nearly 80 today. Life expectancy has risen nearly ten years in my lifetime alone!

90% of the world’s population now has access to safe drinking water. Since 1990, 2.6 billion more people have gained access to clean drinking water. And since 2000, the number of children who died because of waterborne illnesses has been cut in half.

The total number of people living in poverty is at an all-time low, despite a population increase of 143 percent since 1960. In the last 35 years, the number of people living on less than $1.25 (adjusted for inflation) has fallen from 42 percent of the population to 16.9 percent. Experts believe that extreme poverty may be completely eliminated by 2030.

Even as we have fewer poor people, the poor are more affluent.

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Crime is falling across the board. Murder and rape are about 20% of what they were in 1973, for example.

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We are living in the most peaceful time in human history. Because war is so rare, battle deaths and war-related destruction has dropped dramatically since the end of WWII and now is statistically nearly non-existent. State on state warfare is now seemingly obsolete.

Rates of violence against women and children are in steep declines. Rates of rape and sexual assault in the US for example, have fallen by over half in the last 20 years. Violence against spouses has fallen by nearly 2/3 during that period. Over the last 20 years, sexual assaults on children have fallen by more than half, as has other forms of physical violence. Bullying has decreased by 2/3.

Genocide and other forms of mass violence against civilians is only 25% of what it was 40 years ago, even with the uptick associated with the rise of ISIS

Even in places with very high homicide rates, like Mexico, Columbia, and Brazil, for example, the rates are less than half what they were just a few decades ago and they continue to fall.

And as we’re becoming healthier, wealthier and less violent, we’re also becoming smarter. IQ testing reveals a substantial, consistent and long-sustained increase in IQ scores worldwide since data began being collected in 1930. One estimate is that the average IQ in 1932, for example, was only 80 by today’s values.

There’s also never been a safer time to be a police officer or an apprehended criminal suspect. For example, the number of police officers intentionally killed in duty now is the lowest amount ever recorded.

This is the least violent time in American history. US homicide rates are at a 51 year low, falling by nearly half over the last 20 years. Gun homicides have declined by 49% since 1993, even as gun ownership has increased by 56%. Gun-related police deaths peaked in the 1920’s and have been steadily falling ever since (other than a sharp brief uptick in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s). There are fewer this year than last year and less than half what they were in 1880.

Crime among African American youth has fallen by 47% in last 20 years.

The decline in violence has been ongoing for all of human existence, it’s just accelerated lately. Prehistoric remains show that on average 15% of humans once died violent deaths (at the hands of other humans)! Today that’s an extremely rare cause of death–only about .001%.  In 1450, Italian homicides averaged 73 per 100,000 people. England was relatively safe, with just over 13 homicides per 100,000 people. In 2011, in contrast, homicides in Great Britain and the United States averaged 1 and 4 per 100,000 people respectively.

From 1997 to 2011 U.S. emergency departments have seen a 48% reduction in adult deaths.

Abortion rates are at all-time lows in the developed world and fewer teens are giving birth than ever. Abortion rates have been steadily falling since 1980 and have dropped over 35% since 1990. The number of teens becoming moms has dropped by a total of 54% from 2007 to 2015.

In 1920 82.4% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. In 2015, only 13.6% did.

In 1920, just 28 percent of American youths between the ages of fourteen and seventeen were in high school.

100 years ago, ten percent of infants died in their first year, compared with only one in every 168 births in the U.S. today.

The typical American spent one-third of his or her income on food 100 years ago, which is twice today’s share, and 13% of his or her income on clothing, which is only 3% of a typical consumers budget today.

In 1920,  with a fatality rate of 61 deaths per 100,000 workers, the workplace was about 30 times more dangerous than it is today.

In fact, a typical middle class person today is materially richer (and enjoys a better lifestyle) than even John D. Rockefeller did 100 years ago.

As recently as 1960, 16.8 percent of American households were without complete plumbing; today, almost no one is.

Appliances were 4 to 10 times more expensive in 1963 than they are today (even without considering the improvements in capabilities). In 1963 a 23″ black and white TV cost $229 (with trade-in). Today a 24″ flat screen LED TV costs $130. Adjusted for inflation that TV in 1963 would cost $1,804 in today’s dollars (over 10x more than a better TV costs today)! Another way of looking at it: in 1963 the minimum wage was $1.25/hr and today it is $7.25/hr. In 1963 a person would have to work 183 hours at minimum wage to be able to buy a 23″ TV. Today a person would only have to work 18 hours at minimum wage to do so. Same story with the other appliances. In 1963 a 14.1 cubic foot refrigerator (with trade in) cost $329. Today the same size fridge costs $476. In today’s dollars the 1963 fridge would cost $2,591 (over 5x more than a better fridge today)! It would take 263 hours at minimum wage to afford a refrigerator in 1963 and only 66 hours today. A 32 lb washing machine cost $209 in 1963 (with trade in) and costs $416 today. In today’s dollars the washer in 1963 would cost $1,646 or 167 hours at minimum wage, versus 57 hours at minimum wage today. 

Systemic injustice is being overcome as well. In 1942, 68 percent of white Americans thought that blacks and whites should go to separate schools. By 1995, only 4 percent of American whites thought that. In 1958, 45 percent of white Americans said that they would “maybe” or “definitely” move if a black family moved in next door. That number fell to just 2 percent in 1997. So rare were segregationist attitudes by the mid-1990’s that the federal government discontinued collection of such statistics.

As late as 2002, only 38 percent of Americans believed that gay and lesbian relationships were morally acceptable. A mere 13 years later, 63 percent of Americans felt that way. Consider also that in 1996, only 27 percent of Americans supported same-sex marriage. By 2015, that number more than doubled with 60 percent of Americans in support.

The threats that are most frightening to many these days, terrorism and mass shootings, are actually extremely rare. Excluding U.S. military personnel, fewer Americans have been killed by terrorism globally since 2002 than have died from allergic reactions to peanuts. In most years bee stings, deer collisions, ignition of nightwear, and other mundane accidents kill more Americans than terrorist attacks. An American is three times more likely to be struck by lightning than to be a victim in a mass shooting.

In Laura Grace Weldon‘s excellent post late last year, she collected even more:

We’re overcoming diseases at extraordinary rates.

  1. AIDS related deaths have continued to drop for the last 15 years in a row and new HIV infections among children have dropped by 58% since 2000.
  2. Malaria, one of the world’s top killers, is on the decline. Last year 16 countries reported zero indigenous cases of malaria. Globally, mortality rates from the disease have fallen from an estimated 839 000 in 2000 to 438 000 in 2015. In other words, an estimated 6.2 million people have been saved from malaria-related deaths over the last 15 years .
  3. The incidence of polio, which once crippled over a thousand children every day, has now been reduced by 99 percent. Only two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, continue to experience wild polio cases.
  4. The painful parasitic disease, Guinea Worm has effectively been eradicated.

Many more children are surviving childhood. 

Mortality rates for children younger than five have been cut in half since 1990 in virtually every country around the world. That’s about 19,000 fewer children dying every day this year compared to 25 years ago.

More people than ever have access to safe water and bathroom facilities. 

Over the last 25 years, an average of 47,000 more people per day were able to rely on a source of clean drinking water. Now 91 percent of the world’s population has safe water. This saves countless people from suffering or dying from water-borne illnesses.

Over two billion people have gained access in the last 25 years to what the World Health Organization politely calls “improved sanitation facilities.” In other words, 68% of the global population has access to a toilet — critical for health and improved living standards.

Fewer people are hungry.

The number of chronically undernourished people has dropped by 200 million in the last 25 years. That’s particularly impressive considering the world’s population increased by 1.9 billion people during that time.

More people can read than ever before.

Today, four out of five people are able to read. In many regions of the world the majority of children and young adults are more literate than their elders, demonstrating that global literacy is rapidly increasing. At this point, nine out of ten children are learning to read.

Female literacy rates haven’t risen as quickly due to inequality and poverty, but in some areas, particularly East Asia, 90 percent more girls are able to read than 10 years ago. As female literacy goes up, other overall positive indicators tend to follow including decreased domestic violence, improved public health, and greater financial stability.

In the U.S., twice as many people are reading books for pleasure than they were in the mid-1950’s.

Internet access is spreading across the world. 

There’s been an eight fold increase in the number of people with access to the net in the last 15 years. Right now, there are two Internet users in the developing world for every user in the developed world. With this access comes better opportunities to network, build knowledge, create jobs, and stay connected with others.

The average person’s standard of living has gone up. 

Twenty-five years ago, nearly half the world’s population in the developing world lived on less than $1.25 a day. Today, that proportion has declined to 14 percent. Around the world, the number of people living in extreme poverty has dropped by half.

In the U.S., homelessness continues to decline. Over the past five years the number of people without shelter has dropped by 26 percent.

Right of indigenous people around the world to protect their land and their identity are, in many cases, beginning to be upheld.

For example, the Makuna, Tanimuka, Letuama, Barasano, Cabiyari, Yahuna and Yujup-Maku peoples of Columbia have won the right to preserve a million hectares of Amazonian forest where they will continue to act as guardians of the land.

Sustainability is accelerating. 

The U.S. and Europe, over the last two years, have added more power capacity from renewables than from gas, coal, and nuclear combined. Renewable energy jobs more than doubled in ten years, from three million jobs in 2004 to 6.5 million in 2013, and continue to grow.  Dramatic improvements in renewable energy technology have lowered costs while improving performance for hydropower, geothermal, solar, and onshore wind power.

Wind energy prices in the U.S. have reached an all-time low and there’s enough wind power installed in the U.S. to meet the total electricity demands of Colorado, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, and Wyoming. Investments in wind power are becoming mainstream, including projects being built for Amazon.com, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Wal-Mart.

Protected areas of land and water have substantially increased in the last 25 years. For example, protected lands in Latin America and the Caribbean have risen from 8.8 percent in 1990 to 23.4 percent in 2014.

In fact, more of the planet found protection in 2015 than ever before.  In the U.S., President Obama has designated 260 million acres as protected public lands and waters – more than any previous president.

This year nations are setting aside one million square miles of “highly protected ocean,” more than any prior year.  This area is larger than Texas and Alaska combined. These fully protected marine reserves are off-limits to drilling, fishing, and other uses incompatible with preservation.

We give ourselves far too little credit for the progress we’re making and the good work we’re doing. The flood of good news which gets lost in the noise these days would astonish and delight our ancestors. Despite all the pessimism in the world, and acknowledging that we still have plenty of obstacles to overcome and plenty of opportunities to screw it all up, humanity is facing a bright, peaceful and prosperous future!

Penny Lane Whiteflint

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Penny Lane Whiteflint passed away peacefully in her sleep Wednesday evening, surrounded by family and friends. Born on November 1, 2010, Penny was the daughter of Johnny R. and Nellie G. Whiteflint. She was a lifelong resident of Keeling.

The mother of nine, Penny is survived by three daughters, one son and numerous sisters, nieces and cousins. She was fond of head rubs, children and kids and was loved by all the residents of the farm, both biped and quadruped. She will be fondly remembered.

Gaping

The wise man seeks to understand Nature, not gape at it like a fool.
Baruch Spinoza

I admire Spinoza, but I’m a foolish gaper myself. With regard to Nature, my foolish gaping far exceeds my understanding.

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I don’t claim to be a wise man, but aspiring to be one seems a worthy goal. So I will seek understanding, but in the meantime, I shall not lay off gaping like a fool.

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To the National Security Agency

Wendell Berry turned 82 last week. Bless his wise and sometimes cranky heart.

TO THE NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY

I am away in a quiet valley,
am busy at my quiet work
in this comely small cup of country
exactly fitted to my mind,
my mind to it exactly fitted.
It is enclosed by slopes and trees,
filled full of light and air and wind,
fulfilled by time and wear and weather.
My work is gathered of air and earth,
the history of the local light.
I’m not going to tell you whether
or when I’m coming back. Don’t wait.
Don’t try to call. I have no phone.
There’s not much left I want to shoot,
but I would like to shoot a drone.

Wendell Berry
From Sabbaths, 2014

 

Fall Gardens

In about two weeks I plan to start putting in our fall gardens. I love gardening in the fall. Unlike the wild and unruly summer, nature slows down in the fall. There are few weeds and pests. There’s rarely a need to irrigate. And of course the foods of fall are delicious.

We devote four gardens to fall crops (not including the sweet potato garden, which we planted a couple of months ago). In one we’ll plant radishes, turnips, beets, spinach and Swiss chard. In the second one we’ll plant Romaine lettuce, radicchio, arugula and Asian greens (bok choy, Tokyo bekana, mizuna, maruba santoh, komatsuna, tatsoi and Chinese cabbage). We’ll plant broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and mustard greens in the third garden. The fourth fall garden will be all kale and collards.

I did a poor job with the starts this summer, so we’re going to have to buy more than I’d like. Our cabbage seedlings look fine but the rest are iffy. Oh well. Do better next year.

We have 22 gardens in total, of which about 1/3 are resting with a cover crop at any given time. They amount to about 2 acres.

I use a tractor to till and prep the soil, and to form the beds for planting. Because the rows have to be far enough apart to allow a tractor to drive over them, a lot of otherwise usable space is wasted. And of course tilling pulverizes and compacts the soil.

If I was starting over again I would seriously consider raising our vegetables entirely in permanent no-till raised beds. We have a bunch of small raised beds now (about 240 square feet total) and they are extremely productive and easy to tend. In the spring, for example, when I’m fretting over wet soil and wondering when I’ll be able to work and plant the gardens with the tractor, I just take a garden rake and smooth out the rich soil in the raised beds, sprinkle lettuce seeds in them, rake it again, and I’m done. A few weeks later we have abundant and delicious lettuce mix.

This winter I’m going to carefully re-evaluate everything we do. We’re planning to add a 30 x 72 hoop house (essentially an unheated green house) over the winter. It’s possible that with that in place and perhaps some more raised beds, I can transition us to no-till. We’ll see.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to getting the fall crops in the ground.