A Debate: Is Our World Getting Better?

Looking at the big picture can help us approach our lives more wisely.

Posted Jul 17, 2015

Global Jet, CC 2.0
Source: Global Jet, CC 2.0

Some people are reluctant to have children because they worry about the world their kids would live in: war, terrorism, ever more fierce competition, the next generation of AIDS, etc. Is the world really going to be net worse or better?

Other people, in making their long-term investments and business decisions, wonder whether to be optimistic about our future.

All of us, if only for our psychological well-being, would like to be able to conclude that the world is getting better, but we don't want to delude ourselves.

So here is an internal debate on whether life will be getting better.

Person: As Harvard's Stephen Pinker has written, there's less war and other violence than ever.

Alter ego: But weapons are ever more miniaturized. Now, a lone wolf could, for example, release a mutated highly communicable smallpox virus in the parking lot bus to an international airport and wreak millions of deaths, maybe even Armageddon. Do I want to bring a child into that kind of world?

Person: That could happen but the fact that it hasn't suggests it's far less likely that you imply. I won't decide whether to have a baby based on some long-shot Armageddon scenario.

Alter ego: Well, this is hardly a long shot: The global economy is making it ever harder for Americans to earn a sustainable living.

Person: Water seeks its own level: World salaries will rise, U.S. salaries will decline, and, yes, we may have to learn to live on less but that may be a good thing. We'll increasingly value what's really important: ethical productivity, relationships, creativity, not "stuff."

Alter ego: But will we be able to get decent health care? Housing? Transportation?

Person:  For time immemorial, technology has always provided great improvements in quality of life. And with the technological progress accelerating, I'm more optimistic than ever that technology will improve lives. I mean, think of how much our lives have been improved by the printing press, refrigeration, buses and trains, the smartphone. Better diagnosis and treatment has already extended lifespan: In 1900, the average lifespan was 47. Today, it's 79.

Alter ego: But think about technology's downside: It brings pollution that may klll us, whether through global warming or carcinogenic air pollution. Look at how technology has failed in its promise to give us more free time, On the contrary, it has made us work harder. At 5 p.m., work used to be done. Now we're expected to be connected day and night.

Person: Of course, we need to set boundaries around work and push employers to do so. But having the option to work during evenings can be enjoyable. I mean, don't you like checking your email at night? Working on some work project in the evening can be more rewarding than what you'd otherwise be doing. And, of course, the computer has created recreations far more appealing than, for example, the radio and TV of just a couple of generations ago. Think about all the TV stations, video on demand, the video games, the fun of playing on Facebook or Instagram. In the world our children will live in, technology will give them amazing recreational and productivity options we can't even dream about.

Alter ego: All it takes is one errant technology, like the next generation's nuclear bomb, to outweigh all of technology's advantages.

Person: Since the beginning of time, humankind has continually improved quality of life. Sure, progress occurs in fits and starts, but the direction has and always will be forward. I'm not sure I want to have kids but If I don't, it won't be because I think the world will be an inhospitable place. I'm betting on humankind.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.