Emotional Health

The Arc of Progress: The Good, Bad, and Deadly

Some of the crueler practices of earlier times were dropped, however. The elderly and the infirm, often abandoned by mobile societies, were more protected. Yet children were drafted to do hard physical labor at an early age and larger families gave them less opportunity for individual attention.

Once isolated societies began interacting with each other, another change was ushered in. Wars sometimes erupted, but trade offered new opportunities for improvements of all kids. Again, the expansion of the human population into new territories brought new forms of danger, especially ecologically. Australia, the last major landmass to become populated by Homo Sapiens, was once home to mammoth species of kangaroos, koalas, and many others who are now extinct. In fact, every area man has settled has led to vast ecological changes that usually involved the extinction of over 90% of the native flora and fauna.

Until recently, ocean creatures, especially larger mammals, have escaped this fate. But as our seas have become polluted and over-harvested, and as global warming has bleached and killed coral reefs, species are dying at accelerated rates. Ecological disaster is now the single biggest threat facing our species—and all of the others who share the planet.

Yet the cognitive revolution, the change that made all others possible, has consistently provided Homo Sapiens the capacity to come up with solutions to complex problems. Many of the world’s deadly diseases are now treatable or even eradicated, and people live longer and with less poverty, than ever before. Our global interaction has meant that societies have become more tolerant of differences between people and cultures. The United States has had a black president, and now an openly gay candidate is running for the job. A woman chief executive is almost a sure bet in the near future.

Of course, signs that progress is declining or reversing is visible in the new rise of xenophobia in our society and others in reaction to the “threat” that is posed by immigration. That immigration is partly fueled by climate-change related problems, and will only increase as more regions of the earth become uninhabitable. As Jared Diamond demonstrated in his book Collapse (2005), societies that do not recognize and act to prevent problems cannot survive. Vikings in Greenland, Mayans in Central America, and the people of Easter Island all vanished because they failed to see they were destroying their own environment.

Although the 20th century, when millions perished in wars and genocides, was one of the deadliest on record, our level of brutality and murder has actually remained constant. In the earliest hunter-gatherer societies, the rate of death from violence was roughly 5% of the population. Statistically, that is quite close to the number of victims who perished in the past 100 years, relative to the global population.

This implies that despite all the knowledge and scientific power man has acquired through the millennia, our basic nature remains the same. Are we like the farmers of the agricultural revolution, whose “advances” led to human decline rather than positive changes? Humans are both shortsighted, but also apt to prepare for the future in the wrong ways, like the farmers who worked themselves to death stockpiling goods for the future.

Man, more sophisticated and advanced than ever, has all the tools necessary to progress in positive ways, address complex problems, and save himself. Our urges to accumulate and hoard goods and money are leading us to extinction. We have had the capacity to imagine the future since 70,000 BCE. Now, more than ever, we must use it.


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