Give me a sceptic and I will take him to Shanghai or São Paulo on a day of ripe smog and see how sceptical he remains while coughing his guts into a mask and peering at brown sunlight as if through a dome of begrimed glass. Lake Baikal is a saline puddle and the Sahara is heading for Timbuktu. If the earth is not yet in its terminal death rattle, it sure ain’t looking good. Population pressure on shrinking and degraded resources in the poorest parts of the world is unrelenting and no mega-city – Lagos, Caracas, Rio, Mumbai – is without its mountain range of trash on which humans can be seen like skeletal goats picking over the black plastic for something to eat. Along with drought and famine, pandemics have returned: in which, like some as yet unwritten scripture, the animal kingdom – avian, porcine, bovine – is a bellwether of human perishability.
All of which seems to put the nail in the coffin of a collective optimism born 200 years ago, when the Enlightenment envisioned a world illuminated by reason, banishing the afflictions of ignorance, poverty, war and disease. hat the arch-prophet of this smiley-faced secularism, the Marquis de Condorcet, perished while imprisoned by French revolutionary authorities should have told us something.Whew. Well, key up the guillotine for Condorcet Jr. -- that is, me, a.k.a. Pollyanna the Fukuyaman, giving way to a fit of knee-jerk contrarian optimism. I'm used to this. My poor mother (born in 1933 and still commuting to Manhattan 3x a week) witnessed the crumbling of WTC Tower #2 with her own eyes on 9/11. I've been trying to convince her ever since that humanity remains on an upward trajectory, that the Soviet Union was a more dangerous adversary than al Qaeda, etc. etc. So for what it's worth, a reality check on the last decade:
Poverty: "Whereas real per capita income [worldwide] increased by about one fifth per decade in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, it is expected to increase by about one third in the 2000s...The poverty rate is expected to continue to fall sharply from 57.2 percent in 2000 to 49.7 percent in 2010 at a poverty line of one-half of the mean." (Lynge Nielsen, IMF Working Paper, Global Relative Poverty, April 2009
Health: Global life expectancy at birth was 64 in 1990, 66 in 2000, and 68 in 2007. Under-5 mortality rates per 1000 live births were 91 in 1990, 78 in 2000, and 67 in 2007.From 1990 - 2006, the number of people in developing regions using improved sanitation facilities has increased by 1.1 billion; the proportion of the global population with access to improved drinking water sources rose from 76% to 86% in the same period. (World Health Statistics 2009.)
War: Here is the latest tabulation of global battle deaths year by year calculated by the International Peace Research Institute. While these tabulations have been challenged in recent years, they have also been strongly defended (summary here).
here for full sized chart.
Politics: A decade encompassing eight years of torture, unnecessary war, relentless tax-cutting, deficit spending and economic collapse do give Americans good reason to be gloomy in retrospect. However, we did rouse ourselves to a pretty strong turnaround effort with the election of a certain Barack Obama. For that, I remain thankful, and reasonably hopeful that the country will put itself on a course of self-correction, beginning with the long-deferred move toward universal health care.
Happy New Year, prophets of doom. You may yet be right....
UPDATE 12/31: Andrew Leonard casts this argument in broader perspective, suggesting tht the erosion of Western hegemony is healthy and inevitable as other parts of the world tap their economic potential:
Of course, from the East's perspective, it's maybe not so bad. As FreeExchange notes, "the economies of India and China basically doubled in size over the [last decade], dealing a major blow to poverty in countries that are home to over 2 billion people, one third of earth's population." I'm betting that that there are few citizens in those countries who would be excited about a return to the halcyon days of the 20th century, or who would be so prone to decry the fact that global markets don't benefit all the citizens in Western developed nations.
Maybe, as 2010 approaches, it's time to suck it up a little bit, and instead of bemoaning how screwed up everything is, take some time to think about the vast global trends that may make the 21st century a better time to be born in China or India or Brazil than has been true for centuries — or ever.