Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Noughty and nice

Mein Gott but the zeitgeist is sour. Paul Krugman has (already famously) dubbed the decade past "the big zero" -- "the decade in which we achieved nothing and learned nothing." Simon Schama looks back cheerfully on "the book-ending of the decade by two immense calamities--mayhem and meltdown, mass murder...and mass unemployment."  Transported by the irrational exuberance of his own eloquence, Schama paints an almost gleeful picture of Dystopia Now:
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.)

WarHere 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).

Click 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.

Definitely, "ever."


  1. 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.

    More years times more people does not yield more progress. or happiness. Looking for proof? Head to a "nursing home" and measure the quality of life divided by resources spent.

    Edgar G Robinson had it right in Soylent Green.

  2. More years times more people does not yield more progress. or happiness. Looking for proof? Head to a "nursing home" and measure the quality of life divided by resources spent.

    That is totally irrelevant. A human being that gets to live past 5 through 67 is not a nursing home patient.

  3. Meh. What's the CO2 ppm in our atmosphere now? Will it be heading down anytime soon? Unless it does, optimism is temporary at best.

    Happy New Year!

  4. But you do not understand. Predicting disaster shows "you care". Suggesting that such dystopian moral grandstanding may be bollocks takes people's moral toys away from them and show that you "don't care". So happy new year too!

  5. It would be interesting to separate the progress by Region. How has the life expectancy improved Europe, US, Asia, Africa?

  6. "What's the CO2 ppm in our atmosphere now?"

    Who cares? Not only is there a 700 year time lag between temperature changes and CO2 levels but it has already been pointed out how to absorb CO2 into the oceans. The CO2 thingy is the scam of the millennium.

  7. William R, you might Google "ocean acidification" to see how utterly silly your "absorb CO2 into the oceans" statement is. And while you're at it, check out "climate feedback mechanisms" to put your "700 year time lag" into perspective. There are legitimate arguments to have about climate change and how to respond to it, but breezily denying elementary physics and chemistry isn't a solid place to start.

  8. Your chart on battle deaths would have had an even steeper downward slope if the period measured had begun at 1900.

    ~~Nate Levin

  9. clarkbeast
    Try and keep up to date:-
    28 January 2009
    Ocean iron plan approved as researchers show algae absorb CO2.............

    This idea has been around a long time (Feb 1990):-

    This guy is good as well:-

    and just to finish off:-
    No Global Warming in 351 Year British Temperature Record
    ..........Far from being warmer due to assumed global warming, comparison of actual temperature data shows that UK summers in the 20th century were cooler than those of two centuries previously."

  10. Okay, William R . . . there's no need for you and I to hijack Andrew's comments thread and get into a link-trading war. We both know that you can find anything presented as fact on the internet (look, for instance, at the last link you sent me . . . what is the source for this analysis? Was it published in a scientific journal?)

    But I apologize for misunderstanding your comment about iron fertilization for ocean absorption of CO2. As you say, the idea has been around for a while, and it is an avenue worth pursuing. We're a LONG way off from being able to say it's the magic bullet that will return atmospheric CO2 to 350 ppm or so, but it can be a part of an honest conversation about the issue. Personally, I'd be thrilled if something like this worked out. Given the stakes, however, I think it wise to hedge some bets. That's a rational conservative response.

    Bottom line for me is that I'm not going to base my opinion about climate change on a YouTube clip from a single scientist (or a movie by a single politician). Given the political noise machine around the issue (from the left and the right), it would be too easy to be misled about an issue that I really only know on the surface.

    But I AM moved by position statements from the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, the the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Academy of Sciences. To say that these professional organizations are perpetrating the "scam of the millenium" is to indulge in conspiracy theory to a degree that would make the 9-11 "Truthers" look rational.

    Anyway, if you're interested in further sparring, feel free to visit my blog--it's been the topic of the month. For me, the threshold for honest conversation is an honest answer to the question "What would make you change your opinion?" My answer here:


  11. I am far from denying that global warming may cause serious distress to humanity -- or, for that matter, that we might not slide into a new dark age or destroy ourselves. The point of the post is simply that long-term trends indicate otherwise; humanity is extremely adapative, and social as well as scientific progress seems to be part of our adaptation.

  12. clarkbeast
    I can only find Wilson Flood here
    but a search for "Wilson Flood CET is wrong" found nothing.

    Although the experience of the past 300 years is generally one of progress 300 years is a blip. Lots of scope to go wrong! The short term looks promising but I would not count on the long term eg.
    There is more if you look for it!