Waiting for the lights to go out
Date: Saturday, October 22 2005
The Sunday Times October 16, 2005
We've taken the past 200 years of prosperity for granted. Humanity's progress is stalling, we are facing a new era of decay, and nobody is clever enough to fix it. Is the future really that black, asks Bryan Appleyard
The greatest getting-and-spending spree in the history of the world is about to end. The 200-year boom that gave citizens of the industrial world levels of wealth, health and longevity beyond anything previously known to humanity is threatened on every side. Oil is running out; the climate is changing at a potentially catastrophic rate; wars over scarce resources are brewing; finally, most shocking of all, we don't seem to be having enough ideas about how to fix any of these things.
It's been said before, of course: people are always saying the world will end and it never does. Maybe it won't this time, either. But, frankly, it's not looking good. Almost daily, new evidence is emerging that progress can no longer be taken for granted, that a new Dark Age is lying in wait for ourselves and our children.
To understand how this could happen, it is necessary to grasp just how extraordinary, how utterly unprecedented are the privileges we in the developed world enjoy now. Born today, you could expect to live 25 to 30 years longer than your Victorian forebears, up to 45 years longer than your medieval ancestors and at least 55 years longer than your Stone Age precursors. It is highly unlikely that your birth will kill you or your mother or that, in later life, you will suffer typhoid, plague, smallpox, dysentery, polio, or dentistry without anaesthetic. You will enjoy a standard of living that would have glazed the eyes of the Emperor Nero, thanks to the 2% annual economic growth rate sustained by the developed world since the industrial revolution. You will have access to greater knowledge than Aristotle could begin to imagine, and to technical resources that would stupefy Leonardo da Vinci. You will know a world whose scale and variety would induce agoraphobia in Alexander the Great. You should experience relative peace thanks to the absolute technological superiority of the industrialised world over its enemies and, with luck and within reason, you should be able to write and say anything you like, a luxury denied to almost all other human beings, dead or alive. Finally, as this artificially extended sojourn in paradise comes to a close, you will attain oblivion in the certain knowledge that, for your children, things can only get better.
Such staggering developments have convinced us that progress is a new law of nature, something that happens to everything all the time. Microsoft is always working on a better version of Windows. Today's Nokia renders yesterday's obsolete, as does today's Apple, Nike or Gillette. Life expectancy continues to rise. Cars go faster, planes fly further, and one day, we are assured, cancer must yield. Whatever goes wrong in our lives or the world, the march of progress continues regardless. Doesn't it?