Summary: The changes of the past two centuries have made the world a far better place. This post discuss a grim but beneficial trade-off: fewer wars and plagues, more terrorism.
The world changes, and so do its dangers. Throughout human history humanity suffered the scourges of war and disease. The population of cities, entire regions, were decimated with grim frequency. In the late 19th century the chief dangers facing humanity began to shift.
In 1867 Nobel invented dynamite, the first cheap and easily transported explosive. This gave terrorists unprecedented ability to destroy. Subsequent inventions in the chemical, biological, and nuclear sciences have expanded their capacity even further.
A similar (if arbitrary) bright line occurred in 1862, when Louis Pasteur developed the first practical application of his germ theory: pasteurization. Since then a host of medical and public health measures have made massive plagues a rarity — not a commonplace.
Then there were nukes, probably ending large-scale state-to-state warfare. It’s good to be King, much more fun than being a cloud of radioactive dust.
The net trade is clearly positive for humanity. We’ll probably lose many buildings and a few cities during the 21st century (IMO an optimistic forecast). But clearly an improvement of the human condition. Less terror, overall.
This provides a helpful context to evaluate the threat of terrorism. It’s little more than an inconvenience compared to what our ancestors withstood. They suffered and rebuilt after almost unimaginable disasters, without wetting their pants in hysteria. We can do as well.
Perhaps the greatest danger of terrorism: it provides an opportunity for our leaders to exacerbate our fears, largely through lies (as they did following 9/11 to promote wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) — and strip away our liberties. It’s only a problem if we’re weak.
A look at the past century of American disasters
For a different perspective, here are some of the major natural disasters of the century or so. I list only one disease. Like disease, science and growing wealth have made natural disasters less dangerous. After each of these people picked up their remaining belongings and rebuilt.
- Cholera epidemics in 1832, 1849, 1854, 1866, and 1881-96; death tolls of over 3,000 per city are commonplace.
- 1871 – Fires in the upper Midwest (IL, WI, MI — including Chicago). Kills over 3,000; several hundred thousand homeless.
- 1889 – Dam burst near Jonestown PA, 2,200 dead.
- 1900 – Hurricane hits Galveston TX; kills 8-10 thousand.
- 1906 – San Francisco earthquake. Kills aprox 3 thousand; 200 thousand homeless.
- 1927 – Mississippi flood; 200 thousand homeless.
- 1928 – Hurricane hits Lake Okeechobee region; kills 2,500.
- 1980 – Heat wave kills aprox 10-15 thousand.
- 2001 – 9/11 attacks kill 2,992
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Posts with good news about America:
- Good news: The Singularity is coming (again), 8 December 2007 — History tends to look better over longer time horizons. Consider one bit of good news: the Singularity is coming.
- Some good news (one of the more important posts on this blog), 21 December 2007 – I do not believe we need fear the future, despite the tough times coming soon.
- A crisis at the beginning of the American experiment, 27 December 2008 — Looking at the problems looming before us, it is easy to forget those of equal or greater danger that we have surmounted in the past.
- An important thing to remember as we start a New Year, 29 December 2007
- Is America’s decline inevitable? No., 21 January 2008 – Why be an American if one has no faith in the American people? How can you believe in democracy without that faith?
- Let us light a candle while we walk, lest we fear what lies ahead, 10 February 2008
- A happy ending to the current economic recession, 12 February 2008 — Sometimes we can see medium-term outcomes with greater clarity than short-term events or long-term trends. So it is with the current economic down cycle in America.
- Fears of flying into the future, 25 February 2008 — Reasons we need not fear the future.
- Experts, with wrinkled brows, warn about the future, 2 May 2008
- Good news about the 21st century, a counterbalance to the doomsters, 9 May 2008
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