The good news in our past gives us reason for confidence about our future

Summary: The FM website discusses problems and proposes solutions. On holidays we interrupt our regular (somewhat depressing, hopefully inspirational) service to bring you something different. Today and tomorrow we’ll have good news! On Friday it’s back to usual, showing how the current wave of protests about and by the police is good news (but only for the 1%).

“For the world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air.”
— Treebeard, speaking in Tolkien’s Return of the King

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The future
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On the day before Christmas let’s give thanks for what we have. Humanity was born naked and ignorant, bereft of either armor or weapons, on Africa’s Serengeti Plains. We have survived droughts and floods, an ice age and a supervolcano — steadily leaning and developing our strength.  For perspective consider this early Holocene Sci-fi, as written by Pat Mathews:

  • Shaman:  I have foreseen a time when everybody can have all the meat, fat, and sweet stuff they can eat, and they all get fat.
  • Chief:        You have had a vision of the Happy Hunting Grounds.
  • Shaman:  It is considered a great and horrible problem! People go out of their way to eat leaves and grass and grains, and work very hard to look lean and brown.
  • Chief:        You’ve been eating too many of those strange mushrooms, and are seeing everything backward.

We have accomplished great things in the developed nations (with the emerging nations accelerating to catch up): ended slavery, created democracies, and brought rights to the poor, minorities, and women. Above all, our technological progress has created so many singularities (e.g., fire, writing). Consider Dodge City in 1877. Bat Masterson is sheriff, maintaining some semblance of law in the Wild West. Life in Dodge is materially only slightly better from that in an English village of a century before. But social and technological evolution has accelerated to a dizzying pace, and Bat cannot imagine what lies ahead.

Let’s see the year 1877 through the eyes of Bat Masterson …

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History

  1. The Transcontinental Railroad unites America, beginning the end of the regional identities that until now divide us (It was completed in 1869, three years after the first transatlantic telegraph line).
  2. The theory of evolution remains controversial, seventeen years after the famous debate between Bishop Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley (“Is it on your grandfather’s or your grandmother’s side that you claim descent from a monkey, Mr. Huxley?”).
  3. Medicine and public health remain primitive. A bedside manner and diagnostic skill are doctors most reliable tools. In three years Pasteur will discover the first artificially generated vaccine (for chicken cholera).
  4. Alexander Graham Bell had patented the telephone one year ago (1866)
  5. Next year Paul Haenlein will fly the first aircraft powered by an internal combustion engine.
  6. In two years (1879) Karl Benz will patent the first practical automobile engine, Edison will design the first practical electric light, and David Edward Hughes sent a wireless signal several hundred meters across London.
  7. Geo-politically stability results from a multipolar system in which Empires play the largest role, and most of the world consists of western colonies. We are two-thirds through the Long Peace between the Napoleonic Wars and WWI.
  8. The deterministic certainties of Newton still rule in science. Great discoveries in thermodynamics and electromagnetism gave confidence that more discoveries lie ahead.

But rapid growth creates it owns problems, as seen in this account of 1880’s greatest city, London (a slightly altered quotation from William Manchester’s biography Churchill, The Last Lion):

The city itself is overwhelmed, engulfed by changes with which it has not learned to cope, and which are scarcely understood. Some were inherent in the trebling of the population, some consequences of industrialization. Particles of grime from the factory smokestacks produce impenetrable smog which reduces visibility to a few feet … Much of the city stinks. The city’s sewage system is at best inadequate and in the poorer of neighborhoods nonexistent. Buildings elsewhere are often constructed over cesspools which, however, have grown so vast that they form ponds, surrounding homes with moats of effluvia. … And the narrow, twisted streets are neither sealed nor asphalted. People lock their windows, even in summer, but they have a lot to keep out: odors, dust…

Bat died in 1921 as a sportswriter for the New York’s Morning Telegraph, in a world drastically changed from the into which he was born. Three more decades of rapid change followed. By 1954 the world assumed the shape we see today, and the evolution of culture, science, and geopolitics slowed.

  1. The medical industry looked much as it does today. Doctors can both prevent and treat most illnesses, but viral and degenerative diseases remain beyond its reach.
  2. The great Empires were gone, replaced by the US as global hegemon. The technology and art of conventional war began to stagnate. Mao had brought the theory and practice of 4GW to maturity; after this no foreign occupier could defeat a strongly based local insurgency (except in a support role to the local government).
  3. The technology of the average home would be unimaginable to Bat Masterson’s mother; our values and language would seem alien to her.
  4. Rockets, nukes, computers, cellular telephones, and semiconductor devices had all been invented.

We look back at the fears of Bat Masterson’s time with amusement. Cities so large that the daily production of sewage and horse manure renders them unlivable. The lights go out when the last whale is killed for its oil. Unlimited warfare, as giant war machines — including airships and submarines — ravage the Earth.

HOPE button

During the next 60 years progress slowed in the developed worlds, but accelerated in the emerging nations. Wealth changed Singapore in the second half of the century as it changed London in the first half (In Ian Fleming’s 1955 novel Moonraker, MI6’s secret agent 0011 vanished into the “Dirty half-mile” of Singapore — Bond was scared to follow). Of course, new fears have arisen. Now another industrial revolution begins. Our descendants in 2074 will laugh at our nightmares, while they look to the future with fear about challenges we cannot imagine.

We owe gratitude to our ancestors who built our world. This history should give us the confidence to face the future without fear, as our challenges are no greater than those of the past.

Innovation of new forms of society and technology. It is the key to our progress. It has allowed us to evolve from naked hunter-gatherers to the dominant species on this planet. This process is slow, normally taking hundreds or even thousands of years. But occasionally evolution leaps forward.

— A more accurate version of Professor Xavier’s words from the title sequence of the movie X-Men.

There is always hope.

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Pandora and the box

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