2012: The Best Year In All Of Human History?

It sounds like a joke, but that’s the thesis of the lead article in The Spectator’s 2012 Christmas issue:

Never has there been less hunger, less disease or more prosperity. The West remains in the economic doldrums, but most developing countries are charging ahead, and people are being lifted out of poverty at the fastest rate ever recorded. The death toll inflicted by war and natural disasters is also mercifully low. We are living in a golden age.

Thinking about it, the emphasis seems right to me. Here’s some more good news highlighted in the article:

In 1990, the UN announced Millennium Development Goals, the first of which was to halve the number of people in extreme poverty by 2015. It emerged this year that the target was met in 2008. […]

[E]ngineers in America have found new ways of mining fossil fuel. The amazing breakthroughs in ‘fracking’ technology mean that, in spite of the world’s escalating population — from one billion to seven billion over the last two centuries — we live in an age of energy abundance.

Advances in medicine and technology mean that people across the world are living longer. The average life expectancy in Africa reached 55 this year. Ten years ago, it was 50. […]

War has historically been humanity’s biggest killer. But in most of the world today, a generation is growing up that knows little of it. The Peace Research Institute in Oslo says there have been fewer war deaths in the last decade than any time in the last century. […]

I’m with the Spectator’s editors on all of these, but I’m less happy about this paragraph:

Fifty years ago, the world was breathing a sigh of relief after the Cuban missile crisis. Young couples would discuss whether it was responsible to have children when the future seemed so dark. But now, as we celebrate the arrival of Light into the world, it’s worth remembering that, in spite of all our problems, the forces of peace, progress and prosperity are prevailing.

I see two problems here:

  • The premise that religion is a bright light and not a blight on the world. Contra the Spectator editors, I’m not sure the birth of Jesus and Christianity represent “the arrival of Light into the world.” I would locate the brightest light of the ancient world at Alexandria, in the reading rooms of its famous library, which Christian mobs, urged on by religious fanatics, destroyed. That’s not light advancing in the world. And the millennium after the destruction of the library at Alexandria is still sometimes called (rightly, in my view) the Dark Ages. Religion is weaker than in ages past, but it’s not yet a marginal cultural force. The light will be brighter when it is.
  • The notion we’re past Cuban missile crises. We’ve been on a slow-burn Cuban missile crisis all year with Iran. And neither North Korea nor Pakistan, both nuclear powers, seem at all stable in 2012. This year could prove prelude to an exchange of nuclear weapons in 2013 (hence tarnishing 2012 golden age hype).

Still, on balance, the article is right: compared to humanity’s grotesque past, we live in a golden age (or, at least, a golden lull in the storm). We’re lucky to be alive now and not in some past time. And 2013 will probably be better than 2012. So why not at least try to be a bit happy in the last month of the best year ever? What the hell?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to 2012: The Best Year In All Of Human History?

  1. Interesting…this reminds me of Rob Breszny and his wonderful “pronoia” concept – as in, the opposite of paranoia. Along with his whimsical “free will astrology” material, he sends out messages that describe the advancements in quality of life, diminution of violence, and so on that continue to make life on Earth, on balance, better.

    Though I note that the Spectator is a conservative magazine, I also want to note that “the arrival of Light in the world” doesn’t have to mean Jesus. Pagans have been celebrating the Solstice since time immemorial, as the time, astronomically, when we go from the shortest day and the longest night of the year to ever-increasing light. (Mostly, too, they haven’t so much been about burning libraries.) The part of the article you quoted that I take way more issue with is the idea that we live in a time of “energy abundance” due to fracking!

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I agree fracking is not the best news for global warming, but the fact that we’re probably not reaching peak oil as quickly as once supposed is good news of sorts (at least in the near term).

      By the way, there’s a new film out called “Chasing Ice” you might want to Google and learn about–it’s a documentary on global warming that is getting good critical buzz.


  2. jimvj says:

    Steven Pinker, in his latest book, makes the same point, but on a grander scale. Humanity is, and has been for quite a while, on a trajectory of less war, unnecessary death, cruelty, etc. Even xenophobia, ethnic animosity, gender & sexual orientation bias, religious strife is on a decline.

    The gas bonanza from fracking is a mixed bag. The good news is that it is displacing coal – which is much worse wrt greenhouse gases – in electricity generation. The bad news is that natural gas also adds greenhouse gases to the biosphere, both by burning it and because a lot of it leaks (CH4 is 20x stronger greenhouse gas than CO2 at present concentrations). The potential worse news is that it will price out renewables, which could make investors very reluctant to fund R&D in renewables in the future. And there is a lot of coal sitting underground; and humans have shown no compunctions about burning all of it.

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