Violence and The Environment are Chapters 5 and 6 of “Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future” by Johan Norbert. As the purpose of these blog posts is to update our mental models regarding how much change there has been between now and the past, only the nature of the improvements will be presented, and not the innovations that underlay the improvements. As it is only a fraction of the improvements that are in the book can be related, so this is a matter of necessity or convenience, depending on your perspective. If you are interested in the technology and practices that underlay these improvements, please read the book. Indeed, everyone should benefit from reading this book.
HM had been extremely skeptical of Stephen Pinker’s argument that the present is the most peaceful time in the history of humanity. Although I definitely dispute beliefs that terrorism makes this the most terrible time of all. Terrorism is not new, but people of my age lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis. I remember when we left high school one afternoon not knowing whether we would see each other again. This was during the prolonged period when nuclear annihilation was a real possibility under the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, which had the appropriate acronym (MAD). Today’s terrorism is a definite problem, but the probability of any individual being harmed by a terrorist act is extremely small.
Norbert’s arguments have brought me in compliance with Pinker’s views, a scholar for whom I have the utmost respect. Pinker stated that the dramatic drop in violence that has occurred “may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history.” Norbert cites a study that compared violence on British television before 9 p.m. and in nursery rhymes, and came to the conclusion that the frequency of violence in nursery rhymes is around eleven times that feature in television considered safe in children.” So violence has been a longstanding component of culture.
Norbert reviews the Ancient Greek epics with they catalogues of killing. And he also reviews the Good Book, the Holy Bible, and its brutal violence, perpetuated by the good guys. In the Old Testament people casually kill, enslave and rape even family members. When Moses discovered that some of his people worshipped a golden calf he executes 3,000 of them, and goes on a merciless ethnic cleansing spree, which he claims is ordered by God: ‘ do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them — the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizites, Hives, and Jebusites —as the Lord thy God has commanded you’ (Deuteronomy 20:16—17). At one point Moses scolds his men for letting women and children survive, so he orders them to go back: ‘Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who as slept with a man, but save for yourself every girl who has never slept with a man’ (Numbers 31:17-18). Presumably, God even gives advice on rape itself: “if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife’ (Deuteronomy 21:11). Reading this reminded HM of some of the atrocities committed by ISIS.
Everyone knows the Gladiators fought to the death and that naked women were tied to stakes and raped or torn apart by animals. At the higher rungs of Roman society, 39 of the 49 Roman Emperors who ruled before the empire was divided were murdered.
Torture and mutilation were regularly applied in all great civilizations, from the Assyrians, Persians, and Chinese to the African kingdoms, and the the Native American tribes. But Norbert notes that ‘the medieval Christian culture was more creative than most, and some of the era’s best minds were occupied with coming with ways of inflicting as much pain as possible on people before they confessed and died. Medieval torture was not even a primitive and brutal way of trying to keep public violence at bay. Most the the crimes that sent people to the rack or stake were non-violent offenses, sins rather than crimes that we would recognize, like blasphemy, apostasy, gossip, scolding, unconventional sexual acts, and, not surprisingly, criticism of the government. “The Spanish Inquisition probably killed something like 350,000 people and tortured countless others, sometimes on suspicion of having clean underwear on a Sunday or being known to take baths.
HM wonders where was empathy, the trait that some use to distinguish us from computers. Empathy does appear in the New Testament of the Bible, but it does appear that it had an immediate effect.
Matters gradually changed. Eventually human sacrifice was abolished in all cultures, often at first replaced by animal sacrifice. According to Steven Pinker’s sources, the average annual death rate for non-state societies, and this includes everything from hunter-gatherer tribes to gold rush societies in California, is 524 per 100,000. If we add all the deaths from wars, genocide, purges and man-made famines in the 20th Century, we still don’t get a rate higher than 60 per 100,000 annually.
The chapter on the environment begins with the following quote from Indira Gandhi: “Are poverty and need the greatest polluters?…How can we speak to those who live in villages and in slums about keeping the oceans, the rivers and air clean when their own lives are contaminated at the source? The environment cannot be improved in conditions of poverty.” Then it discuses the Great Smog that settled over London near the end of 1952. It stayed for four horrible days. Cold weather had made Londoners burn more coal, and the smoke, combined with pollutants from industrial processes, from vehicles and from across the English Channel, formed a thick layer over the city. Cars were abandoned.. People felt their way home along railings. The smog penetrated clothes and blackened undergarments. This was the most lethal instance of smog, but London often suffered from it by different degrees as do many big cities in developing countries today.
This pollution of the environment was a product of the affluence and development that saved humanity from poverty and early death. Now the future looked nightmarish unless something was done. People envisioned a world without forests, with acid rain, and where people had to wear surgical masks to protect themselves from emission. Most species were extinct and humanity suffered from an explosion in cancer because of all the chemicals being used in nature. The conclusion seemed to be that wealth and technology were not compatible with a green breathing planet.
To prevent this conclusion from becoming a reality a green movement picked up speed in the West, led by intellectuals and activists. These concerns were taken seriously and policies and technological solutions were developed and large parts of today’s world are avoiding these crisis scenarios. But the dangers still exist and the battle needs to continue to be fought.
In 1972 the Club of Rome warned: “Virtually every pollutant that has been measured as a function of time appears to be increasing exponentially.” However pollution did not just stop increasing, it began to decrease dramatically. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, total emission of six leading air pollutants were reduced by more than two-thirds- from 1980 to 2014. Volatile organic compounds were reduced by 53%, nitrogen dioxide by 55%. direct particulate matter by 58%, carbon dioxide by 81% and lead by 99%.
In the 1980s the international community recognized that a huge hole in the ozone layer over Antartica was expanding and could expose life on earth to damaging ultraviolet light. Countries by international agreement phased out the substance that were eroding the ozone layer. It worked exceptionally well and the layer is gradually recovering. This is possibly saving humanity from hundreds of millions of cases of skin cancer.
The number of oil spills in the ocean has decreased dramatically. In the 1970s there was an average of 24 oil spills per year. Since 2000, there has been an average of less than 3. The quantity of oil spilt has been reduced by 99% between 1970 and 2014.
In wealthy countries deforestation has stopped. Europe’s forest area grew by more than 0.3% annually. The global annual rate of forest loss has slowed from 0.18 to 0.008% since the early 1990s. In China, the forest cover is now growing by more than two million hectares per year. Deforestation has declined by 70% since 2005, but it still continues.
Developing countries still have the problem of growing their economies while they decrease pollution. Moreover, their pollution is not localized to their countries—it spills over into the rest of the world.
The fight over pollution needs to continue and to continue with vigor. The worst situation is the failure to recognize problems such as global warming. The problem needs to be recognized before effective remedies can be pursued. In the United States there are many members of one political party and the presidential candidate of this political party who refuse to recognize the problem of global warming. These politicians need to be voted out of office, and candidates running for a political position need to be defeated. These individuals constitute a problem not just for the United States but for the entire world.
If you have yet to do so, go to http://www.gapminder.org. It is a very interesting website. You might find the documentary “Don’t Panic End Poverty” well worth viewing.
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