15 April 2007

On the turbulence and the optimism

Reading the article "You think our age is turbulent? What nonsense" by Anatole Kaletsky, I could not get out of my mind an unwanted image of my feeble self clutching the armrests of my seat upon hearing the self-assured baritone of the pilot telling us to prepare for a "slight turbulence that will last only a few minutes".

Of course, the rational part of my brain knows perfectly well that the plane is designed and built to withstand much higher stress figures than those offered by a mere turbulence. But of course that irrational part of my brain gets an upper hand quite easily, drawing a horrifying picture of this aluminium tube broken to pieces and my vile body thrown out to become a fodder for local fauna after a few minutes of tumbling in the air (hopefully unconscious).

Having this in mind, I should be excused for the resistance my overly cynical and pessimistic brain put up against the main premise of the article:

We are constantly told by politicians, journalists and business experts that we live in an era of unprecedented change — a dizzying period of technological and geopolitical revolutions, in which every year brings some new and astonishing upheaval for which our nervous, insecure societies are totally unprepared. What nonsense.

Never in human history has life been more predictable, safe and stable — at least for that large minority of the human race who live in the advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe, North America and East Asia.
Hope springs eternal, and I would like nothing more than to submit to the seductive call of this London siren. After all, Anatole is right: many advanced capitalist countries, especially of Western Europe are experiencing an unprecedented stretch of 60 years of prosperity and (relative) peace. The reason and humanism have won. At least it seems so to an unprejudiced observer, especially one residing in one of the above mentioned countries.

And Alex does an excellent work, proving his point by (admittedly anecdotal, but so true) examples of his own family history, showing a thread on the bloody and horrifying tapestry of the last century. It is impossible to argue with this history and, indeed, on the face of it, this century was the pinnacle of horrors, genocide and inhumanity.

But was it really a pinnacle? I am not so sure. Maybe in terms of absolute numbers of the victims, but what about the Black Plague centuries? What about the flu pandemic? What about the uncounted wars, conquests and genocides of the, say, last 2000 years only?

I am not so sure, in short, that the XX century was the pinnacle - neither in terms of inhumanity nor in terms of relative mortality numbers.

But let's look at the other angle - that of 60 years of prosperity and peace. Leaving aside the fact that several billions of people (Central and South America, Africa, China , a good part of Asia, etc.) do not seem so happy and contented, how about that vaunted European Golden Age? Just a few days ago I have posted a short but succinct aside by Isaac Schrödinger:
It's quite something: most Europeans living today have, historically speaking, a distorted view of reality. They've lived in their American-subsidized peace bubble for too long.
I do not think I should try to pierce that mental bubble for Alex. If he does not want it to be pierced, the mission is simply impossible.

And, without attempting to insult Alex's intelligence by going into a few cases he so unintelligently brings up at the end of the article (yes, Alex, the global warming alarmists do believe that they have a cause, and you better believe it; and the psychologists who treat accident witnesses cannot use Holocaust as a treatment tool; and the number of victims of terrorism grows too swiftly to be ignored, but let's leave all this for a while): being an economist, Alex could be unaware how fragile the life on this planet is. But lots of people dealing with several scientific disciplines could easily insult Alex's intelligence by explaining to him that a rise (or a drop) of a few centigrades in the mean temperatures, a chance meeting with a sufficiently large asteroid, an outbreak of a new plague for which we do not have an antibiotic or a half-serious nuclear war could easily bring about the extinction of our civilization. At least in the form we know it today and Alex is so happy about.

So let's hold the horses with that announcement of the golden age for a while. At least until we know that we can deal with the common flu, not to speak about a regular head cold. OK?

Meanwhile, I have on the table an urgent issue of where to have my lunch, and damn the global warming...

Oops: I have discovered too late that Norm has already done it. Yeah...