Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Apocalyptic Thinking: Wrong Again

It’s astonishing how negative young people’s worldview has become. Let’s say under 35 or so is young. If you chat with them about the world we live in today it’s the rare young one who can bring up more than one or two things positive to say. Get them talking about the future (not a terribly difficult task) and the only variability you are likely to encounter is how bad the apocalypse will be and perhaps when it will arrive. Doom and gloom abound. I really can’t remember any talk about the future with someone under 35, even those who are generally happy, in which they didn’t tumble into hopelessness and despair.

Breaking news: the apocalypse isn’t nigh.

How do I know this? Well, of course I have the distinct advantage of having lived 60 years. Some of them without too very much in the way of income, most of them in relative comfort, but none of them in anything that could be construed as hopeless or a state of despair. Even after my “genius moment” business plan succeeded only in reducing my salary by 80% and wiping out my retirement account in my 40’s, the worst case scenario never included an apocalyptic demise. Yet what I hear from young people at an age at which Beth and I spent our last nickel each pay period is just that: despair and hopelessness.

In our age of blaring headlines always in our face it is impossible to avoid hearing the braying of all types of doomsayers. What we hear is how much better it was before, well, before pretty much everything. And yet everything that has happened in the world basically adds up to a powerful and direct repudiation of all things apocalypse. Deep down I’ve known this, but I’ve been at a loss to describe why I know this in a way that would convince, or would comfort, the young who are so distressed by what they think they see in our world.

In my search for a narrative that would convincingly combat the braying of the apocalyptic prognosticators I recently came across an interview with a gentleman by the name of Laurence Siegel. Mr. Siegel has written a book titled “Fewer, Richer, Greener” in which he proclaims “We are on the verge of the greatest democratization of wealth and well-being that the world has ever known.” I’ll share some highlights from the WSJ interview (with Jason Zweig), but I’m sure that I will have much to share after I read the book itself.

Let’s start with capitalism, at the moment the hoariest villain around. Capitalism has been roundly criticized for creating a historically huge degree of income and wealth inequality. In truth inequality of at least this degree has been with us since humans came together in groups larger than families. While it is certainly the case that the richest among us are far, far richer than the poor and middle class it is also inarguable that it is capitalism that has raised up the majority of humanity from crushing poverty. In the past year alone more than half of the world’s population has now become middle-class or wealthier. The defining level of income for extreme poverty continues to rise, and despite that the percentage of the world’s population that can be so described has plummeted. Wealth inequality is real; it’s effect on the daily existence of typical Americans is infinitesimal.

And yet like climate change it is the sheer magnitude of the issue coupled with the absolute impossibility that any one individual can have any significant effect on changing either that seems to be causing the despair I witness. “Young people can’t afford to buy a home” seems to be all the more cause for despair if you truly believe that the world will be near the end before you can scrape together a down payment. But just like in the 50’s when everyone was building fall-out shelters and every grade school kid was taught what to do when the air raid siren went off, life doesn’t come to an end, it just continues to get inexorably better.

Are there huge things out there that really could derail civilization as we know it? Sure. But every one of them is as likely to do so as every one that has come before.What about the environment?  In every country that has come up from poverty the process has, indeed, resulted in a dirtier environment. We’ve certainly seen that in Western Europe and the U.S., and for sure you are seeing it in places like India and China. Siegel: “…as they continue to become wealthier, people start to be willing and able to sacrifice some of those gains to get a cleaner environment. As the world gets richer it will continue to get greener. Switzerland is probably the most environmentally clean country in the world, and it is one of the richest.” As time goes on newly richer countries will behave more like Switzerland.

What matters when in comes to income and wealth is not so much what someone else has, but what you have and what it allows you to do. Mike Bloomberg’s wealth is unimaginable to me; his wealth came from the creation of a business which has created several other layers of wealth, and below those layers still more of middle-class comfort and security. So, too, the wealth of people like Bill Gates. His company is arguably responsible for much of the ease in your life brought about by the modern use of the microprocessor. I don’t choose to communicate with my refrigerator with my cell phone, but thanks in part to stuff that started with Microsoft I could. Bill Gates income and wealth is meaningless to those who type into Word documents like I’m doing right now; wealth inequality between Gates and anyone else is meaningless. Because of the source of his wealth our lives are immeasurably better because we can.

Climate change, wealth inequality, and the other macro issues that cannot be fixed on an individual level have always been with us. It is the fact that one literally can do nothing to change them that seems to be the cause of the sense of hopelessness and despair we hear so much of. But these macro issues have yet to come anywhere near reversing centuries of human progress. Again, Siegel: “Apocalyptic thinking is a neural mistake based on our need to survive in a cruelly hostile environment that doesn’t exist anymore. Apocalyptic thinking has always been wrong, and it will continue to be wrong.”

The world is a beautiful place that actually may be getting more beautiful by the year. It is safe, and getting safer for almost everyone every year. Fewer and fewer people live in poverty, as more and more people achieve a middle-class life or better each year. While we as a species must always strive to continue doing those things that have brought us this far, our lives would be far, far happier and more enjoyable if we directed our attention toward those things close to us that we control. Do some recycling. Buy an electric car. Vote.

To my young (and not so young) friends out there please don’t despair. We’re gonna be ok. The world is still gonna be there when you finally scrape up that down payment, and you’re gonna find a house you’ll like. There’ll be air to breath and water to drink, and we’re neither going to burn up nor freeze. You may not drive the same car as Jamie Dimon but, you know, the way things are going none of us are going to have to drive ourselves after Elon Musk makes all of our cars autonomous so they drive themselves. You’re still going to arrive on time.

Life is good. Despite all headlines to the contrary the world isn’t coming to an end. It just keeps on getting better.

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