Friday, April 01, 2016

Thoughts on human progress

It is very easy to be cynical about the progress of human civilisation, not least because optimists routinely overstate it.

When you are confronted with some ghastly atrocity like the Brussels or Lahore bombings - or indeed practically anything that DA'ESH or the Taleban and their offshoots and affiliates stand for - when you see children getting drowned trying to flee dangerous parts of the world, it is very easy to get depressed. Even wonders like the fact all the millions of us who own a recent model smartphone carry more computing power around with us in a pocket than NASA had when they sent men to the moon and brought them back, can appear to fade into insignificance compared with the massive capability for evil which the human race still displays.

Yet to give in to despair is quite wrong.

In the past few days, the author of one of the worst atrocities of the last hundred years received not vengeance but justice, being repaid for attempted genocide not with murder for murder, but by being put in front of the International Court at the Hague, given a fair trial, and sentenced to forty years in prison. We can reasonably hope this judgement, besides being fair in itself, will send a message to anyone tempted to allow such crimes, even heads of state, that no matter how powerful you are now there may come a time when the law will hold you to account.

And then there is the progress of medicine. I had eye surgery today to correct my vision, but discovered in the process that I was in the very early stages of developing a cataract, so early that I had not yet noticed. In today's world that merely means that the surgery which I had chosen to have anyway was necessary to keep the sight of the eye. Had I been born a hundred years earlier, I would soon have discovered that I was facing the ghastly inevitability of going blind.

When I was a boy, it was a common joke that everyone was terrified of going to the dentist: These days we associated dentists more with relief from pain than with pain. Two hundred years ago the nearest thing to an effective anaesthetic was alcohol.. When I am tempted to wish that I had been born in a more romantic age that fact alone is usually sufficient to bring me to my senses.

My generation grew up during the Cold War, in fear of the Atomic bomb. Yet, although for more than half a century five nations including ours have controlled more destructive power than all the nations in history put together had before 1945, and for two generations mankind has had the capability to fight a war which would wreck the planet, we have not done so. We may be learning something.

However imperfect Britain today may be, and indeed how imperfect the Western civilisation of which we are a part may be and life in the world as a whole may be, the simple fact is that this year, like the one before it and hopefully the one after, will be the best year in human history to date.

More people have better health, better standards of living, more opportunities and a better future than ever before. Of course we face difficult challenges - we must not be complacent about that. But I believe that we can overcome them.


alistair said...

Chris how are your eyes after surgery

Chris Whiteside said...

Thanks for thinking of me, Alistair. Had the first eye done yesterday, seems to have gone well, back home and recovering. Other eye will be done when this one stabilises.