We have all had the experience of being so deeply immersed in something that we could not see the wood for the trees. And there is nothing we are so deeply immersed in as our own lives.
So it is worth a little thought experiment: imagine that visitors from a distant galaxy were taking a look at human civilisation. With their more distant perspective, what might they think of us?
It seems likely that they would conclude that our civilisation had produced an unsustainable mix of intelligence and stupidity:
- in many areas, they might be impressed by the achievements of human intelligence over the last 200 years;
- they might also find our recent stupidity mind-boggling; and
- they might conclude that stupidity now has its hands on the levers of power, and that this in itself imperils our civilisation.
They might be impressed by our achievements
A civilisation capable of visiting us from a distant galaxy would be more technologically advanced than we are. Nevertheless, just as we are able to recognise the intelligence of other primates and certain birds, it is likely that they would appreciate the enormous progress that our civilisation has made over the last 200 years in the sciences, economically, and socially and politically.
Scientifically, they would see extraordinary progress. In mathematics, important fields such as complex analysis, abstract algebra, mathematical logic, and game theory were all developed within the last 200 years, and have underpinned areas of scientific progress such as:
- atomic and sub-atomic physics;
- quantum mechanics;
- the discovery of RNA/DNA.
These scientific breakthroughs have in turn enabled mechanisation of tasks which previously required human and/or animal labour, the development of the car, the radio, the television, the computer, and the Internet. In medical science, it has been the last 200 years in which we have seen the development of the ideas of infection, understanding of bacteria and viruses, ability to produce antibiotics, ability to tackle many kinds of cancer, and improved medical devices of many kinds.
Economically, this technological boom has led to an extraordinary increase in wealth. In the UK, for example, this is what happened to average wages over the last 200 years compared with the previous 600.
Source: Bank of England
Globally most people are far better off today than they were in 1820 and the proportion in extreme poverty has greatly reduced – in effect, the last 200 years has lifted most of the world’s population out of extreme poverty.
Source: Our World In Data
Politically, also, the last 200 years overall have seen a shift towards democracy – in fact, 200 years ago few countries could call themselves democratic. And socially, there has been increasing recognition of minority rights.
From their great distance and taking just a 200-year perspective, our visitors might indeed be impressed. But if they zoomed in a little on the last 40 years or so, they would begin to question this conclusion.
They might find our recent stupidity mind-boggling
Scientifically, we have continued to make great progress: recent advances in computing, materials sciences, nanotechnology, genetics, cosmology and sub-atomic physics are all extraordinary.
But economically, many developed countries have ceased to make progress. Here is the UK, for example: even before COVID, we had seen growth slow dramatically, and average incomes start to fall for the first time in generations.
If they looked at the way our economies distribute wealth, they would see a curious reversal. Here is the US picture. In the early 1900s, the wealth of the US was highly concentrated: the top tenth of one percent of the population owned a quarter of all the wealth. Part of what lifted many Americans out of poverty was not just that the economy grew, but that normal people shared in that growth – in fact, the sharing was progressive: the richest saw their wealth increase more slowly than the rest of the population.
But all that changed from the late 1970s onwards: the economy has continued to grow, though not so fast – but almost all of that growth has gone to the wealthiest.
Even though the US economy has grown by almost 150% since 1980, median wages have hardly moved at all.
Our visitors from outer space would conclude that – particularly since 1980 – the wealthiest have found ways to deploy their wealth not just in playing the game of capitalism but also in systematically rewriting the rules of that game in their own favour.
The economy, which is meant to be the system we have put in place to produce and distribute valuable goods and services to meet the needs of the population, has become a machine for maximising the wealth of the already wealthy regardless of the consequences. Chapter 6, Wealth, Power And Freedom, of the book 99% explains in much more detail how this happens.
Our visitors might marvel that a race capable of writing and performing the works of Beethoven and developing the theories of relativity and quantum physics should also be capable of implementing an economic system so unsuited to meeting the needs of the population.
They might conclude that our civilisation risked of self-destruction
Based on nothing more than the evidence above, the visitors might discern the seeds of self-destruction. But, of course, they would be aware of more than this. They would see the effect of greenhouse gases on our climate.
Source: IPCC report 2021
What they might find extraordinary is that we are fully aware of this risk. In fact, climate science is not new. The French mathematician Joseph Fourier first identified the possibility of greenhouse gas effects in 1824. By 1896, the possibility of a link with the burning of fossil fuels had also been established. By the 1960s, the link was scientifically established and its importance was becoming clear:
“… from 1957, Roger Revelle alerted the public to risks that fossil fuel burning was “a grandiose scientific experiment” on climate. NASA and NOAA took on research, the 1979 Charney Report concluded that substantial warming was already on the way, and “A wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it is too late.”
And from the 1970s, the climate change denial movement became active, especially in the United States. An extraordinarily well-funded and increasingly well-hidden movement, the Climate Change Counter Movement (CCCM) has been following the same strategy used by the tobacco companies. As Robert Brulle, an environmental sociologist at Drexel University has pointed out, around $7 billion has been spent on manufacturing the appearance of controversy on a topic where in reality 97% of scientists agree:
“A well-organized CCCM … played a major role in confounding public understanding of climate science, but also successfully delayed meaningful government policy actions to address the issue.”
The same philosophy, market fundamentalism, which has increasingly taken hold of the world economy has also deployed its resources to prevent humanity from focusing on and tackling climate change.
Our alien visitors might marvel at how the human race – perfectly capable of understanding the major challenges it faces, and indeed increasingly aware of them – could allow political and economic systems which notionally exist to serve the population to act as such a powerful engine for the destruction of civilisation.
They might wonder when we will realise that, despite superficial appearances to the contrary, 99.9% of the world’s population has vastly more power as well as vastly more expertise than the remaining 0.01%.
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