Are We Doomed?

I am one of those “glass half full” people.  My basic nature is optimistic, and I have learned to cultivate that way of looking at life because I find that I am happier.   And, in my 60 years of living, I’ve found that most dire predictions, or even daily worries, never materialize.

One of my friends sent me an essay this past week that was written in 1995 and reprinted this month.  The opening paragraph states:

It’s over.  We are killing it all and soon it all will be dead.  We are here at the death of the world – killers, witnesses and those who will die.
— Handy Tips on How to Behave at the Death of the World by Anne Herbert

Lately I’ve noticed that many people, like my friend, are living in the “glass is broken and shattered all over the floor” mentality.  They believe that we are truly doomed. They read the daily headlines and watch all of the post-apocalyptic movies and tv shows. They listen to so-called experts. We are all bombarded with messages about how humans have destroyed the planet, and unfortunately, many people have come to believe it.

— Newsweek, 1/22/19

There have always been predictions about the end of the world as we know it. I remember in the 1970s, we were told to prepare for the coming ice age. I remember when our economy was predicted to collapse at Y2K. I remember in 2006 when Al Gore warned that New York City would be underwater by now. There have always been warnings of doom, but I feel that it’s become a global hysteria.

People don’t make good decisions when they are hysterical with fear. Scientists aren’t careful in their analyses. Journalists chase the most drama - and what is more dramatic than the end of the world? Politicians rush to take advantage to push their own agendas. Ordinary folks become indifferent or over-zealous, depressed or narcisstic. School children can’t sleep at night for worry about the future.

Are we truly FUBAR (f*cked up beyond all recognition)? Well, no, not according to Steven Pinker. Pinker is an impeccable scholar, Harvard professor, and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, who uses scientific reasoning to debunk the assumption that the world is getting worse. He argues that peace, prosperity, knowledge and happiness are all on the rise, and contrary to popular belief, the world is actually getting better.  You can get an excerpt of his research and conclusions from this New York Times article Steven Pinker Thinks the Future Is Looking Bright or from his 2018 Ted Talk Is the World Getting Better or Worse - a Look at the Numbers. He likes to use graphs to plot the data, but here is a sampling of his measures of prosperity:

  • Extreme poverty has gone from 90 percent of the world’s population to 10 percent.

  • Literacy has increased from about 15 percent to more than 85 percent.

  • Longevity has increased from about 30 to about 71 years worldwide, and 80 in the developed world.

  • We have fewer wars and they have become less deadly

  • In the 19th century, westerners worked more than 60 hours per week, and today they work fewer than 40

Famine has been banished to the most remote and war-ravaged regions of the world

Famine has been banished to the most remote and war-ravaged regions of the world

I’m a scientist, as well as a spiritual person. As a scientist, I am very skeptical of the doomsday predictions about global warming. Or is it global cooling? Let’s just call it climate change. Call me a “climate denier.” (I hate that label - what a clever way to discredit anyone who might challenge a prevailing assumption!) In my science and engineering graduate courses, I learned enough about statistics and computer modeling to know their value and limitations. The models are only as good as the data and assumptions that are programmed in. From my personal research into the issues of climate change, I don’t believe the experts know enough yet to make accurate predictions or even understand all the forces that are at play. There are good scientists out there who share my view, but their voices have been drowned out. In today’s political environment, scientists who question the doomsday scenarios aren’t funded in their research, can’t get published, or even hired.

Do we have environmental issues that need to be addressed? Absolutely. We can apply our problem-solving skills and ingenuity to cleaning up the trash in the oceans, rivers and lakes. We can fortify our cities that were built in precarious places to make them safer. We can continue to improve air quality. We can learn from our past mistakes and preserve our forests rather than decimate them. We can prepare for inevitable fluctuations in climate. We can all be better stewards of the earth. Bottom line, however… I tend to agree with George Carlin, the brilliant and irreverent comedian: The Planet is Fine.

As a spiritual person, I believe that humankind is evolving. We are right now in the growing pains of moving from an older patriarchal model to one of partnership. Partnership with each other and with all life on this beautiful and resilient planet. I don’t have graphs and data to back me up. Just what I feel in my heart.

We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there’s no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.
— Steven Pinker