By the middle of this century the human race will have expanded in 10,000 years from less than 10m people to nearly 10 billion. Some live in misery and dearth even worse than the worst experienced in the Stone Age. But the vast majority are much better fed, much better sheltered, much better entertained, much better protected against disease and much more likely to live to old age than their ancestors have ever been.
The availability of almost everything a person could want or need has been going rapidly upwards for 200 years and erratically upwards for 10,000 years before that: years of lifespan, mouthfuls of clean water, lungfuls of clean air, hours of privacy, means of travelling faster than you can run, ways of communicating farther than you can shout. This generation of human beings has access to more calories, watts, lumen-hours, square feet, gigabytes, megahertz, light years, nanometres, bushels per acre, miles per gallon, food miles, air miles and, of course, cash than any that went before.
It can buy anything from vitamins and mango slicers to tennis rackets and guided missiles. By one estimate, the number of different products on sale just in London now tops 10 billion.
Furthermore it is possible, indeed probable, that by 2110 humanity will be much much better off than it is today and so will the ecology of our planet. This view — which I shall call rational optimism — may not be fashionable but it is compelling.
Rational optimism holds that the world will pull out of its economic and ecological crises because of the way that markets in goods, services and ideas allow human beings to exchange and specialise for the betterment of all. But a constant drumbeat of pessimism usually drowns out this sort of talk. Indeed, if you dare to say the world is going to go on getting better, you are considered embarrassingly mad.
If, on the other hand, you say catastrophe is imminent, you can expect a MacArthur Foundation genius award. In my own adult life I have listened to solemn predictions of growing poverty, coming famines, expanding deserts, imminent plagues, impending water wars, inevitable oil exhaustion, mineral shortages, falling sperm counts, thinning ozone, acidifying rain, nuclear winters, mad cow epidemics, Y2K computer bugs, killer bees, sex-change fish, global warming, ocean acidification and even asteroid impacts that would soon bring our happy interlude to a terrible end. Let me make a square concession at the start: the pessimists are right when they say that if the world continues as it is it will end in disaster. If all transport depends on oil, and the oil runs out, then transport will cease. If agriculture continues to depend on irrigation and water stocks are depleted, then starvation will ensue.
Notice the “if”. The world will not continue as it is. That is the whole point of human progress, the pressing message of cultural evolution.
It is my (rational, optimistic) proposition that the human race has become a collective problem-solving machine which solves problems by changing its ways. It does so through invention driven often by the market: scarcity drives up price and that in turn encourages the development of alternatives and efficiencies.