I have to disagree with my friend and colleague in the Enterprise Irregulars, Vinnie Mirchandani. He asks an interesting and thought provoking question and many people have provided answers but for the literal purpose of answering the question, I think he and many others are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. They are confusing the specific for the general, a logical fallacy that the Greeks named synecdoche.
The question is simple, are you better off than your parents were? And if we answer individually, the many of the stories we tell of our parents’ and other ancestors’ lives will show that we’re indeed better off by a country mile. I am no different. How can I not be?
I can tell a story of ancestors within the last hundred years living outdoors all winter lumberjacking and doing other farm and forest related activities to earn a buck. I can tell a story of a grandfather being forced out of the parental home at 16, not because of any calamity other than birth order. He was too young to inherit the farm so he was encouraged to leave, which led to the lumber camps. I can also tell a tale of packing up the house and moving to southern New England because there was factory work there and in the middle of the Depression well, you know.
I don’t know much about my father even though he was in my life until I was a young adult, other than that he fought in the Battle of the Bulge, became a brevet sergeant and lost the rank after liberating a wine cellar in Bavaria. The childhood picture that I have of him shows a little boy in very dirty overalls. My mother was pulled out of ninth grade so that she could work full time in a textile mill.
Sure I’m better off but so what? The real question is how much better off are we all and the answer is mixed. Optimists, and I include myself in that group, say that the current economic inequalities will dissipate once the economic cycle turns and new invention breathes life and jobs back into society. Pessimists point to the gaining momentum of automation and the digital disruption and say, not so fast.
In an earlier time, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, society faced very similar problems, which were exacerbated by rising population and limited resources. The solution then was emigration to the New World where land was abundant and cheap. If you were unlucky you were sent to a penal colony in Australia but either way after a few years of dues paying you were free and could build a life.
This time it’s different. The only uninhabited parts of the planet are inhospitable and resources of all kinds are either in decline or threatened. A recent report by the oil company BP says that there is enough oil left in the ground to last for about 50 years. My research says that’s optimistic. Then what? Fresh water is a declining commodity even in the first world. Sea levels are rising and we all know why. Food production is annually threatened by escalating average summer temperatures and unpredictable rainfall. Key commodities like phosphorus are also in decline. Where we once could mine it, in the future we may have to recover it from river deltas where our sewage ends up. Phosphorus is a key fertilizer for producing most crops.
The list is long but we needn’t go on. Human population is already over 7 billion, well beyond the carrying capacity of the planet’s finite resources. Statistical models from groups like The Club of Rome, which published “Limits to Growth” in 1970 and the follow up edition 30 years later, say that global civilization starts to collapse at around 8 billion souls trying to occupy this tiny spec of rock, water, and air in a distant arm of a non-descript galaxy.
In fact, we’re already in the early stages of collapse as the supposedly free market is one by one, rationing the staples of life like food, education, and housing. If you’re in the top one percent or better the 0.1 percent everything is fine. In fact if you’re in the top 10 percent you’re still comfortable, but for the mass of humanity, there’s a great deal of consternation about what comes next.
There are certainly things that we can do to blunt the worst effects of the looming collapse. Start by reading Jared Diamond’s books. But the solutions require concerted actions from people of good will. Absent that individuals will continue attempting to diagnose the problem and prescribe their own solutions and they will get it wrong. Just look at the populist wave that brought us Brexit and the recent U.S. election. There’s still time but we have to walk a tightrope for much of the rest of this century as population hopefully peaks and turns down and new sources of resource become available. But concerted action also means government action and the signs are not encouraging.
So, am I better off than my parents were? No. They had hope.