Is The World Getting Worse?
It depends on who you are.
In an era of increasing nationalism, this question can be heard around the world. We hear it whispered by the elite as they build elaborate doomsday bunkers to stave off environmental collapse. We hear it asked nervously by professionals as they wonder just how long their chosen skillsets will last in an age of automation. We hear it screamed by people that don’t have a high school degree as they realize bitterly that the world has already left them behind.
Is the world getting worse?
Those of the Western middle class that grew up during the Postwar era were told that improvement was our birthright. History had ended, and we just needed to work hard, and everything would turn out more or less alright. Progress pointed in one direction, and it was up, up, up.
For these people, it might seem like the world has taken a turn for the worse. Wealth inequality has increased dramatically. Wages have stagnated. And of course, the planet is dying, and the country is currently ruled by a barely constrained authoritarian. By any observable metric, things must look darn terrifying.
Globally, however, the middle class is actually expanding. This is in large part due to the growth and the consumption of Asia. All trends being equal, nearly 3.5 billion of the world’s middle class are expected to be in Asia by the year 2030. Whether you’re a citizen in Shanghai or Seoul, the sight of modern brands such as Starbucks, Nike, and Apple are everyday experiences in these metropolises. The citizenry of China is particularly optimistic. Poll after poll shows the Chinese public is increasingly confident about their future prospects.
If you hop over the pond again and look at the lower class in the United States, you’ll notice that things haven’t gotten worse at all. They’ve been bad for a very long time. Since manufacturing started to decline in the late 1970s/early 1980s, the working class has been all but hallowed out. In 1910, census data tells us that around 32 percent of non-farm jobs were in manufacturing. By 2015, manufacturing accounted for less than 9 percent. The jobs that remain in manufacturing require educated workers that know how to operate highly-sophisticated machinery. This trend has pushed non-educated workers into devalued service-sector jobs that quite frankly suck. It’s been a rough half-century for the former assembly line worker.
When we ask the question “is the world getting worse?” we must always remember to add a “for who” at the end because things never get unilaterally bad for everyone. Sometimes one group of people can be suffering untold horrors while another group several miles away is obliviously sunbathing on a tropical beach.
That may sound like an exaggeration, but it was the reality for the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma, who, according to a recent U.N. report, experienced (and may still be experiencing) brutal, state-sponsored violence. In August of 2018, villages were burned, children were assaulted, and women were gang-raped. 1,000 or so kilometers away in Thailand, Western tourists were quite literally slurping on Mai Tais, unaware of the suffering enfolding so close by. That’s just how the world is right now. Beyond ads for Human Rights Watch, the disproportionate suffering of these two groups of people didn’t even break the news.
Even when we look at climate change — a trend that will have seismic effects on everyone’s wellbeing — it quickly becomes apparent that it will not affect everyone equally. Climate change is going to wreck our environment, but while the equator will be scorched and our coasts flooded, the poles will most likely have a resurgence in activity.
In 2017, the Christophe de Margerie became the first ship to travel through the Arctic’s Northeast Passage without the use of an icebreaker. The ship went from Norway to South Korea in 19 days — far more quickly than the standard route through the Suez canal in Egypt, which typically takes about 25. The Christophe de Margerie may have been the first, but it will not be the last. In 2010, just 4 ships made it through the Northeast passage (with icebreakers). By 2014, that number had jumped to 53. The inhospitable North is slowly becoming more hospitable to business.
We often look at the downsides of the poles melting, but diminishing water reserves place countries with high water reserves in a far more powerful position. Canada, for example, has 7% of the world’s renewable water supply (renewable meaning it goes through the water cycle naturally). When you factor in water reserves that take longer to recharge — such as aquifers and fossil lakes — it has a whopping 20%. Canada has only 0.5% of the world’s total population, though.
The United States, conversely has around 7% of the world’s renewable water reserves, but over 4% of the world’s population. The US also has regions such as Central Valley, California (e.g., the Sacramento River Basin, San Joaquin Valley, etc.) and the Colorado River Basin that are using more water than they can naturally generate. California just ended a 5-year drought. Where do you think the Western United States will be getting water once California depletes its snowpacks and the West taps out the Colorado River? Canada has the potential to become the primary water supplier for the Western United States, and that comes with it a lot of power.
Melting also means greater access to oil and metal reserves that were once buried underneath tons of snow and ice. A U.S. Geological Survey indicated that there might be more than 90 billion barrels of recoverable oil buried in the Arctic, and oil companies are moving in. While American companies seem skittish here, the same can not be said for Europe. The Russian company Rosneft began drilling the northernmost of the Russian Arctic shelf in 2017, and Norway’s Statoil has made several explorations as well.
Climate Change might be the end of days for the Global South, but if you’re in Canada, Russia, or Norway, and you’re looking at climate forecasts, it’s the God damn political pendulum swinging in your favor. When it comes to the warming of the planet, not all political actors will be impacted equally.
This uneven redistribution is seen in nearly every trend from climate change to voting to the much dreaded AI revolution. People in editorials often depict automation like a swarm that will come for everyone’s jobs. According to the Geneva-based World Economic Forum (WEF):
By 2025 more than half of all current workplace tasks will be reformed by machines as opposed to 29 percent today.
That’s a scary thought and indicates a radical transformation that will impact the lives of 1 in 2 people. Machines will soon affect half of all the tasks that we currently do, and while we can talk in circles about whether that will create more jobs or less, when we look at analyses of job vulnerabilities it becomes apparent that certain professions will kick the proverbial bucket sooner than others. According to a report by McKinsey & Company, automation in the US is far more likely to impact, say crane operators, than executive managers.
Furthermore, the ability to replace a job doesn’t mean that a firm will replace it. As of writing this, there are still one or two elevator operators in the United States. There are also traditional blacksmiths and a host of other obsolete professions. The technology exists to replace all of these jobs. Inefficiencies in the system have and will continue to exist merely because of cultural momentum. A law firm might not need paralegals given advancements in AI, but for prestige reasons, partners might want them anyway. People do pay to psychologically dominate other human beings, even if a machine can do the job for them. Just ask your local barista.
The same thing can be said for sports. We are not anywhere close to making robot soccer players, but people are working on it. There is an annual RoboCup where dozens of countries, thousands of robots, and thousands of human (for now) inventors compete in a soccer tournament. The robots currently make terrible soccer players, but that will undoubtedly change soon. In the words of venture capitalist Oliver Mitchell:
“The same vision that it would take for a robot to kick a ball to its mechanical teammate could be used in robots in a manufacturing centre. The way a soccer robot can avoid an obstacle on the field? It’s the same way an autonomous vehicle might avoid obstacles on the road. The question here is what technologies will come from competitive play?
The way futurists talk makes it sound like robotic soccer players are a darn near inevitability. Will we want these robotic soccer players, though? Sports are a series of made up rules and contrivances anyway. Physics doesn’t necessitate that soccer fields are made a certain size, or that players kick the ball with a particular speed. Does the fact that a robot will soon be able to play the game physically better than a human make any difference? It depends on what we as a society want, or more accurately, it depends on what we are willing to put up with.
Different segments of the population will be affected more dramatically than others by the upcoming wave of job loss. Some are seeing their professions destroyed as I write this. For others, it will be decades into the future. Those that own assets are experiencing vast wealth, and for those suffering abject poverty, this worry has never made any difference. As I sarcastically tell my best friend whenever she laments about AI — if you scavenge for food right now, it’s hard to get worked up about mass job loss. You’ll be living day-by-day regardless.
Is the world getting worse?
Nothing ever gets better or worse for everyone. So why do I keep hearing people circle back to this question?
When people ask me if the world is getting worse — whether it’s about climate change, automation, or something in between — that doesn’t seem to be the question they are really asking me. Instead, they want to know how much longer they will have to put up with something? How much more time will they have to wait until we pass a global carbon tax or a UBI, or whatever pet social policy they think is an inevitability? When will trends align so that people start giving a damn? And of course, my answer is always, whenever you begin to.
There is never naturally going to be a come-to-Jesus moment where everyone is dramatically impacted by a phenomenon so deeply that change becomes an inevitability. Power dynamics will always exist. If the public doesn’t create positive change, then power-brokers will step in to find ways to provide those services for a steep price. We see this everywhere from the venture capitalist investing in automation to the Russian shipping magnate breaking through ice in the Northeast passage to, maybe one day, Canadian officials extorting the West for water access. There is always a market for necessary services, and, no matter how badly those sectors are mismanaged, those who manage them are never going to willing opt-in to sacrificing money and power.
They must be made to.
We can opine about these malicious actors forever, and we should certainly try to hold them accountable, but in the end, connecting their evil to a larger existential malaise isn’t helpful. It might even make things worse by portraying the world as hopeless. If something about the world is terrible or becoming worse, then you (the person who notices the problem) need to address it.
Don’t wait for the situation to deteriorate so dramatically in the hope that, maybe then, people will do something about it. They won’t, because you haven’t, and you are they. The worse a situation becomes, the more likely a predatory actor or actors will strengthen their hold over that issue or service. If you value addressing the problem over being right, then you should abandon this line of questioning entirely, and instead ask:
What can I do to solve this problem?
That’s what you want to happen any. Something about the world has you terrified enough to question the stability of society, and you are trying to justify that fear. Rather than expand it, though, I recommend that you tackle the issue head-on. You will both feel better about the world, and make the world suck less all at the same time.
If you are having trouble wrapping your head around where to start, author Monica Bourgeau has a great (and short) read over at HuffPost. I am also a huge fan of Deborah Stone’s The Samaritan’s Dilemma (a slightly longer read). You might also want to do some research of your own to discover what specific thing is giving you so much existential dread.
From there, donate, vote, volunteer, go to meetings hosted by your local leaders, and respect the humanity of your fellow human beings. It may sound daunting and cheesy, but a better world starts with you.