"If you want to read a blog to get a sense of what is going on in Hong Kong these days or a blog that would tell you what life was like living in colonial Hong Kong, this blog, WALTER'S BLOG, fits the bill." Hong Kong Blog Review
On occasions I’m guilty of spreading a message that everything is a mess - the human race is heading to hell in a handcart. It’s a position that's fed by myopic observation of all that’s going wrong. Heaping weight is a 24-hour news feed, with its looping coverage of death, disaster, war and mayhem.
Digesting all that suffering can overwhelm even the most robust individual. Thus, it’s refreshing to hear the words of Steven Pinker, the Harvard scientist. Pinker is one of the public intellectuals helping us to think about the future.
In his new book, Enlightenment Now, Pinker asserts that despite what the news tells us, by every measure humans are better off than ever. Our well-being and safety are higher than at any previous point in history. And he has plenty of data to support this argument.
Sifting through it all, certain facts jump out at you. Life expectancy is increasing across all countries and cultures. Even in Africa, which lags the developed regions, average life-expectancy has risen from 40 in 1960 to 70 years. Research indicates that by 2045, the world average life-expectancy will be around 75 years. In 1960, it was 45 years. That’s a stunning improvement.
Better medical care, plus the sharing of facts on hygiene pushed up childbirth survival rates. Add to that the decline in extreme poverty, while undernourishment is also dropping. All of which creates a healthier population, with less premature death.
Never underestimate the impact of global programmes to prevent common infectious diseases. With illnesses contained or eradicated, societies free-up human capital for development. This is a self-perpetuating process. One consequence is that literacy rates have exploded; 36% could read and write in 1950. Today that figure is climbing towards 90%. With that progress comes a multitude of benefits as knowledge spreads.
One comfort is the education of women, who can then take control of their reproductive cycle. Removed from being broodmares, girls stabilise societies by bringing population growth under control. Look at Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Birth rates continue to fall despite incentives and initiatives from well-meaning governments.
Today, we are about 7 billion people. The experts reckon the human population will peak at about 9 to 10 billion in 2050. Then it will likely go into decline. Statistician Jorgen Randers argues it may happen sooner. His projections take into account the downward impact of urbanisation on fertility. Randers predicts a peak in the population in the early 2040s at about 8.1 billion people. Then a rapid decline, as ladies stop having children. It's happening already in many modern countries.
It's probable that we can feed 9 billion people with our modern system of agriculture. Then, as the population levels out, the pressure to produce food and use resources reduce. In turn, this provides relief for the environment. We know that as people prosper, they place more emphasis on ‘quality of life’ issues. That has a notable impact on policy.
Scientists identified this phenomenon some time ago in the 1950s. The Kuznets Curve, named after Simon Kuznets, addresses the idea. It indicates that market forces first increase and then decrease economic inequality. In environmental terms, Kuznets’s ideas point towards deterioration in pollution. Then we reach a tipping point. After that as per capita income increases, the pollution gets less.
China displays this effect. As the country modernised, the people accepted smog as a consequence of industrialisation. Now they clamour for the clean-up, with the government responding to these demands. Polluting industries are closed, with new technology deployed to mitigate any environmental impact. In short, a middle-class is emerging, that wants clean air and water.
The world is also a much less violent place. In broad-terms crime is down. Murder rates have fallen for decades and continue on a downward trend. Domestic violence and child abuse are declining in the West. At the same time, since the 1960s, deaths in war have plunged by a factor of 20. Further, the conflicts that do take place are less deadly.
In the 1950s, the average number of war deaths was around 86,000 annually. Today that figure is about 5,000. Better trauma care is a factor, but also the lack of prolonged ‘slog it out’ engagements.
The big question, though, is what does science have to say about how we structure our societies. What is the optimal model, if any? Is there a system that provides a significant opportunity for humans to flourish? Pinker has something to say on this, although his assertions come with some caveats. There are many studies of these issues. The control groups are well-known; East and West Germany, North and South Korea, and Chile and Venezuela.
The evidence points towards market economies giving opportunities for the majority to prosper. But, regulation of these markets is crucial, to create a level playing field. Then you add a social safety net. This will catch those that fall by the wayside, care for them and then - hopefully- return them to a productive life.
As societies become affluent, it’s the norm that more money gets diverted to social spending. This includes caring for the young and old folks. Likewise, the people expand their thoughts in time and space, to contemplate long-term issues. Hence, the drive to tackle pollution.
Pinker also concludes that top-down authoritarian regimes produce poor long-term outcomes. I guess most of us recognize that. The lack of checks and balances, with power focused in a small clique, produces disparity. This can take the form of economic and social injustice. Such regimes collapse, although when and how remains hard to predict. For example, no one saw the collapse of the Soviet Union coming nor its rapidity. Making such predictions is fraught with uncertainty.
The thinkers amongst us (no, I’m not claiming that title) appear optimistic. If we can survive the next few decades, the long-term prospects look good.
And so, while all our data indicates improved human well-being, we can’t be complacent. We still keep the ability to wipe ourselves out. Nuclear weapons present the most significant controllable threat. Climate change will also have an impact, yet we can likely ride that out. A pandemic could wipe out a good number of us. Despite that, it's unlikely to bring about the extinction of the species.
Nuclear weapons wouldn’t kill us all in the first blinding blast. No, the demise would creep-in as a nuclear winter blocked the sun, cutting off our food supplies. Depending on how long the dust lingered in the atmosphere, we’d struggle to cling on.
Having said that, it’s encouraging that we have some control. Get the nukes out the equation, and our chances as a species look about even.
Depending on who is speaking, there are polar opposite views on Brexit, and not much between. On one side are the ardent Brexiteers. For them, this is the last chance for Great Britain to save itself from cultural suicide. Take back control of the borders and the legal system, to be free of silly EU rules. Reassert national sovereignty is the mantra.
In their realm, the people have spoken in a wave a popularism against the European project. Rejecting a narrative that peace will only come with a trans-national agenda, a blow lands on the complacent political elites.
It’s worth remembering that the European project was, in part, fueled by a repudiation of the nation-state concept. After two world wars kicked off in Europe, an idea germinated. Remove state control, then operate across trans-national borders to avoid future conflicts.
The Brexiteers see a bright future, in the sunlit uplands - Churchillian voice please - with free trade to the world. They see a Great Britain find a role it lost with the demise of Empire, at the centre of innovation and commerce. Banished is the old agenda of managing decline, which permeated policy since 1946.
Some people go so far to suggest a new Anglo-sphere of countries upholding Western values. They cite the election of Trump; another one in the eye for the established order. The rise of nationalism in Europe supports their view. Even the once mighty Angela Merkel looks compromised. She’s paid for opening Germanys borders to a million refugees with mayhem and unrest to the streets. German womenfolk suffered as gangs of young male asylum seekers behaved appallingly.
Under Teresa May’s lacklustre leadership, the ruling Conservatives stumble through the negotiations. The EU is at times petulant, at times pleading and then stern. Like a scorned ex-wife, they want revenge for daring to walk away
On the other side, the Remainers hold that Brexit is an apocalyptic event. They feed economic scare stories as their standard rant. Everyone will be worse off after Brexit - it is, and can only be a disaster. For them, Britain cannot exist outside the EU.
Those opposing Brexit seek to demonise the other side. Here’s Labour stalwart Owen Jones in full flow.
“It is a rallying cry for a noxious alliance of anti-immigrant demagogues and regulation-stripping free marketeers. The bigotry, xenophobia and racism stirred up by the official leave campaigns injected an ugliness into British politics which never dissipated, and left hate crimes surging."
Of course, Jones is part of the metropolitan elite that despises the Anglo-Saxon working class. He hates the lifeblood of the old Labour Party. Jones and his mates exist in the London bubble, and he dare not venture north to face the former Labour heartland. For that reason, he fails to understand why folks 'up north' voted out. Playing the ‘racism card’ with ease, he ignores his inherent prejudices. The disconnect new Labour has with its roots is stark.
Meanwhile, the Labour position on Brexit is far from clear. Party leader Corbyn is playing a game of deliberate befuddlement. If Labour committed to overturning Brexit, they’d haemorrhage as many as three million voters who backed leave. That would lose them seats.
Corbyn, it appears, prefers the posturing of permanent opposition, rather than the messy business of government. Then he can remain ideological, uncompromised, pure, disdainful and sit above the fray. H knows that being in government means having to make tough choices and real decisions.
At the same time, voices exist for a second referendum. That’s illogical because you could go on infinitum until you it got the right result - whatever that might be? It’s true that some who voted out didn’t grasp all the consequences. Then, you’ve got to consider the fact that the young proposed to remain, while the older folks wanted out. That has opened up another schism. That’s democracy at work; messy and imprecise.
Let's consider some stuff we do know. Great Britain hasn't always been in the EU, and others exist well enough outside its remit. It occurs to me that the only reason the UK will be economically worse off is that the EU is protectionist.
Yes, arguably, the EU has protected people from illiberal governments in the past. But why should we look to the EU for this? It’s hardly a great argument that you need protection from our government. If that’s a concern, sort out the national government.
I’d also ask who gains from the status quo. Certain institutions benefit and the types who populate them. Neil Kinnock, Peter Mandelson and others have made significant sums from the European project. Tony Blair is another one who wanted to get in on the game, although thwarted. These people have been able to mobilise others to argue for the status quo. Which, of course, first benefits them.
The vote to leave can’t be wished away as if it never happened. Brexit needs to occur so that the British public experience the consequences of their decision. Otherwise, this debate will go on and on. Fear of change is inherent, especially when no one, least of all Teresa May, has a clear vision for the future.
It’s probably too late, but worth re-stating. The great error of the EU was to bypass the wishes of the population. It structured itself around politicians-cum-bureaucrats, rather than rooting itself in democratic institutions and making sure that it had consent.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.