A year ago I wrote a column based on Steven Pinker's book "Enlightenment Now: The case for reason, science, humanism, and progress." It's an eye-opening analysis of modern times. The book paints an optimistic picture of human development stemming from the 18th century Age of Enlightenment's emphasis on advancement based on evidence and reason as determined by free individuals.
Enlightenment values have led to vast improvements. Life expectancy, health, safety, democracy, civil rights, knowledge, economic equality, life quality and happiness have surged. Americans, facing a daily diet of government malfeasance and endless foreign wars, might find this good news surprising, but Pinker convincingly documents it.
Not all is well, however. Pinker notes two dark clouds: global warming and nuclear war. Although humanistic evidence-based action can resolve both, we have so far failed to act and it's getting late in the day.
We have procrastinated for decades on both fronts. The 1990 United Nations report on global warming described this threat quite accurately. People such as leading geoscientist James Hanson, author of the classic 2009 book Storms of My Grandchildren, called during the 1980s for serious action to phase out fossil fuels. The vast majority of knowledgeable scientists agreed. Enlightenment values should have dictated a rapid conversion to energy efficiency, renewables and nuclear power, but instead anti-intellectualism and profits prevailed.
The predictions about global warming are unfortunately coming true in spades. Temperatures have increased by nearly 1 degree Celsius. The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement specified a maximum of 2 degrees and hopefully only 1.5 degrees, but it's now clear that 1.5 is impossible and 2 degrees nearly so. Three degrees is still realistic, but it will require an unprecedented degree of rational action. Three degrees implies several feet of sea-level rise by 2100 due to melting polar ice caps, and considerably more if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapses or catastrophic methane releases occur in the north. In the longer term, ice will continue melting and sea levels will rise more than 100 feet unless we find a feasible way to remove carbon from the atmosphere -- a very expensive proposition.
We've been sitting on our hands. The most effective single action would be a meaningful carbon tax, preferably as a fossil fuel fee that is fully refunded to all Americans to compensate for rising energy prices.
In May 2018 our country withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal. It was the most foolhardy U.S. foreign policy move since the Iraq invasion, and considerably more dangerous than that mistake. Iran's nuclear ambitions had been curbed. Now Iran is increasing uranium enrichment and moving "ahead" in other ways to pressure the world to end the crushing sanctions, while we foolishly increase our sanctions. The dangers include military moves by Israel, USA, Iran and Saudi Arabia, possibly including an attack on Iran's heavily fortified Fordow uranium enrichment facility. Such an attack would necessarily use powerful weapons, perhaps nuclear weapons.
The world must rid itself of nuclear weapons, but instead these monsters proliferate. North Korea is the ninth nuclear power. We need to recognize this unfortunate fact rather than trying to force North Korea to disarm. North Korea fears it will suffer the "regime-change" fate suffered by Vietnam, Iraq, Libya and Syria, and wants nuclear weapons as deterrence.
The world won't be safe until these ghastly weapons have been removed entirely and ironclad safeguards put in place. The United States could lead in this effort, but instead we clamor for military power. We should instead work with the Russians to reduce the massive overkill capacity of the superpowers' nuclear arsenals.
We humans are not saints but neither are we sinners. We have come far, separating from our ape cousins 6 million years ago, walking on two legs 5 million years ago, evolving through several species leading to Homo sapiens 200,000 years ago, inventing agriculture 12,000 years ago, founding the first cities 9,000 years ago, inventing freedom and democracy 2,500 years ago, pulling out of medieval superstition and oppression 500 years ago, and acting on enlightenment values 300 years ago.
Although we now reach for the stars, our feet remain mired in war, mutual distrust, narrow commercialism and thoughtless environmental destruction. We are better than this list would suggest! Billions have lived lives filled with happiness, meaning and self-realization, and we have the brains and the heart to bring this well-being to all humans in the near future and to many more billions throughout future centuries.
Life is good. Let's not blow it now.
Commentary on 12/17/2019