Gongol.com Archives: June 2024

Brian Gongol

June 30, 2024

Business and Finance Living in a material world

The last two hundred years or so have seen a radical improvement in the economic conditions of most of the human race. It was only around 1830 when the first steam locomotives began to displace horses as the power hauling trains on tracks. Everything else we would consider "modern" in the world has arrived since that time, from telecommunications to electricity to potable water to penicillin. It's all been part of a two-century explosion in economic growth, attributable to technology, trade, ingenuity, and human will. ■ Two hundred years really isn't that long in the scale of human history. John Quincy Adams was elected in 1824 and lived until 1848 (when he was still in government, serving in the House of Representatives). That meant his life overlapped with that of Grover Cleveland (born in 1837), whose own life lasted until 1908 -- the same year Lyndon Johnson was born. And every President alive today possesses memories of Johnson's Presidential era. ■ Whether we measure political "generations" or simply the genealogical ones, we only need single digits to reach back to a conclusively pre-modern time. Yet the truly radical improvement in humanity's ability to satisfy material needs almost unfathomably well (compared with those pre-modern times) hasn't been matched by a concomitant improvement in our ability to satisfy other vital dimensions of human life, and that creates an unmistakable but often-overlooked tension in life experience. ■ We and our relatively recent forebears have, for instance, effectively decimated the rate of child mortality -- a spectacular human achievement by any standard. Yet while there have been considerable improvements in child-rearing since that time, it would be hard to argue that we've made comparable progress in knowing how to raise children to be well-rounded, self-confident, and prepared to live fulfilling lives. Much progress has been made, of course, but lots of parents still hit their kids, the Surgeon General has campaigned against a "loneliness epidemic", and extremely alarming indicators of fragile mental wellness among adolescents and teenagers must not be overlooked. ■ While those are only a few examples, many other such gaps can be found between the spectacular improvement in material circumstances and less-impressive improvement in sociological and psychological measures of wellness. We should acknowledge that the gaps are often disorienting. ■ Yet we also have to recognize that improvements in both material and non-material conditions are mostly iterative; they build on what came before, and have to be maintained with intentionality and discipline if they are to be passed along. We shouldn't so much despair that our progress on matters other than material conditions has lagged as we should take confidence from the astonishing economic and technological progress of the last two centuries that enormous improvements in other human affairs are possible -- and aspire to achieve them.

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