Maybe not. Ingenuity in the face of disaster is sort of humanity’s thing.
Under intense environmental and social pressures, constantly in danger of extinction, in the face of enormously powerful natural forces hostile to human survival, in spite of incredible odds stacked against us- including our own unfortunate tendencies towards violent conflict and exploitation- Home Sapiens are somehow still here.
Our incredible brain power, ingenuity, curiosity, and creativity has been our saving grace, that which has allowed our species to flourish so rapidly and so well. We, unlike the other denizens of the animal kingdom, can imagine a solution to a problem, then create that solution, even if it takes a million tries, or a hundred people, or a thousand.
Or a million.
Eventually, we’re getting that raw ore out of the ground and refining it, or inventing the lightbulb, beer, and the pentium processor. Our dogged determination and penchant for problem solving have taken humanity far.
Human beings have been producing something from nothing since about the time we invented the hand-ax.
The hand-ax was a very useful tool first invented by our ancient hominid ancestors about 1.5 million years ago. It was, as the name implies, a stone, sharpened on one side and held in the hand. For hundreds of thousands of years, it was state-of-the-art technology.
Where there was no hand-ax, human beings first imagined then created one. A great deal of energy, which Newtonian physics tells us can be neither created nor destroyed, was unleashed anyway with what was undoubtably one of our very first world-changing inventions.
There have since been others.
From the hand-ax, to the Agricultural Revolution, to the printing press, to electricity, to the internal combustion engine, to the pentium processor, to the Information Age and here we all are.
Where there was nothing, something: Lightning in a bottle. Not just human civilization either, but Rembrandt, John Coltrane, Albert Einstein, Madame Curie, Bach, Steve Jobs.
Want to see a miracle? Go to your faucet, turn on the tap, fill a glass and take a reverential sip. Indoor plumbing is a masterpiece of human ingenuity for which all who avail it should be intensely grateful.
Finding drinkable water used to be our Netflix and our internet, our video games and television shows, our concerts and sporting events, our socializing and leisure time pursuits in addition to one of our two full-time jobs.
Our other full-time job was looking for food.
But, in between constantly looking for water and food, humanity’s ancestors, somehow, invented the hand-ax.
Throughout all the many long eons of the hand-ax, humans were spread far and wide. Freely exchanging ideas with lots of people was impossible. As soon as we started farming, that began to change.
Farming produced a dependable surplus of food, which allowed some members of a human community, for the first time in history, to devote themselves to pursuits not directly related to the immediate survival of the social group. Science, medicine, engineering, and inventions exploded from this change. Art and music obviously flourished.
A surfeit of crops allowed humans to congregate in larger and larger communities together for the first time in history. Exchanging ideas became far easier, collaboration flourished and technological advancements began happening more rapidly as a result.
Today, we are all unquestionably seeing the exponential explosion of that process, began so long ago in the first expanding human communities. The advancements humanity has made over the past 100 years in the fields of science and medicine alone; the technological marvels we’ve created; the masterpieces of art, music and engineering we’ve produced are staggering.
“For all its problems, the long 20th century granted enormous prosperity to billions of people: cellphones, white-collar jobs, the birth-control pill, penicillin, space exploration, home appliances, electric grids, the internet,” wrote Annie Lowrey for the Atlantic on September 3, 2022.
In The Economist Who Knows the Miracle Is Over, Lowrey and the Atlantic explored a new book by polymath wonder-economist Brad DeLong in an interview with the author himself.
Slouching Towards Utopia, DeLong’s sweeping thesis about the human economic condition from 1870 to 2010 is set to be released next week. In it, the author contends that the period of rapid advancements and unprecedented, if imperfect, prosperity world societies enjoyed in the 20th is in decline and ending.
Whether or not it is bitterly or blessedly over, the author doesn’t always seem sure. He, like the rest of us, can’t help but notice any serious study of human history nets a terrifying number of examples, ever expanding, of man’s inhumanity to man, among other failings.
“The tragic part is tragic,” summarized Annie Lowrey for the Atlantic. “This modern era also brought with it machine guns and atom bombs and the atrocities of the Holocaust, among other genocides.”
“And even as so many economies succeeded, so many governments failed — to end racial injustice, to protect the most vulnerable, to ensure that everybody shared in the world’s prosperity, to conserve our common environment,” lamented Lowrey.
“We may have solved the problem of production,” DeLong says, in reference to the millions of people worldwide lifted out of extreme poverty over the past 100 years. “We certainly have not solved the problem of distribution, or of utilizing our extraordinary, immense wealth to make us better people.”
“There’s someone in Bangladesh who would almost surely be a better economics professor than I am and is now behind a water buffalo,” DeLong told the Atlantic. “The market economy gives me and my preferences 200 times the voice and weight of his. If that isn’t the biggest market failure of all, I don’t know what your definition of market failure could possibly be.”
DeLong makes an interesting point. In our recent past, occasions would often arise where scientists, doctors or engineers found themselves working, unknowingly and in parallel, on the exact same problem. Ancient inventions, like colored dye, sprang up independently in civilizations with no contact with each other.
Scientists, inventors, engineers, and astronomers existed long before the first universities were founded to formally educate them. The more contact these groups can achieve, the more often they collaborate, the faster humanity can potentially solve some of our most dangerous and intractable problems, not least of which is persistent global poverty and the arms race, both of which are escalating even now.
Harnessing the power of technology, leveraging the power of the world’s vast wealth and natural resources to grow the middle class worldwide, could widen the pool of accessible human talent until it eventually includes the mind which will cure cancer, invent cold-fusion, solve the world’s coming energy crisis, find something to do with all the single-use plastics polluting the world’s waterways.
Otherwise, as DeLong fears, humanity’s next chapter might be marked by decline, de-civilization and the descent of millions back into a vicious cycle of subsistence poverty, exploitation, government corruption, and bloody power struggles. From well-armed militias vying for control of crumbling systems to global war between world powers, humanity’s conflicts continue to threaten everything human ingenuity has built over the past centuries.
“His decision to end the story in 2010, and thus to finish his book, holds a message for all of us: Despite its problems and iniquities, the economic era Americans just lived through was miraculous,” distills Lowrey succinctly.
“And now it is over.”
If we’ve not careful, DeLong may be right.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)