It’s easy to get depressed about the world these days. Watch the news for five minutes or more and you’re bound to see signs of the apocalypse. War, poverty, climate change, a new pandemic, there always seems to be new trouble arising somewhere that threatens our health and security.
Yet as I pointed out in an article a few years ago, for the most part things are getting better. Global poverty is in decline and so is war. More kids are going to school and literacy. Energy is getting cheaper and more plentiful. Sure, we still face serious challenges, but in almost every area, we’re better off.
And the future looks even brighter. We are, despite the headlines, making considerable progress against many of our toughest challenges. Over the next 5-10 years, it is within our reach to cure cancer, solve climate change and create new levels of prosperity. So, nostalgia for bygone days notwithstanding, the truth is that we have a lot to look forward to.
Winning The War Against Cancer
Cancer has been called a modern plague. As medical care improved during the 20th century, life expectancy more than doubled. We became much less likely to die of infectious disease, but as we aged and the transcription machinery in our cells degraded, we became more likely to get cancer.
In 1975, 5-year cancer survival rates hovered around 50%, meaning that once you got it, you were just as likely to die as not. Today, however, survival rates are nearly 70% and, for the most common types, such as breast and prostate cancer, survival rates can be as high as 90% and 100%, respectively.
For the most part, those gains have been achieved through better screening and diagnosis, but lately we’ve been developing demonstrably better cures. Over the past decade, cancer genomics has created targeted therapies based on the genetic makeup of tumours. New immunotherapies, still in the trial phase, have the potential to eradicate cancer altogether.
Over the next decade, we’re likely to advance even further and faster. New efforts, such as the Moonshots program at MD Anderson and clinical trial at Duke which uses the Polio virus to cure brain cancer, promise breakthroughs that were unimaginable before. Cancer, once practically a death sentence, is on its way to becoming a highly manageable disease.
The Energy Revolution
In 1973, the Arab oil embargo nearly brought western economies to their knees and, by helping to provide the Soviet Union with sorely needed hard currency, likely prolonged the Cold War by at least a decade. Since then, oil revenues have propped up dictators, created instability and fuelled terrorism.
These days the picture is far brighter. We actually consume less oil than we did a decade ago, the shale boom has increased oil production and created a glut in natural gas. Experts predict that the US could be completely energy independent within four years. That’s an amazing amount of progress.
The future looks even better. A recent report by Deutsche Bank shows that solar energy has been decreasing in price by 15% per year and predicts solar will be at grid parity in most of the world within 18 months. McKinsey argues that we’re headed for a resource revolution. Citibank thinks that we’ve entered a new age of renewables.
So while past generations were dependent on energy that had to be dug out of the ground, we’re on the cusp of a new era for energy in which the primary energy asset will be technology, rather than geography. That will have an amazingly positive impact on not only the environment, but geopolitics as well.
The New Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution was one of the great events in the history of mankind. For the first time in human history, incomes began to rise steadily. As productivity increased by leaps and bounds, so did virtually every other facet of human life, including healthcare, education and living conditions. Life expectancy fully doubled.
Unfortunately, not all of the effects were positive. As people moved from farms to cities, they traded bucolic rural life for sooty factories, harsh working conditions and mind numbing jobs. More recently, those harsh jobs have been exported from advanced nations to developing countries, creating income inequality and a perpetual urban underclass.
Today we are undergoing a new industrial revolution, where advanced manufacturing technologies like 3D printers, CNC routers, laser cutters, 3D scanners and other gear are transforming how products are made. Boeing, for example, is using these techniques to lower, a major efficiency gain.
However, this time many of the most adverse consequences will be curtailed. A recent report shows that America is leading in this new world of manufacturing. In this new industrial boom, much of the drudgery will be outsourced to machines and the energy will be clean.
Income inequality remains a concern, but that is a far more solvable problem,
A New Era Of Open Technology
Twenty years ago, Microsoft released Windows 95 and unleashed a completely new era of productivity. At the time, just about 50% of the population owned a computer, but in the years that followed, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint decks became standard business tools.
Yet there was a price to pay. Microsoft’s was able to leverage its control over the operating system to dominate the industry. We entered an era of “walled gardens,” where concentrated interests controlled the technology we could access. Every entrepreneur with an innovative idea would first have to think about how Microsoft would react before launching a business.
Contrast that to today where our major point of access is the Internet, which is largely built on open platforms. The Web itself is governed by the W3C, a consortium of companies, academic institutions and governmental organizations. The core technologies, such as Apache, Linux and Python, are all open source.
These days, even former gatekeepers such as IBM platforms because they realize that it reduces costs and helps them innovate. Rather than wasting time with a costly war to establish a standard, they collaborate with others to create common platforms and invest their time and energy on specific solutions. That makes us all better off.
Looking Back with Rose Colored Glasses
We all like to harken back to earlier days, when things were simpler and seemed somehow wiser. However, as Matt Ridley points out in his book, The Rational Optimist, our nostalgia is often misplaced. He describes a sweet bucolic scene of centuries past in which a family sat together, read the bible, ate basic food and enjoyed chaste, natural pleasures.
He then retorts:
Oh please! … Father’s scripture reading is interrupted by a bronchitic cough that presages the pneumonia that will kill him at – not helped by the wood smoke of the fire – 53 (He is lucky: life expectancy even in England was less than 40 in 1800.) The baby will die of smallpox that is now causing him to cry; his sister will soon be the chattel of a drunken husband. The water the son is pouring tastes of the cows that drink from the brook. Toothache tortures the mother. The neighbours’ lodger is getting the other girl pregnant in the hayshed even now and her child will be sent to the orphanage. The stew is grey and grisly, yet meat is a rare change from the gruel; there is no fruit or salad this season…
While it’s understandable that many are sentimental about an idealized past, it becomes pernicious when those romantic notions become a basis for discounting the present and the future. Would anyone really like to go back to the seventies, when cancer was a scourge, virtually no one had access to a computer—much less the internet—our air and water were polluted and our industrial base was in decline?
The mark of an age is not the problems it faces, but the solutions it creates. Just as we no longer fear Polio, but revere Jonas Salk, in the future we are unlikely to remember the daily headlines, but will look back on our current age as a time when we cured cancer, harnessed the power of the sun and created a new generation of intelligent machines.
Image via flickr