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Greg Bell: Is our civilization still improving, or are we declining?

In this Oct. 29, 2018, file photo, young plaintiffs stand on the steps of the United States District Courthouse during a rally in Eugene, Ore., to support a high-profile climate change lawsuit against the federal government.
In this Oct. 29, 2018, file photo, young plaintiffs stand on the steps of the United States District Courthouse during a rally in Eugene, Ore., to support a high-profile climate change lawsuit against the federal government.
Andy Nelson, The Register-Guard

In the summer of 1924, President Calvin Coolidge’s 16-year old son, Calvin Jr., wore a blister on his toe during a tennis game on the White House courts. Infection set in, and he died of blood poisoning two weeks later. Just 20 years later, penicillin could have saved him.

The development of antibiotics illustrates the world-changing miracles science has blessed us with in the modern era. The invention of the car, the airplane, the telephone, television, computers, cellphones, modern manufacturing and hundreds of other wonders wrought greater changes in human lifestyle than anything since the discovery of fire and the wheel.

Today, Western democracies enjoy an unparalleled standard of living: Access to healthy and an affordable array of food never matched in any palace, outstanding health care, endless information sources, easy credit, free public education, opportunity to get higher education and job training, ever more convenient transportation, comfortable working conditions and an overwhelming number of entertainment and recreational choices.

In his book "Homo Deus," bestselling author Yuval Noah Harari claims that human progress has gone so far as to banish its three historic enemies: famine, plague and war. While acknowledging the possible limits to such a broad thesis, he argues humanity in general has not suffered from these three age-old enemies since World War II.

Consider these numbers: India lifted 270 million people out of poverty in the last decade, and China’s turn to capitalism brought 600 million out of poverty between 1981 and 2008. Ponder those numbers for a moment. They are staggering … and staggeringly encouraging.

There are highly positive trends in the world, and I don't want to underscore them.

But modern progress has a darker side to it as well. Antibiotic overuse has spurred the mutation of ever more resistant bugs, which renders them less effective or even useless in some cases. In our “post-modern” age we are losing, as with antibiotics, or eschewing, as with vaccinations, some of the benefits of the marvels of modern progress. Anti-science thinking has led many to opt out of getting vaccinations. Consequently, once-conquered polio, measles, pertussis and meningitis have sadly made comebacks, bringing unnecessary suffering, illness and death.

In a similar vein, according to the World Health Organization, modern diseases, “such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, are collectively responsible for over 70% of all deaths worldwide, or 41 million people, driven by five major risk factors: tobacco use, physical inactivity, the harmful use of alcohol, unhealthy diets and air pollution.” Ironically, the very plenty which has banished hunger for billions of people is leading us to eat ourselves to death. Labor-saving devices have relegated us to sedentary lives which can leave us weak, unhealthy and unhappy. Opioids like oxycodone and fentanyl are another example of a phenomenal human advance being overused or misused as recreational drugs, which often brings the nightmare of addiction.

As demonstrated, the benefits of progress come with costs, and unfortunately, we humans rarely anticipate them adequately, nor do we build them into the price of the things we enjoy. For instance, while plastics have brought convenient, inexpensive consumer goods to billions of people, plastic bags, straws, six-pack holders and other non-degrading detritus choke our rivers and oceans and maim and kill birds and fish. The producers, sellers and consumers of these products should be taxed with the costs of disposal and remediation of their effects through their entire life cycle, not just until they leave the grocery store.

Emissions from our cars and from the trucks and trains which bring us our wealth of products are impairing our lungs and brains. Who can tell man’s contribution to climate change, which seems to be upsetting the very rhythm of nature from seasons to temperatures?

Late we may be to admit and deal with the noxious side effects of our progress and our consumption. But we do ultimately address them. Even netting out the costs of our innovation, production and consumption, human progress continues to incline upward. If we project into the future the impressive trajectory of past progress, there is much to look forward to.