In my last post, I talked about my optimistic view of humanity's future. I also mentioned that we will survive and prosper despite the many obstacles in our way. Since I didn't go into much detail about those obstacles or their seriousness, some felt I was not aware of just how prevalent those problems are. However, I'm very aware of them, as well as what we can do to overcome them, sidestep them, or adapt. In this post, I'll go more in-depth for each problem, and in the next one create solutions.
By far the biggest problem in the world is poverty (or income inequality, if you prefer). Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I am a communist-capitalist. I believe in the merits of a competitive business system, but I also believe in making sure all people have enough money to survive and have a great quality of life. There is simply no excuse for CEOs of companies to be able to go out to the Bahamas for the weekend while that same weekend their lowest workers are working a second job just to afford their bills. There should definitely be some stratifying of pay to motivate people to advance their skills and move up within a company, but the sheer cliff that exists is all but insurmountable to many. According to the World Bank, the number of people in the world living in extreme poverty is around 1.29 billion. Now, that's a drop from nearly two billion in 1981, so there is some clear improvement going on, though slow and very uneven. And those who have moved out of extreme poverty are still very much under the poverty line, so there is a long road ahead yet.
It needs to be said that poverty in the United States has actually increased. In a Reuters article, it's mentioned that poverty rose from 13.2 percent to 14.3 percent between 2008 and 2009. This article from CBS mentions that poverty in the United States rose even further since, to more than 16 percent last year. The article adds that 20 percent of children live in poverty. A fifth of our children are living below the poverty line. This is inexcusable.
What's causing world poverty? Two large contributors are the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. They have imposed Structural Adjustment Policies on poor nations in debt to richer ones to ensue the repayment of the debts. The IMF and World Bank have demanded the nations make debt payment their priority, even requiring the nations to cut spending on healthcare, education, and development. I believe this is a huge reason why nations such as the United States give out so much money in foreign aid. It is a dual-goal strategy: the nations receiving the aid give back more money than they received, through interest and other penalties; and countries that could rise to challenge the United States and other wealthy nations remain poor and underdeveloped because they have to put so much capital into their repayments. It also allows the rich nations to dictate relations with the countries indebted to them, allowing the wealthy to create industrial and military inroads in those nations. Sometimes the poor nations can pay off these debts, as Nigeria did in 2006. But others, such as Senegal, are still deeply tied to predatory debtor countries. The above hyperlink goes into this in much greater detail.
And the United States? According to this New York Times article, there are four major reasons for the prevalence of poverty here: low wages, single-parent homes, the reduction of assistance for single parents and children, and race/gender inequality. I personally can vouch for the low wages claim.
I've been working since I was seventeen years old. I've worked for Wal-Mart, Target, Barnes & Noble, Borders, grocery stores, Sears, and Radio Shack. The worst thing about working for these companies is their extremely low pay combined with low hours. This is a brutal combination. And because they expect their workers to be unofficially "on-call", getting a second job and the subsequent time requirements can lead to being penalized by both companies through the even greater reduction of work hours. At one grocery store, I was getting four hours a week. Four. If it hadn't been for my ex-wife's three nannying jobs and my unemployment supplementing my income, my family and I would have been out on the street. I constantly hounded the managers of the stores to give me more hours. I wanted to work more, but wasn't allowed to! This is how it is all over the country. It's not that people don't work because they are lazy, it's because often they are not allowed to. I now have a job at a natural foods company; I work 65 hours a week to make enough money to cover rent and all my bills. I'm happy to do it, even though it's exhausting, because I know that I am working hard and actually getting paid a decent amount for it. And while I will be finishing my PhD soon and moving on to my wormhole project, I will never forget the years I spent in poverty, nor all those who are still there. And I will do everything in my power to help them.
This is a gigantic problem facing our world. The sexism and racism pervading our societies is so vast and ingrained that it will take nothing less than a complete restructuring of our society to rid ourselves of them. The problem of racism, according to Howard Zinn (and a view that makes complete sense to me) in A People's History of the United States, is a product of the social elite seeing the danger that poor whites and poor African-Americans banding together would pose to their rule. In his chapter "Drawing the Color Line," Zinn contends that the first black people to arrive in the Americas back in the 1600s were more like indentured servants than slaves, but the situation quickly deteriorated into the institutional slavery we have all learned of. This happened because the Native Americans were deemed unsuitable for labor because of their greater numbers and understandable hostility. White servants were not in the colonies in sufficient numbers yet, and the free white men were too lazy to work the land themselves. Zinn believes that because the white men were frustrated by their laziness and resentful towards the Native Americans, they were in the mindset to own slaves. So apparently the entire slave trade escalated because of a mass inferiority complex. Ripping the Africans from their homeland and plunking them down in a strange New World made the Africans ripe for slavery; torn from their land and culture, they were forced to rely on the whites to survive. This isn't to say Africans were in any way "inferior" to whites; in fact, Europeans found it impossible to make any inroads past the African coast due to African resistance and the hostile environment. Indeed, without some unscrupulous African clans assisting the slavers, I doubt the Europeans would have been able to get any slaves at all. I highly recommend visiting the above hyperlink; Zinn allows the people of the day to tell you what happened, rather than relying on him or myself to tell you. I also highly recommend Voices of a People's History of the United States, in which Zinn steps back even further and allows people throughout history to tell you their story.
In any event, slavery was solidified in the colonies. However, in the same chapter, Zinn shows evidence that African slaves and white servants got along very well, and even hung out together. In fact, laws had to be passed banning them from doing so. Black slaves also rose up against their white tormentors many times, often assisted by white servants. They would "run away together, steal hogs together, get drunk together."
To combat this, the white ruling class gave special privileges to white servants, and brainwashed them into believing they actually were superior to black people. This brainwashing was passed down from generation to generation, until it became so ingrained that many racists today have no idea that they are only racist because a bunch of rich assholes want them to be. In fact, this is the reason pay disparity still exists; it is a remnant of those earlier days, and an attempt by the current ruling class to keep whites feeling superior to minorities. Only now, this racism has spread to Latinos, Asians, and other minorities. To combat this problem, we have to rid ourselves of the ruling classes and remind those who have been brainwashed that we are all equal, all brothers. And sisters.
Gender inequality began millennia ago, soon after agriculture came to the world. In his book A People's History of the World, (you can download the entire book for free here, I'm pretty sure legally) Chris Harman contends that before agriculture, men and women were considered equals. Men would hunt, as would women who did not have children. However, even women who had children would gather fruits and other plants, contributing greatly to the hunter-gatherer societies. Women had equal say in tribal matters, and discrimination was unheard of. Even with the advent of agriculture, men and women were equal. Consider the plethora of ancient goddess figurines that have been found in Europe. Women were respected and even revered (as they should be).
But as cities developed, and the population increased along with the risks of keeping it fed, the societies found they needed to create granaries to store surplus food in case of drought or other disaster. They also knew they needed people to guard the granaries from thieves, so guards were appointed. At first, this was just another job, and the guards had no special status. However, the long periods of downtime allowed the guards to make observations about the world. They eventually passed what knowledge they had to their children, who added to the knowledge. Eventually, the guards could predict solar eclipses as well as seasonal changes, which made them appear magical. The guards slowly transformed into priests, and religions were formed around their "teachings." The priests began to like their newfound respect and power, and wanted to keep it. They became the first pharoahs and kings, and began to desire more power. Slavery was introduced, and spread throughout the world. Women lost their equal status, because the rulers desired them even though the priest-kings had nothing to offer in return. They were not hunters, not gatherers. They were nothing but fat lumps whose laziness just happened to give them the chance to rule. But the priest-kings wanted the women, and took them. And to keep the men from overthrowing them, the kings made the men believe they were superior to women as well.
Not all societies were like this. Minoan society seemed to take a more egalitarian route. Women could walk around half-clothed; there were no ridiculous notions of "modesty." They could fight, love, rule. But the Minoan civilization collapsed, and its inheritors — Mycenae, Greece, and Rome — were not so enlightened.
We live in an era deeply under the shadow of the Roman era. Many people look back fondly at the Roman Empire and Ancient Greece. They've romanticized them, when in reality they were little more than states of oppression ruled by the worst wastes of life. And women are still paying the price for this darkness. They are still oppressed by men, forced to endure lesser pay, uneven responsibility for children, and a brutal marketing regime designed to make them constantly feel like they aren't good enough physically, mentally, emotionally, or sexually. It has to stop.
And one day, sooner or later, it will.
Our problems with education are mainly a result of poverty. According to the Washington Post, federal policy does not see poverty as a major impediment to getting an education. This is baffling to me. How is someone supposed to get a great education if they can't afford the books needed to do so? How is someone supposed to graduate high school when they can't afford the bus fare to get to the library? An article from Alternet backs up the Washington Post's claim, while conservative-funded news sources blame teachers unions for the education crisis. But Bill Moyers agrees that poverty is the greatest hindrance to getting a great education. It's definitely not the only issue, though. An article from the Huffington Post argues that parents need to be involved more with the education of their kids. But even this article hints that the poverty problem needs to be addressed, and services for poor families improved. After all, it's hard to be there for your kids when you have to work eighty hours a week just to keep a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs, and food in their bellies.
The other gigantic problem with education is college cost. It's quickly becoming so expensive that over half of all college students have to take out student loans. Other problems include funding colleges that don't look out for their students' best interests, for-profit college scams, and general lack of accountability. These problems have also trickled down to high schools and even grade schools. It will take a massive and comprehensive overhaul of the education system to solve these issues.
Religion is doing its fair share in contributing to the world's woes as well. Many of the conflicts going on now, including the Syrian Civil War, the current Afghan War, half the wars in Africa, and others have their origins in religion. I don't want to demonize religion, though I am very much an agnostic. I think in principle and even in practice most of the time, it does a lot of good. It creates communities, promotes charity, gives many people hope. However, it definitely has a dark side, and that dark side unfortunately overshadows all the good that is done. Without religion, the Native American civilizations would not have been annihilated. Without religion, the Holocaust never would have occurred, nor the Inquisition. Without religion, there would have been no September 11 attacks, no War on Terror, no Tibet crisis. Of course, I could be wrong, and all these things still would have happened; they just would not have happened under religious banners.
Atheism is becoming almost as big a problem as theism. In fact, I contend that atheism is practically a religion unto itself. It has a faction of fanatical devotees that aggressively attack anyone who does not agree with their ideology. It has followers who attack scientific concepts because they seemingly run counter to their worldview. However, most atheists are decent folks who just want to exist in peace, without conflict. Unfortunately, as with theism, the "bad apples" often overshadow the good ones.
The one good sign is that while religion is fading away kicking and screaming, it is fading away. Religious numbers are dropping every day in many parts of the world, and as education and the mixing of populations increases, this will only continue until religion ceases to exist as an institution, instead existing merely as a personal preference. We still have a good century or two before this happens, though.
Things are going to get bad here. There's nothing we can do about that, even if we do stop using fossil fuels. And we won't. I have no doubt that we will use every last drop of oil this planet has, every last pebble of coal, every last plume of natural gas. But the good thing is that eventually we will run out of all three. Using the most optimistic estimate, we have maybe 140 years left until oil and natural gas runs out. We have only a century of coal left, and this is according to the World Coal Association. After that, they're gone; we will exist in a world of solar energy, wind power, and nuclear power (and possibly fusion power, but I'm going to be a pessimist and say that's a good couple of centuries away yet).
But we will survive the creeping sea levels, the rising temperatures, the increasingly toxic air. If we have to wear gas masks and hazmat suits outside, we will. If we have to refit cities with enclosed, air-conditioned skywalks and parking lots, we will. But we will absolutely survive this. It'll be unpleasant for a long time, but time combined with technology will see us through. Scientists are already working on anti-sunburn pills. I'm sure clothes embedded with cooling properties will become prevalent. And people will slowly but surely move inland as sea levels rise.
People in poverty will be most at risk in this scenario, but they will get through it as well. Either they will scream at those in power until the elite help them, or they will rise up in violent revolution. It's either that, or die. I know from experience that death is no option when you are poor, so be prepared for protests and revolutions that will make the Arab Spring look like a Phish concert if the wealthy do not start listening and helping.
This is the one place I'm actually not worried about. The rich want their toys. So corporations and wealthy individuals will continue funding technological advances. We will get our holodecks, our Matrixish virtual worlds, our enhanced bodies. Because the rich want it. And they will give it to us as well. Because if they don't, the "lower classes" will kill them and take it anyway. The British learned this in 1775-1781, the French royalty in 1789-1801, the Russian czars in 1917, the Soviets in 1989-1991. So cheer up! Our toys are coming!
Deforestation is a huge problem throughout the world. Since 2000, we've lost an area of forest equal to the size of Mongolia. Brazil, after four years of stock growth, suddenly had a deforestation increase of 28 percent last year. The largest reason for deforestation isn't even logging. It's cattle ranching. In the Amazon, ranching makes up 60 percent of the deforestation rate. Small-scale agriculture takes up 33 percent, while logging, commercial agriculture, and industry put together only make up 7 percent. So clearly, cows are a big problem for the forest. Now, I'm not saying we give up our hamburgers and steak. In fact, I have a solution that is a bit...unorthodox. But I'll get into that in the next post. We definitely have to do something about this, though. The world's forests give us much of our oxygen. While over half comes from oceanic phytoplankton, losing forests would make breathing much more difficult, especially with the global CO2 increase.
Pollution, terrorism, corruption, and other woes are also plagues upon the planet. We have the Great Pacific Garbage Patches and coral bleaching threatening our oceans. We have rivers and lakes drying up from drought and overuse. We have rising food prices, rising rents, rising costs in general. And this ties into a problem that I'm hesitant to tackle, because I'm torn on whether it actually is a problem or not: population growth. Part of me believes many of our problems would be solved if we just didn't have so many people on the planet. I believe it so strongly that I have only one child, and she is all I will ever have. In my mind, having only one child in my lifetime is the best thing I can do for my planet while still contributing a bright, wonderful addition to its future. At the same time, the more people on the planet, the more intelligent people we will have, and thus the more people working on the world's woes. Don't get me wrong; most of the additions will be undereducated and ignorant, because they are being born in the poorest regions under regimes that care little for their intellectual development. However, that doesn't mean that none of them will escape their fate, and rise to become the greatest thinkers of our age. So again, I'm hesitant to make conclusions on population growth one way or another. Is population growth a problem?
In my next post, I will offer potential solutions to the problems, and go into more detail as to why I believe they will sort themselves out no matter what.