We have never been at a moment with such unprecedented human prosperity, human longevity, and human dignity in our human history. People are wealthier, on aggregate and on average. People live longer, absolutely and on average. People have rights today that would have been unimaginable yesterday. These are undeniable features of our current age. Yet, it feels like we are always on the brink. That we are one step away from unmitigated collapse. That there are barely glimmers of light in a world of shadows. Is it our perception being out of sync with reality?
Thinkers like Stephen Pinker, departed academics like Hans Rosling, and leading philanthropists like Bill Gates would tell you with unquestionable statistical precision that we are living indeed in the best of times. When you see the facts the ‘right’ perspective should become clear. But do you truly feel that? Why is it our hope is so often outweighed then by our despair? Why is it that the downtrodden seem so numerous and the separation between seas of misery and pedestals of privilege seem so stark?
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Paradoxes of history are bound to repeat and the famous words from Charles Dickens will likely always ring true. Today our population nears 8 billion human souls. Just 100 years ago our count was only 2 billion. When we see poverty today - Injustice, Deprivation, Indignity — it is vast, beyond conception and imagination until very recently. At the advent of Christianity and Islam there were just 200–250 million of us, less than the contemporary United States. Half of the world’s morality is guided by a time on this planet where we were just 3% of what we are today. Do the rules still apply in the same way? Do they make sense? Today half the world lives on less than $5 per day — which would be double the total number of people on Earth just a century before us.
If you step back, you begin to realize that never before have we had so much death, so much destruction, and so much destitution as we do today. The number of human souls in abject hardship has in fact never been greater. While charts and statistics can mask this they do not negate it. If you walk the streets you will encounter homelessness on scales we have never seen. But if you average it out, “it’s not that bad”. The great mastery of population growth in modern society has been to create more souls at the bottom of the pyramid to toil for the gains for the very top. If 1 billion people live in sheer poverty in a world of 2 billion, are those 1 billion any less, in a world of 8 billion?
The contrast of the palatial elite with the spatial masses is undeniable. Somehow society has evolved today to match the past promise of eternal salvation with new modalities of momentary satiation. The middle of the pyramid is hypnotized amidst all this interplay of haves and have-nots, distracted by ever-evolving media and political entertainment. This is where the vast majority of humanity lives — in the in-between. There’s a certain hopelessness that ultimately you will always be beneath the top. And there’s a particular sadness when you see what lies beneath holding up the pyramid. For sure, many of us are living as well as anyone who has come before us. But it all seems wrong. And fragile. And the distractions do not fill the void even if they distract. It feels like at some point it all has to come crumbling down.
A world that is built to sustain the tip of a pyramid scheme is not sustainable from a human or earthly sense. But the beneficiaries of this massive project are incredibly invested in its continuation in its current form. The base of the pyramid must be kept resilient enough from falling down: vaccinate, feed, and house — where possible of course. And keep it from cracking, always allowing a few to trickle upwards. Don’t worry because they will always be replaced. And while the base broadens and more gains trickle up, meanwhile the sea of the majority between the haves and have-nots need to be kept believing in or obedient to the system. It’s one of the reasons why capitalism in the West repeats the mantra of the “Middle Class” peppered with a morsel of ‘social welfare’.
Strange things though have been happening; like a body on steroids, the collective experiment appears to be failing amidst hyper-growth and hyper-gains (mostly for a few). Simultaneously the Earth is convulsing with the overload, while the human population in fact starts to stagnate amidst aging and lower fertility. While many nations are graduating — and many with large populations are on the verge — the writing is on the wall, prescribed by the nature of advanced economies. More of the middle is being pushed to the bottom. The pyramid is heavily unstable.
As competition for scarce Earthly and human resources intensifies, and systems of gains for the elite become more fragile, answers become less obvious. Conflict (in all forms) grows. Despair deepens. And the distractions — the dances of social media and the theater of politics — become more methodically extreme and like any drug, less effective in the same doses. To re-imagine the world and humanity, the natural place to turn — whether right or wrong but it is human nature - would be faith, religion and the promises of eternal salvation. Yet those systems of morality and orthodoxy were built in a time as aforementioned that has long since passed - for a world, a society, and a pyramid in size and scope that has long ceased to exist.
And so as we look onto the world and our sea of humanity, it is apparent we are on a precipice. We are at the edge of a cliff. And once you realize that, you see the insanity of it all. Of course everything and everybody will convince you that the insanity lies within you, rather than all around you. But you know the truth and that can lead to hollowness, perhaps loneliness and certainly some degree of emptiness, even if punctured by vicissitudes of titillation. There is of course a way in which family meaningfully fills this void but that in it of itself — if on its own - is just a perpetuation for perpetuating into perpetuity. It cannot replace the why and what for — and if one seeks to do that, it puts an unfair burden on family. Religion and other spiritual systems do put family in the center but at the same time, also put family firmly centered in the world around us and in the context of a greater universe of consciousness.
The answers are not yet known and it seems we are just starting to stream the right questions. One can only hope that as we engage in our new enduring reality, we do so with a conscience that can authentically underpin a future of promise for all of us.