As this year's news turns darker, there is a rising sense that progress has come to a dead end – that humans, after decades of betterment, are experiencing a headlong collision with nature, and that our tools are failing us. Lives, and assumptions, are being shattered.
We thought we had found ways to control local-origin diseases, such as Ebola. Three generations of inoculation, vaccination, preventative health, improved sanitation and rising living standards had led us to believe that outbreaks of rural, non-airborne diseases could be kept within limits. Smallpox was abolished, AIDS became manageable – in both cases, as a result of huge expenditures following large-scale panics. We have vaccines, global institutions and established practices for handling outbreaks.
Despite all this, the current outbreak of Ebola will probably kill tens of thousands of people, cripple West African economies and damage the fragile political stability of that region. And it has made us aware that other outbreaks, some of them resistant to known vaccines, could overwhelm our carefully constructed systems and exact a far deeper, and wider, toll. Our brick wall suddenly feels very flimsy.
At root, this crisis in disease management exposes a deeper sense of halted progress. "Ebola is more a symptom of a weak health-care system than anything else," Rwanda-based physician and philanthropist Paul Farmer has written of his work in Liberia. The disease should be limited to very poor, very agrarian, rural places – and it has spread explosively in countries that, despite impressive improvements in per capita GDP, remain very poor, very agrarian and mainly rural. In such countries, millions of people remain in near-starvation peasantry that renders them highly vulnerable to disease. In the words of Dr. Farmer, it's not tribal practices or traditions that have rendered Ebola epidemic, but "grotesque and growing disparities in access to care."
We thought we had absolute poverty under control. The old Malthusian belief that a growing human population would outstrip its food and resources and starve itself to death was proven dramatically untrue in the years after the Second World War, when we learned to produce far more food and housing than we needed. If all the world's food were divided equally among all the world's people, each human would have received 2,200 calories a day in 1960 – barely enough to survive. Today, each of us would receive 2,700 calories – despite the fact that there are twice as many of us. And it takes half as much land, and far fewer people, to grow that much food, which therefore costs far less. As a result, absolute, starvation-level poverty dwindled from something that affected almost half the world's people to just more than one-fifth.
But there is a growing sense that we are now becalmed. That final, very big chunk of absolute poverty has proven much tougher to break; it tends to be in high-conflict, unstable, isolated countries. And too many of the hundreds of millions who have escaped the deepest poverty now find themselves caught in low-wage-treadmill "development traps."
"Now, the paradox of success is unfolding," Ruth DeFries of Columbia University's Earth Institute has written. "We live in a time when the problems created by the post-World War II solutions are unfolding." We're being bitten by climate backlashes, the sudden scarcity of once-universal resources such as petroleum, water, and phosphate fertilizers, and a surprisingly acute inequality in the distribution of those gains.
If we've hit a brick wall, can we scale it? In her book The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis, Prof. DeFries studies the history of such crises, and what it takes to overcome them. Always, it is a cycle she calls "ratchet, hatchet, pivot." First, we find technological ways to ratchet up the scale of food production, wealth, immunity or living standards. This escalation creates unintended consequences, and the hatchet drops, leading to a crisis of deadly proportions. Only after a panic do we pivot into new and revolutionary ways of doing things that lead to a new scaling-up of our well-being.
The problem, she writes, is that these innovations aren't guaranteed, and they take conscious, usually crisis-driven, effort and expenditure. Whiggish proclivities do not pre-exist in nature; we have to sacrifice and compromise to create them. And the "big ratchet" of the postwar years is dropping a bigger blade on our heads than ever before.
We do know what a pivot would look like, and there is a unique sense that the tools are already at hand. The ability to engineer more efficient crops, to produce energy without carbon through non-fossil methods, to raise levels of public health and hygiene to disease-resistant levels everywhere, to distribute food and wealth more reasonably – these innovations exist.
"The next pivot is playing out in contemporary times," she writes. But there is not any sign, yet, that we and our governments are sufficiently motivated to make it happen – to make the climate, health, wealth and equality investments that are now needed to break through that wall. We can only hope that it won't take an even deadlier crisis to motivate us.