I often hear, “These are the worst times we’ve ever had!” along with, “Our future is doomed.” No, they’re not, and no, it isn’t.
Our worst times came when the fight over what to do about slavery erupted into Civil War. It killed more Americans than all of the other wars we have fought put together. In Europe, the worst times came when the “guns of August” started firing a century ago. World War I and its aftermaths and World War II and the Cold War made that century the bloodiest in recorded history. The final death toll was between 150 and 200 million. Compared to that, we live in relative peace.
We should also recognize that horrible tragedies that dominate the stage aren’t the entire play. Other things, good things, go on behind the scenes. While World War II was killing millions, agricultural experts were working to save millions by increasing the world’s food supply. India is an example of how well they succeeded.
India’s annual rice yield from a hectare of ground in 1960 was around 2 tons, not enough to feed her starving population. She was on the verge of massive famine. Then Norman Berlaug, “the father of the Green Revolution,” showed up. He taught Indian farmers how to expand irrigation, modernize their management techniques and utilize hybrid seed, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Not only was the famine averted, but by 1990 the annual rice yield per hectare in India had risen to 6 tons and the price of rice was more than cut in half. India is now a significant producer of rice, for export as well as home consumption.
Other countries benefited as well. Wikipedia reports “The average person in the developing world consumes roughly 25 percent more calories per day now than before the Green Revolution. Between 1950 and 1984, as the Green Revolution transformed agriculture around the globe, world grain production increased by over 250 percent.”
That explains why the last century experienced a population increase of more than 5 billion people. More food means longer life. The population increase has not come from rising birth rates (they peaked in 1962), but falling death rates. The researchers and scientists of the last century that caused those rates to fall had a greater impact on the world than all the generals and politicians combined. If you want to quantify the difference, take the highest estimated total of the number of lives lost in the wars — 200 million — and compare it to the number of lives saved by the Green Revolution and advances in medicine during the same time period — over 5 billion. In terms of human survival, the “good things” that happened in the last century outweighed the “bad things” that dominated its headlines by 25 to 1.
Can this still happen in the future? I think so. I was in Mozambique, one of the world’s poorest countries, with Shot-for-Life, a program that inoculates children against measles in an effort to lower the death rate even further. In five days' time, millions of mothers showed up with their babies at the inoculation centers, some of which were nothing more than a tree in a clearing. I asked the organizers how the mothers knew where to go. They said, “We used cell phones and bull horns.”
Consider the metaphor. Modern technology — represented by cell phones — can be combined with the innate human determination to use whatever works — represented by bull horns — to make the next century as productive of good revolutions as the last one was. It can be the best of times.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.