Risk and fear are hot topics among sociologists, who have come to a broad consensus that those of us living in modern countries worry more than previous generations. Some say we live in a culture of fear. Terrorists, Internet stalkers, crystal meth, avian flu, genetically modified organisms, contaminated food: New threats seem to sprout like poisonous mushrooms. Climate change, carcinogens, leaky breast implants, the “obesity epidemic,” pesticides, West Nile virus, SARS, avian flu, and flesh-eating disease. The list goes on and on. Open the newspaper, watch the evening news. On any given day, there’s a good chance that someone—a journalist, activist, consultant, corporate executive, or politician—is warning about an “epidemic” of something or other that threatens you and those you hold dear.
Occasionally, these fears burst into full-bore panics. The pedophile lurking in parks and Internet chat rooms is the latest. In the early 1990s, it was road rage. A decade earlier, it was herpes. Satanic cults, mad cow disease,school shootings, crack cocaine—all these have raced to the top of the public’s list of concerns, only to drop as rapidly as they went up. Some surge back to prominence now and then. Others slip into the category of minor nuisances and are never heard from again. Farewell, herpes.
This is just the stuff of daily news. Authors, activists, consultants, and futurologists are constantly warning us about threats so spectacular and exotic they make scenarios of nuclear Armageddon look quaint. Genetically enhanced bioweapons; self-replicating nanotechnology turning everything into “gray goo”; weird experiments in physics that create a black hole, sucking in the planet and everyone on it. The millennium bug was a bust, but that hasn’t stopped theories of annihilation from piling up so quickly it’s become almost commonplace to hear claims that humanity will be lucky to survive the next century.
Ulrich Beck isn’t quite that pessimistic. As the German sociologist and professor at the London School of Economics told The Guardian newspaper, he merely thinks it “improbable” that humanity will survive “beyond the 21st century without a lapse back into barbarism.” Beck’s opinion counts more than most because he was among the first to realize that modern countries were becoming nations of worriers. Back in 1986, he coined the term “risk society” to describe countries in which there is heightened concern about risk—particularly risks caused by modern technology—and where people are frightened like never before.
But why are we so afraid? That’s the really tough question. Of course terrorism is a real risk. So are climate change, avian flu, breast cancer, child snatchers, and all the other things that have us wringing our collective hands. But humanity has always faced one risk or another. Why should we worry more than previous generations?
Ulrich Beck thinks the answer is clear: We are more afraid than ever because we are more at risk than ever. Technology is outstripping our ability to control it. The environment is collapsing. Social pressures are growing. The threat of cataclysm looms and people—like deer catching the scent of approaching wolves—sense the danger.
Many others agree with Beck. Peering into the future and imagining all the ways things could go horribly wrong has become something of a parlor game for intellectuals. The more ambitious of them turn their dark imaginings into best-selling books. But if these gloomy fantasists thought less about the future and more about the past, they would realize that it is always possible for things to go wrong, and that to think the potential disasters facing us today are somehow more awful than those of the past is both ignorant and arrogant. A little more attention to history would also reveal that there have always been people crying “Doom!”—almost none of whom turned out to have any more ability to see into the future than the three blind mice of nursery-rhyme fame.
And then there’s the matter of basic facts. Here are a few to consider the next time someone claims with great certainty that the sky is crashing.
In England, a baby born in 1900 had a life expectancy of forty-six years. Her great-grandchild, born in 1980, could look forward to seventy-four years of life. And the great-great-grandchild, born in 2003, can count on almost eight decades on the planet.
The story is the same in every other Western country. In the United States, life expectancy was fifty-nine years in 1930. Seven decades later, it was almost seventy-eight years. In Canada, life expectancy recently inched above eighty years.
For most of the history of our species, giving birth was one of the most dangerous things a woman could do. It is still a risky venture in much of the developing world, where 440 women die giving birth for every 100,000 children delivered. But in the developed world, that rate has plummeted to 20—and we no longer think of birth and death as constant companions.
As for mothers, so for children. The experience of lowering a toddler-size coffin into the earth was painfully common not so long ago, but the odds that a baby born today will live to blow out five candles on a birthday cake have improved spectacularly. In the United Kingdom in 1900, 14 percent of all babies and young children died; by 1997, that number had fallen to 0.58 percent. Since 1970 alone, the death rate among American children under five fell by more than two-thirds. In Germany, it dropped by three-quarters.
And we’re not just living longer. We’re living better. In studies across Europe and the United States, researchers have determined that fewer people develop chronic illnesses like heart disease, lung disease, and arthritis; that those who do develop them ten to twenty-five years later in life than they used to; and that these illnesses are less severe when they strike. People are less physically disabled than ever. And they’re bigger. The average Americanman is three inches taller and fifty pounds heavier than his ancestor of a century ago, which makes it difficult for Civil War re-enactors, who use only authentic kit, to fit in army tents. We’re even getting smarter: IQs have been improving steadily for decades.
Humans in the developed world have undergone “a form of evolution that is unique not only to humankind, but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of humans who ever inhabited the earth,” Robert Fogel, a Nobel laureate at the University of Chicago, told The New York Times. The good fortune of those alive today, and the promise of more to come, is summed up in the title of one of Fogel’s books: The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100.
The trends in humanity’s political arrangements are also quite positive, despite what we read in newspaper headlines. In 1950, there were twenty-two full democracies. At the century’s end, there were 120, and almost two-thirds of the people in the world could cast a meaningful ballot. As for the bloodshed and chaos that many people claim to see rising all around us, it just isn’t so. “War between countries is much less likely than ever and civil war is less likely than at any time since 1960,” Monty Marshall of George Mason University told The New York Times in 2005. A major study released later that year by the Human Security Centre at the University of British Columbia confirmed and expanded on that happy conclusion.
It is well known that those of us blessed to live in Western countries are the most prosperous humans in the history of the species, but we feel a little guilty even mentioning it because we know so many others don’t share our good fortune. Not so well known, however, is that there have been major improvements in the developing world, too.
In the two decades following 1980, the proportion of people in the developing world who were malnourished fell from 28 percent to 17 percent. That’s still unconscionably high, but it’s a lot better than it was.
Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear
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