These sentences give expression to what seems to be the prevailing conception of our time, on the left broadly defined, at least in Western Europe and the Americas.footnote1Zeitdiagnosen and their Sinnstiftung, the sense they make of their observations, are notoriously subjective interpretations of a period, and a favourite genre of social philosophers and social critics with hands unsullied by hard empirical spadework. However, even after diligent study, one’s image of the present remains almost unavoidably selective and subjective. The picture presented here does not purport to be an exception. What it does claim, however, is that it is true—as far as it goes—and that its arguments are based on falsifiable empirical evidence. Against, or perhaps, more cautiously, alongside the sombre mood prevailing on the left, including the environmentalist left-of-centre, it can be stated that humankind today is at a historical peak of its possibilities, in the sense of its capability and resources to shape the world, and itself. Never has humankind faced its future with greater mastery of the world.
To some readers the very word ‘mastery’ may appear repulsive, associated with domination and modernist arrogance. Here, however, the association should go in another direction, to art and craftsmanship, particularly in the pre-modern sense, with its connotations of learning, understanding, practice and skill. In recent times there has been an upward leap in the human capacity to understand and shape the world. We might talk about a third industrial revolution, after the first of steam and coal, the second of electricity and the combustion engine. This one is driven by electronic communication and steering, creating ‘smart’ sensor-reactive environments, and taking us into ‘artificial’ intelligence—now capable of beating human masters of go as well as of chess—robotics, drones and driverless cars. At the same time there is a revolution in biology, equivalent to the classical breakthroughs of Darwin and Mendel, with the discovery of dna, the mapping of the human genome, genetic manipulation and cloning. There are unprecedented penetrations of space, expanding enormously the areas humans can navigate and operate in, from astronomic outer space to the inner space where nanotechnology has developed. New sources of energy have been discovered and/or harnessed—nuclear, solar, wind, wave, fossil fuels from fracking. Of course, these discoveries and inventions can be used as means of destruction as well as development—indeed, they already have been—and some, such as fracking, appear directly dangerous ecologically. Nevertheless, they all testify to the extraordinary continuing creativity of humankind.
Our available economic resources are greater than ever before. Between 1980 and 2011 world gdp per capita (in constant prices and purchasing power parities) increased 1.8 times, the imf reports. As a comparison, we may remember that between year 1 and 1820 global product per capita is estimated to have increased 1.4 times, and from 1870 to 1913 1.7 times. More reliable are figures for 1950–73, 1.9, and for 1973–2003, 1.6.footnote2 All of these numbers have their margins of error. But they tell us at least two things. Human economic resources are increasing at a much faster pace than in pre-modern times. Not that recent scientific-technological breakthroughs have accelerated modern economic growth: the period 1950–73 remains what Eric Hobsbawm styled a Golden Age of development.footnote3 We all know that the recent income increase has been distributed most unequally, an issue to which we shall return below. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that between 1999 and 2012 about 800 million people got out of extreme poverty (defined as less than $1.90 a day of income or consumption in purchasing power parities).footnote4 During 2009–13, for the first time since the first Industrial Revolution and probably since the first millennium ce, what are now called ‘developing countries’ were growing more in absolute monetary terms (that is, not only relative to a low absolute baseline) than the world as a whole.footnote5
Then there is mastery of the self. Humans have recently learnt to (largely) control their own reproduction, through effective contraception, safe abortion and artificial insemination, and to remake their bodies. The human body can have most of its parts replaced by organ transplants, or repaired by stem-cell reconstructions, and plastic surgery can alter its appearance. The battle against infectious diseases is continuing, with new ones erupting and old ones, once thought to have been eradicated or marginalized, returning in drug-resistant forms. Nevertheless, the medical balance is strongly positive, thanks to new drugs, early diagnostics, and new surgical techniques. Life expectancy is rising—from 64 to 71 years worldwide, in the three decades from 1990—despite setbacks in Africa (hiv-aids) and the former Soviet Union (the restoration of capitalism).footnote6
It can certainly not be claimed that the human species has mastered its environment. However, what has evolved is a wider and deeper awareness and knowledge of the planetary ecology of humankind. While many peoples in the past and several in the present have had a deep understanding of their own habitat, contemporary knowledge of the planet and its atmosphere is unprecedented. Climate science has made another recent leap in human knowledge. Increasingly, it includes awareness of the self-destructive capacity of humankind, and in the future will assist in developing a third form of human mastery, that of self-limitation.