Saturday, July 19, 2014

The people, Lord, Thy people, are good enough for me

I am reading Macaulay’s ‘History of England’, and my virtual bicycle trip through Google Earth Africa has brought me to Lagos. These two inputs have combined to make me inordinately cheerful.

The 17th century was in a lot of ways not a great time in England. There was a civil war. The Great Fire of London. Plague. A vicious back and forth between religious factions that seems as pointless and horrible from this point in time as what is currently happening in Iraq. The politics of the time, which a history has necessarily to concentrate on, is a dreadful tale of people breaking promises, switching sides, inflicting abominable punishments on their enemies, failing to achieve their goals, and seeing everything they strove for broken and mocked. And yet, Macaulay is at pains to point out: at the end of the century England was vastly better off than at the beginning. Furthermore, the same was true for any twenty-year period you picked out of the chaos. People were better fed and clothed and educated at the beginning of the Civil War than at the accession of Charles I. At the Restoration than at the start of the Civil War. At the time of the Glorious Revolution than at the Restoration. People unrecorded by the historians were striving all that time to make a better life for their children, and what Macaulay calls the ‘Baconian Revolution’ had given them better tools to do it. Self-interest driving hard work. Science making hard work more effective.

I thought of this when Google Earth began to show me the outskirts of Lagos. Nobody thinks of Nigeria as a good example of a country that has been governed particularly well for the past fifty or so years. It has had a civil war. It is riven by religious conflicts. Its politicians are notoriously corrupt. And yet, the people have been getting on with things. I knew that a city of nigh twenty-million people had grown up in that time. I guess I had a vague impression of an endless formless mass of miserable slums. But from Google Earth, the thing that struck me was how much it looked like Australia. There are motorways. Vast numbers of trucks on the motorways. Endless industrial estates.  Shopping centres that when you click on the pictures show you images that don’t look that different  from shopping centres in Townsville.  Suburban streets that when you click on the pictures don’t look all that different from suburban streets in Darwin. So many icons showing the locations of educational institutions. A vast construction project where a satellite city for a quarter of a million people is being reclaimed from the ocean. Yes, I know I wouldn’t want to live there. But there are twenty million people there with opportunities unimaginably greater than those available to their grandparents.  And while all we ever heard in the rest of the world was bad news, people were getting on with things and building it. 

 There are at least a billion people in the world right now walking around with access to all of humanity’s knowledge in their pockets whose grandparents lived their whole lives as subsistence farmers a few miles from where they were born. I just went off to check my email and top of the pile was a question about chemistry from a student in the Philippines who saw my chemistry videos on Youtube. How awesome is it that I can sit here in my bathrobe and answer a question asked by someone in the Philippines?

I am bullish on humanity. I am living in the time of the greatest expansion in human happiness, human comfort, and human knowledge that has ever been. Yes, the glass is half empty. But it towers over your grandparents’ glass like a big thing towering over a much smaller thing. Like the glass and steel tower in the middle of this picture towers over the shack at the extreme bottom left. Empty your grandparent’s glass into our glass, and you won’t even be able to tell how much fuller it is.

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