In general, life is better than it ever has been, and if you think that, in the past, there was some golden age of pleasure and plenty to which you would, if you were able, transport yourself, let me say one single word: “dentistry” - PJ O'Rourke, All the Trouble in the World
This article is a sort of round-up of passages from various writers to the effect that things are better now - at least in some important ways - than they used to be.
Which isn’t to say we don’t have problems. Have we ever got problems. One of the exciting things about living in this day and age is that it honestly feels up in the air as to whether life as we know it - in the civilized, pampered West - and human civilization in general - will collapse altogether within our lifetimes or not. It really seems like it could go either way, and that we’ll live to see it. I could be completely off-base with that, but that’s how it feels. And I don’t think I’m alone in that feeling. The Road by Cormac McCarthy predicts a grim possible future for us all, with the vast majority of the human race extinct, as do Margaret Atwood’s novels Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. Zombies proliferate in popular entertainment, in many ways an analogy for our species’ possible dim future on this planet. Will global warming get us? Will the fundamentalists succeed in bringing on an apocalyptic nuclear war? Will we surrender more and more of our freedoms and turn into a police state? Will we run out of oil and collapse? Will we poison ourselves with pollution and everything that goes into our food? Will we run out of potable water? Will our brains be so eroded by omnipresent digital distractions that none of us will able to take care of ourselves? Could happen. Any of those things could very well decimate us, and others, too.
It’s easy to run in the opposite direction and romanticize an earlier era, when the rivers were clean, there was no pavement, no such thing as a $700 billion bail-out, all food was organic and unprocessed, families stayed together and there was always a village around to help raise a child.
In the Kosmic Consciousness interviews, Ken Wilber describes how as a system gets more complex, more things can go wrong. An atom doesn’t get cancer; a dog gets cancer. A dog is a more complicated system than an atom. More complicated problems can develop. Our modern society is many degrees more complex than human civilization was 100 000 years ago, or 500 years ago, or 80 years ago. We’re susceptible to more disorders and pathologies now. And as Wilber goes on to say, we’ve got all of ‘em.
But. Let’s not discount the strides we’ve made. And that’s what I’m setting out to highlight in this piece.
John Steinbeck hits a few different domains in this quote from his non-fiction book Travels with Charley:
Even while I protest the assembly-line production of our food, our songs, our language, and eventually our souls, I know that it was a rare home that baked good bread in the old days. Mother’s cooking was with rare exceptions poor, that good unpasteurized milk touched only by flies and bits of manure crawled with bacteria, the healthy old-time life was riddled with aches, sudden death from unknown causes, and that sweet local speech I mourn was the child of illiteracy and ignorance.
George Carlin has a similar comment about food, from a routine where he takes apart various cliches in food advertising - in this case “old-fashioned”:
Old fashioned... when you hear “old fashioned,” you’re supposed to think “oh, this goes back to the old days...” Right. The old days. Before we had sanitation laws. Before hygiene became popular. Back when botulism was still considered a sauce.
I can’t imagine anyone would argue hygiene hasn’t improved since previous eras. HL Mencken (born in 1880) describes the boon to humanity of copper window screens. Iron screens rusted, and developed holes. Flies got past them as if they weren’t even there. And there were a lot more flies back then, thanks to the fact that horses proliferated. According to Superfreakonomics (by Leavitt and Dubner), in 1900 there were 200 000 horses in New York City - one for every seventeen people.
Horse drawn wagons clogged the streets terribly, and when a horse broke down, it was often put to death on the spot. ... “Dead horses were extremely unwieldy,” writes the transportation scholar Eric Morris. “As a result, street cleaners often waited for the corpses to putrefy so they could more easily be sawed into pieces and carted off.
The noise from iron wagon wheels and horseshoes was so disturbing - it purportedly caused widespread nervous disorders - that some cities banned horse traffic on streets around hospitals and other sensitive areas.
Mencken takes up the thread of noisiness in the days of his youth (from his memoir Happy Days):
The Baltimore of the eighties was a noisy town, for the impact of iron wagon tires on hard cobblestone was almost like that of a hammer on an anvil. To be sure, there was a dirt road down the middle of every street, kept in repair by the accumulated sweepings of the sidewalks, but this cushioned track was patronized only by hay-wagons from the country and like occasional traffic: milk-men, grocery deliverymen and other such regulars kept to the areas where the cobbles were naked, and so made a fearful clatter. In every way, in fact, city life was much noisier then than it is now. Children at play were not incarcerated in playgrounds and policed by hired ma’ms, but roved the open streets, and most of their games involved singing or yelling. At Christmas time they began to blow horns at least a week before the great day, and kept it up until all the horns were disabled, and in Summer they began celebrating the Fourth far back in June and were still exploding fire-crackers at the end of July. Nearly every house had a dog in it, and nearly all the dogs barked more or less continuously from 4 AM until after midnight. It was still lawful to keep chickens in the backyards, and many householders did so. All within ear range of Hollins street appeared to divide them as to sex in the proportion of a hundred crowing roosters to one clucking hen.
But getting back to how many horses there were, and how much horseshit abounded - here’s another excerpt from Superfreakonomics:
In vacant lots, horse manure was piled as high as sixty feet. It lined city streets like banks of snow. In the summertime, it stank to the heavens; when the rains came, a soupy stream of horse manure flooded the crosswalks and seeped into people’s basements. Today, when you admire old New York brownstones and their elegant stoops, rising from street level to the second-story parlor, keep in mind that this was a design necessity, allowing a homeowner to rise above the sea of horse manure.
All of this dung was terrifically unhealthy. It was a breeding ground for billions of flies that spread a host of deadly diseases. Rats and other vermin swarmed the mountains of manure to pick out undigested oats and other horse feed - crops that were becoming more costly for human consumption thanks to higher horse demand. No one at the time was worried about global warming, but if they had been, the horse would have been Public Enemy No. 1, for its manure emits methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
And back to Mencken on the omnipresence of flies indoors and out:
Flies overran and devoured us in Summer, immense swarms of mosquitoes were often blown in from the swamps to the southwest and a miscellany of fantastic moths, gnats, June-bugs, beetles, and other insects, some of them of formidable size and pugnacity, buzzed around the gas-lights at night.
We slept under mosquito canopies, but they were of flimsy netting and there were always holes in them, so that when a mosquito or fly once got in it had us all to himself, and made the most of it.
Every public place in Baltimore was so furiously beset by bugs of all sorts that communal gatherings were impossible on hot nights. The very cops on the street corners spent a large part of their time slapping mosquitoes and catching flies. When arc-lights began to light the streets, along about 1885, they attracted so many beetles of gigantic size that their glare was actually obscured.
These flies gave no concern to my brother Charlie and me; they seemed to be innocuous and even friendly compared to the chiggers, bumble-bees and hornets that occasionally beset us. Indeed, they were a source of pleasant recreation to us, for very often, on hot Summer evenings, we would retire to the kitchen, stretch out flat on our backs on the table, and pop away at them with slingshots as they roosted in dense clumps upon the ceiling. Our favorite projectile was a square of lemon-peel, roasted by the hired girl. Thus prepared, it was tough enough to shoot straight and kill certainly, but when it bounced back it did not hurt us. The hired girl, when she was in an amiable mood, prepared us enough of these missiles for an hour’s brisk shooting, and in the morning she had the Red Cross job of sweeping the dead flies off the ceiling. Sometimes there were hundreds of them, lying dead in sticky windows. When there were horse-flies from the back alley among them, which was not infrequently, they leaked red mammalian blood, which was an extra satisfaction to us. The stables that lined the far side of the alley were vast hatcheries of such flies, some of which reached a gigantic size.
These days there’s tremendous consciousness amongst many of us about our horrible diet and health as a culture. Fast Food Nation, Supersize Me, Food Inc, The Omnivore’s Dilemma - chances are you’ve read or seen at least one of these, and have been in conversations about the issues they raise. Here’s a quote from Michael Pollan’s polemic In Defense of Food:
Early in the twentieth century, an intrepid group of doctors and medical workers stationed overseas observed that wherever in the world people gave up their traditional way of eating and adopted the Western diet, there soon followed a predictable series of Western diseases, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer. They called these the Western diseases and, though the precise causal mechanisms were (and remain) uncertain, these observers had little doubt these chronic diseases shared a common etiology: the Western diet.
But how healthy was Mencken’s middle class neighbourhood in the 1890s? Here's his comment on it:
I can’t recall ever hearing anyone complain of the fact that there was a great epidemic of typhoid fever every Summer, and a wave of malaria every Autumn, and more than a scattering of smallpox, especially among the colored folk in the alleys, every Winter.
PJ O’Rourke has more to say on this in All the Trouble in the World:
Of course, there was no health care. And not much health. Illness was ever- present, and the most trivial infection might prove fatal. The germ theory of disease as argued by Pasteur was just another wacky French idea with no more effect on the people of the 1870s than Deconstructionism has on us. Men customarily wed multiple wives, not by way of philandering but because of deaths in childbirth. The children died too, sometimes before a suitable foot-long nineteenth-century name could be given them. A walk through an old graveyard shows our ancestors often had more dead children than we have live ones.
Illness could take you, or your fellow human might do it. Kurt Vonnegut, in an address to the graduating class of the University of Rhode Island in Kingston in 1990 (published in his non fiction book Fates Worse Than Death), pointed out the dramatic decrease in racism over the years:
The United States of America had human slavery for almost one hundred years before that custom was recognized as a social disease and people began to fight it. Imagine that. Wasn’t that a match for Auschwitz? What a beacon of liberty we were to the rest of the world when it was perfectly acceptable here to own other human beings and treat them as we treated cattle. Who told you we were a beacon of liberty from the very beginning? Why would they lie like that?
Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, and not many people found that odd. It was as though he has an infected growth on the end of his nose the size of a walnut, and everybody thought that was perfectly OK. I mentioned this one time at the University of Virginia, of which Jefferson was not only the founder but the sublime architect. A history professor explained to me afterward that Jefferson could not free his slaves until he and they were very old, because they were mortgaged and he was broke.
Imagine that! It used to be legal in this beacon of liberty to hock human beings, maybe even a baby. What a shame that when you find yourself short of cash nowadays you can’t take the cleaning lady down to the pawnshop anymore along with your saxophone.
Now then: Boston and Philadelphia both claim to be the cradle of liberty. Which city is correct? Neither one. Liberty is only now being born in the United States. It wasn’t born in 1776. Slavery was legal. Even white women were powerless, essentially the property of their father or husband or closest male relative, or maybe a judge or lawyer. Liberty was only conceived in Boston or Philadelphia. Boston or Philadelphia was the motel of liberty, so to speak.
Now then: The gestation period for a ‘possum is twelve days. The gestation period for an Indian elephant is twenty-two months. The gestation period for American liberty, friends and neighbors, turns out to be two hundred years and more!
Only in my own lifetime has there been serious talk of giving women and racial minorities anything like economic, legal, and social equality. Let liberty be born at last, and let its lusty birth cries be heard in Kingston and in every other city and town and village and hamlet in this vast and wealthy nation, not in Jefferson’s time but in the time of the youngest people here this afternoon. Somewhere I heard a baby cry. It should cry for joy.
In a recent TED talk, Steven Pinker described how we live at the time when a person is least likely to die at the hands of another human being. He shows a chart with rates of death by males in warfare amongst present day hunter-gatherer tribes in the highlands of Papua New Guinea and in the Amazon rainforests. Their likelihood of meeting a violent death range from 15 to 60 percent. North America and Europe in the 20th century are represented on the graph by a tiny little bar, maybe one percent, and that includes all the deaths of both world wars. He cites a study done of murders in European countries in the last five hundred years, which concludes that a person was one hundred times as likely to be murdered in the Middle Ages as now.
Another thing that’s changed since the Middle Ages - women are much less likely to be burned at the stake. Women still face massive challenges and prejudices, but they can vote, there’s the birth control pill, legal abortion, and far more employment opportunities than ever before. New York Times biology writer Natalie Angier writes about a more subtle, yet no less profound change in perception among women in her book Woman: An Intimate Geography:
I am a utopian pessimist by nature, a mechanistic phantasmagorist. I believe in permanent revolution of the mind and will. In 1987 I sat over dinner with my grandmother, who was then in her late seventies, my mother, and my eighteen-year-old cousin, Julie. We talked about whether we would choose to be men if we could. Yes, we all said, even, to my surprise, my grandmother. “Men have more freedom,” she said.
Recently I reminded my mother of that conversation. We agreed that we no longer felt the same. We no longer wanted to be men. It isn’t merely a function of getting older and more accepting of ourselves. My grandmother was older than either of us when she said, I would if I could. Nor is it because I think women have made so much progress in the past decade, or that the prison door has melted and the merry inmates are now in charge. Instead, for me, and I think for my mother, the change of heart is
the result of revelation, the realization that our strength and our anima stem in good part from our womanness, and from thinking about what it means to be a woman, here, now, in this culture, and in our imagined future. Our tribe is the tribe of woman. It is our tribe to define, and we’re still doing it, and we will never give up. We live in a state of permanent revolution. The frisson of it! We will not abandon the tribe or the battle. We will not define the tribe as a default zone or a consolation prize. The wish to be a man is a capitulation to limits and strictures we never set for ourselves. It is lazy. It does does not belong to us.
Here are some more elements of the past I’m glad have left us. According to Mencken, all shoes gave you corns. In his youth, everyone had corns, on both feet, all the time. It was a fact of life:
Every drug-store window was full of corn-cures, but none of them really worked. Corn-doctors practiced in every American community, gouging, gashing and spreading streptococci. Desperate men cut off their own toes. Children at play stopped to hop around on one foot, holding the other and yelling.
Shoes were redesigned by an Army major in 1912, this design was used for boots in WWI, civilian shoemakers copied the design, and good-bye corns.
Mencken also describes being at the mercy of his coal furnace, shoveling coal and sifting ashes throughout the day:
It was a truly dreadful experience. Worse, my house was always either too hot or too cold. When a few pieces of actual coal appeared in the mass of slate the temperature leapt up to 85 degrees, but most of the time it was between 45 and 50.
Gas furnaces came into being, with thermostats that automatically kept a house at a specified temperature:
I began to feel like a man liberated from the death-house. It was never too hot or too cold. I had no coal to heave, no ashes to sift. My house became so clean that I could wear a shirt five days. I began to feel like work, and rapidly turned out a series of imperishable contributions to the national letters. My temper improved so vastly that my family began to suspect senile changes. Moreover my cellar became as clean as the rest of the house, and as roomy as a barn. I enlarged my wine-room by 1000 cubic metres. I put in a cedar closet big enough to hold my whole wardrobe. I added a vault for papers, a carpentry shop and a praying chamber.
Note the shirt worn for five days. Stephen Leacock (born in 1869) has an article in which he reminisces about how as a young man, he followed the common practice of owning two shirts. You had one and your laundress had the other. Once a week you traded them. In Fifth Business, Robertson Davies describes his protagonist (circa 1930) being fastidiously clean, bathing once a week.
Meals lacked variety. Bill Bryson, in The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid describes his childhood in Iowa in the 1950s, saying:
In our house we didn’t eat
-pasta, rice, cream cheese, sour cream, garlic, mayonnaise, onions, corned beef, pastrami, salami, or foreign food of any type, except French toast
-bread that wasn’t white and at least 65 percent air
-spices other than salt, pepper, and maple syrup
-fish that was any shape other than rectangular and not coated in bright orange bread crumbs, and then only Fridays and only when my mother remembered it was Friday, which in fact was not often
-soups not blessed by Campbell’s and only a very few of those
-anything with dubious regional names like “pone” or “gumbo” or foods that had at any time been an esteemed staple of slaves or peasants
All other foods of all types - curries, enchiladas, tofu, bagels, sushi, couscous, yogurt, kale, arugula, Parma ham, any cheese that was not a vivid bright yellow and shiny enough to see your reflection in - had either not yet been invented or was unknown to us.
I read that passage to my parents and an aunt and uncle, and they corroborated those items hadn’t appeared on any of their tables either. Pasta was a strange ethnic food, eaten only by Italian families.
One improvement that fascinates me is the widespread availability of music and movies and books. To have access to even one one hundredth of what we have now - at any time of the day or night - would have staggered kings a few centuries ago. Indeed, PJ O’Rourke said:
The highest standards of luxury and comfort, as known only to the ridiculously wealthy a few generations ago, would hardly do on a modern white-water rafting trip. Our clothing is more comfortable, our abodes are warmer, better-smelling, and vermin-free. Our food is fresher. Our lights are brighter. Travel is swift. And communication is sure.
Even the bad things are better than they used to be. Bad music, for instance, has gotten much briefer. Wagner’s Ring Cycle takes four days to perform while “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” by the Crash Test Dummies lasts little more than three minutes.
Why do we romanticize the past? Steven Pinker puts forward a number of possibilities, including better record keeping in the modern era, and guilt over how we’ve treated colonized peoples. But I think a big part of it is a deep-seated fear of change. The up side of living in dynamic times is that it’s exciting to see the world transform in a short enough time span to be noticeable. The down side is that it’s scary. We don’t know where it’s going to end, and we’re worried we might fuck it all up. And we very well might. But the system is in motion, and we’re all a part of it, and it’s in a state of flux, regardless of our feelings on the matter. I think it’s a thrill to witness and participate in. John Steinbeck seems to have agreed, saying:
It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change, particularly change for the better. But it is true that we have exchanged corpulence for starvation, and either one will kill us. The lines of change are down. We, or at least I, can have no conception of human life and human thought in a hundred years or fifty years. Perhaps my greatest wisdom is the knowledge that I do not know. The sad ones are those who waste their energy in trying to hold it back, for they can only feel bitterness in loss and no joy in gain.