Zack Beauchamp published a very fine essay yesterday, provocatively titled, “5 Reasons Why 2013 Was the Best Year in Human History.” Beauchamp’s human history is not a natural force, as it was for Hegel or, to a lesser extent, Marx–instead, 2013 was humanity’s best year because we made it so, and because the systems, technologies, and societies humans create allow us, collectively, to prosper better than before. Others–Steven Pinker, whose work Beauchamp cites, comes to mind–have written as much before, alternately leaving more and less space for human decisions. Beauchamp’s is a soft, purposeful history, and one which, he acknowledges, is easily reversible.
Beauchamp describes war’s aggregate decline, one widely used proxy for our common prosperity, as “[not] accidental…by design.” This turn-of-phrase is a helpful metaphor, as design implies intent, decision, and agency. As much as the design metaphor suggests human improvement, it also illustrates our prosperity’s present and future fragility. Here’re two reasons why:
1. The human ecosystem is fragile: When we discuss ecology, we usually refer to our natural environment: the atmosphere, oceans, forests, and mountain ranges that human actions often destroy. Indeed, climate change–and, more specifically, its humanitarian consequences–is the greatest data point against Beauchamp’s argument, and one which he anticipates. But our human ecosystem comprises more than the natural environment, though the two forces often intersect and conflict. Humanity is distinguished by our ecological complexity–by the institutions, systems, and structures that shape how our species interacts. The UN, for example, is an ecological mainstay–where it operates, it informs how human societies live, how they prosper, how they die, and how they are remembered. But these systems are fragile, as they have been throughout human history. They may be strong one year, and weak the next, and then strong again the following year. The “life-saving technologies” Beauchamp describes–anti-retrovirals, genetically modified foods–are symptoms of the systems that work: when they don’t, there are fewer technologies, and fewer lives saved. When the Global Fund, among the largest grant pools for disease prevention and treatment, announced massive grant cuts in 2011, anti-HIV/AIDS research took a hit. Funding in the aftermath of the global economic crisis has returned, and anti-retroviral medical innovations continue apace, but the Fund’s momentary shock underscores the ever-present risk of systemic–and, consequently, technological–failure.
2. Whose human history?: Human prosperity is an aggregate measure, which necessarily and perhaps defensibly glazes over its own outliers. Beauchamp’s humanitarianism is cosmopolitan, as all total human histories must be. It views human progress as a global dilemma, and one which rises and falls in totum. But Beauchamp’s is scarcely the only humanitarianism, because this cosmopolitan imagination fails where it succeeds: in representing human prosperity as “positive, on the balance.” The rebuttal, “It probably wasn’t the best year if you’re Syrian,” is cheeky and unhelpful, but there is some validity to it. Human prosperity can only be “positive, on the balance” if all accept cosmopolitanism–that is, common humanity–as a shared identity. Shades of tragedy emerge for those who reject cosmopolitanism, or, as is more often the case, simultaneously accept more proximate identities–an interfaith minister who is also a Jew; a black African nationalist who is also Xhosa. The tragedies these groups experience are morally and politically meaningful, and they define histories equal to humanity’s–of the self, of the family, of the community, of the nation. So no, it probably wasn’t the best year if you’re Syrian, and that is also the human history of 2013.