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Part 4: Let's Expose the Obvious Miracles

(excerpted from the revised and expanded edition of
Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia)

In my book PRONOIA, I'm arguing against the grain, compiling evidence that the cynics' hypotheses about the state of the world is a delusion. I'm insisting that we are most decidedly not pitiable actors in the most hellish chapter in history. I'm even inclined to entertain the possibility that the reverse is true: We may be living in the best of times.

Consider the following evidence.

Noble Prize-winning economic historian Robert Fogel is a meticulous scholar not given to hyperbole. But his work provides ample evidence that in some ways, we're the luckiest humans of all. His landmark book is The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100: Europe, America and the Third World. Its clout is rooted in his specialty, which is the painstaking quantitative analysis of the way people have lived. Some of his data is drawn, for example, from the medical records of soldiers who fought in the Civil War. Other information originates in historical documents gathered from Norway, France, Britain, the Netherlands, India, and Ghana.

According to Fogel, human biology has changed dramatically in the past three centuries, and especially in the last 100 years. People in the developed world live twice as long as they used to. They weigh more and grow taller. They're far hardier and healthier and smarter. When sickness comes, they're better at defeating it than their ancestors were, and they're not as likely to contract diseases in the first place.

"We're just not falling apart like we used to," Fogel says. "Even our internal organs are stronger and better formed." What has occurred is "not only unique to humankind, but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of human beings who have inhabited the earth."

(Sources: The Human Equation, Lydialyle Gibson; So Big and Healthy Grandpa Wouldn't Even Know You, Gina Kolata, The New York Times

We're talking about a revolution. In the mid-19th century, Americans of all ages were much sicker than they are now. Child mortality was almost 25 percent, and of those kids lucky enough to survive into adolescence, 15 percent more expired before age 15. Chronic malnutrition was a horrendous curse, compromising immune systems from birth.

During the Civil War, one-sixth of the teenagers who applied to serve in the Union army were rejected because of chronic ailments like malaria, tuberculosis, arthritis, cardiovascular problems, and hernias. As for the older folks, the average ex-soldier in his 60s had at least six health problems, four more than a sexagenarian is likely to have today.

What happened between then and now? First, we harnessed electricity, made it universally available, and used it in a myriad ways to improve our lot. All of the other boons I'm about to name -- improvements in our diet, medicine, sanitation, and workload -- were organized around this fantastic, unprophesied new resource.

Our relationship with food has changed dramatically in the last century and a half. We discovered more accurate information about our nutritional needs and gained access to a greater variety and abundance of food. The perfection of the science of refrigeration and the eventual universal availability of refrigerators made a big difference, too. Victory over widespread malnutrition meant that infants got a better start on building strong bodies, making them less susceptible to sickness throughout the course of their lives.

The drastic upgrade in the state of the human body was also made possible by steadily growing medical expertise, including the discovery of the germ theory of disease and radical new treatments like antibiotics and vaccination. Physicians got better training, large numbers of new hospitals opened, and more people made medicine their career. Among the diseases that were wiped out were diphtheria, typhoid, cholera, whooping cough, tetanus, tuberculosis, smallpox, and polio.

Innovations in sanitation have been key to the upgrades in the way our bodies work. Everything and everyone are far cleaner than they used to be. People bathe more frequently and devote more attention to their hygiene. Among the most important developments in this triumph were two practical miracles: indoor plumbing and the installation of municipal sewer systems.

It took a while. As late as 1920, only one in 100 American homes had a toilet or even a bathroom -- outhouses were standard -- and toilet paper was a luxury.

For those few with bathtubs, a full-body cleanse was often a once-a-week ritual, and entire families might use the same bathwater. Fogel says that even into the early 1900s, "Chicago exported a lot of typhoid down to St. Louis," by disposing wastewater in the Illinois River.

Garbage disposal used to be a hit-and-miss proposition until the 20th century. Private citizens might bury their refuse in their backyards, take it to public incinerators, or offer it to pigs at local farms. But eventually, local governments took over the task. During my lifetime, every city where I've lived has done a stellar job of hauling my trash away.

In the middle of the 19th century, the average American worked 78 hours a week, often at exhausting manual labor and without the help of machines. As work became easier and of shorter duration, our health soared. Technological aids like washing machines and automatic heating systems also contributed to the rising tide of physical well-being.

All of the improvements I've mentioned have flourished because of the most important change of all: greater wealth and more available resources. Despite periodic economic downturns, per capita income in the developing nations has grown enormously in the last 150 years.

Elsewhere, too: Wealth in India and China has doubled since 1989, according to *The Economist* magazine. As a result, more of us have been able to afford to take better care of ourselves. And more of us have been able to do the research and experimentation and development that advance the common good.

Even poor people are better off than they used to be. During the 17 years when my annual income was less than $10,000, well below the official poverty line, I had many amenities the average American didn't have in 1900: electricity, telephone, bathtub, toilet, hot running water, refrigerator, radio, electric hotplate, space heater, TV, cassette player, shampoo, public transportation, asthma medicine, access to a laundromat, garbage collection, and sewer system.


Read Part 1 of the series "Let's Expose the Obvious Miracles."

Read Part 2 of the series "Let's Expose the Obvious Miracles."

Read Part 3 of the series "Let's Expose the Obvious Miracles."
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