A Milestone in Human Development

On November 15th the world achieved what the United Nations called a “milestone in human development.” The 8 billionth baby was born, no one truly knows where for certain, but symbolically, in the Dominican Republic. This achievement has been attributed to improvements in medicine, nutrition and hygiene.

I was thinking about that milestone in heavy traffic on the Friday before our holiday week of Thanksgiving began, a palpable press of panic apparent in the dodge and dart of motorists intent on compressing the time and distance between the tail lights in front of them and the perceived obligations of the holiday. I thought about it at home, the sound of bulldozers in the distance as another development digs into one of our mountains.

That milestone was in the back of my mind on Thanksgiving Day as a friend described the frustrated idle of the hour-long stop and go just to get from one side of Knoxville to the other. I thought of it again on the way to town, dodging a discarded bag of fast food tossed out of a window onto the highway, contempt or carelessness, the result being the same.

On the day of thanks, when gratitude helps realign our priorities and put a lot of petty annoyances into perspective, I was doubly grateful to live where, and how, we do. With all the fears and frustrations we are given to consume, the rising prices, the increasingly frequent scarcities in the breakdown of international commerce and supply chains, consider this: As beleaguered as we think we are, if the rest of the world were to suddenly be granted the lifestyle that Americans often take for granted, it would take 5.8 planet Earths to supply the necessary resources.

If we were all to suddenly enjoy the material abundance of people living in India, 8/10ths of our planet would suffice.

Milestone indeed. Yet certain alarmists are fearful at the decreasing, yes, rapidly decreasing birthrate worldwide. The dominant economic paradigm depends on permanent growth, and a stable or declining population does not bode well for share prices and CEO bonuses and the retirement accounts now dependent on such ephemeral things.

It will be left to future generations to validate or disprove the “growth for the sake of growth” theory. Such theories tend to underestimate human ingenuity and invention born of necessity. They also forget that Nature always bats last.

As for the 8 billion of us already here and with the potential to live long enough to be joined by another billion or so even with the decreasing birthrate, a few things seem certain. Most will seek to maximize their own affluence. That is a fundamental aspect of human nature. Some will seek power – another given. Quite a few of those will be more than willing to send other people to their deaths in order to achieve that power. That is history.

And this is where the bullet hits the bone. Democracy struggles in a crowd, especially a democracy unmoderated by the stabilizing influences of a republic or constitutional law. Consider that just one man controls the fate of over a billion in China. One man wields the terrible, planet-killing destructive power of the Russian nuclear arsenal. One American president makes and unmakes “law” via executive order, memorandum , proclamation and notice, unhindered by a Congress preoccupied with politics and re-election. “Democracy” unhinged threatens an anarchy which leads to despotism, and history reveals this well-trodden path to revolution and war time and again.

Eight billion. Is it a milestone or a millstone? Only history will decide, and history is merely the opinion of the person who prevailed long enough to write it down. I look out over this excellent cup of coffee at ancient trees on the unbroken ridgeline we are still blessed to behold. Much needed rain is dripping off the branches of the old persimmon tree outside the window. I’ve seen how much of the rest of the world lives. So many will never know the luxury of a quiet moment in safety and comfort to indulge an opinion over a full belly. I have some small sense of the tremendous effort and sacrifice that purchased this moment, and it grieves me to see so many such blessings disregarded, cast aside, or torn up in the petulant and self-indulgent raging of our times.

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