Here’s a video from the BBC that’s worth four minutes of your time. The introduction is a bit slow – bear with it through about 45 seconds and you’ll be hooked.
It’s a presentation on income levels and life expectancy by Hans Rosling, Professor of Global Health at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. The presentation itself is a fascinating way to present data to make a point. It’s a reminder that no matter how important your message is, the communication process first requires you to gain and hold someone’s attention – otherwise you’re just talking to dead air.
I’ve seen all kinds of interpretations floating around the internet – most of them heavily colored by political ideology, from the far right to the far left. I think that’s a clear case of people seeing what they want to see – as fascinating as this presentation is, the data shown is simply too too generalized to draw detailed conclusions from it.
What we can say is the obvious – for all its ills, the modern Western world provides a significant improvement in life expectancy. And as other countries grow economically, their life expectancies also improve. This is a good thing.
But it is not an exclusively good thing. Industrialization and technological advances have made lives easier and longer, but they’ve also caused us to become more isolated. Modern Paganism is in large part a reaction to that isolation – the connections to the natural world that used to occur by virtue of living close to the land now have to be formed and maintained through ritual and spiritual practice.
I’ll take that tradeoff. My grandfather and two uncles died of heart attacks at ages 56, 44 and 49. My father survived a heart attack at 40, another at 48, and a third at 59 before finally dying of cancer at 71. The difference? He was born later – Western medicine had life-saving drugs and procedures that weren’t available for his father and brothers.
On a less dramatic level, while I love Nature, I also love having seemingly infinite information at my fingertips, being able to travel quickly and safely, and not having to sweat 24 hours a day during the Texas summers!
The bottom line is this: let’s not romanticize the preindustrial past. While there is much about modern Western society that is suboptimal, difficult, or just plain broken, we live much longer now, and much better. Let’s fix what’s broken, not trash the whole thing.