Today, some people here in Hawaii (and around the world) will be shutting off their lights and sitting in darkness in order to honor “Earth Hour”—a largely symbolic plea to the governments of the world to take action on climate change. And it’s likely to be as effective as sitting at home in the dark generally is.
In contrast, I suggest that you to spend that hour as I plan to do myself—sitting in the light, celebrating the human achievement that has brought us to unprecedented health, safety, and comfort. The same human ingenuity that I believe will be a bigger part of protecting the land and preserving the environment than any number of protests in the dark—and with far fewer unfortunate metaphorical allegories.
Because, when you think about it, the scope of human achievement is something we ought to celebrate more often. Thanks to improvements in science, technology, and medicine, we are able to live longer, more healthy lives. Vaccines, advancements in medicine, and even modern sanitation have helped stave off disease, made childbirth safer, and allowed more children to grow up healthy and strong. Advancements in communications and transportation have made the world smaller and more accessible. Education is no longer the exclusive province of the rich or privileged. By any measure, our lives have been improved by through human ingenuity and innovation.
In fact, you need to look no further than your own house to recognize how far we’ve come. Refrigeration has changed and improved our diet, making it more varied and healthy (not to mention safer). Technology has freed us from previous drudgery associated with cooking and cleaning and changed the role and place of women in our society. Even something as simple as air conditioning has changed the way we work, live, and play.
Only a hundred years ago, the average life span for a man in America was 50 years (and 55 for women). The infant mortality rate was 132 deaths per 1000 births. Death from causes like Typhoid Fever, Diphtheria, and Tuberculosis were tragically common and claimed even the young and healthy. Today, average life expectancy is 78 years and the infant mortality rate has plummeted to 6.15 deaths per 1000 births. And there are few who wouldn’t expect those trends to continue.
We live in an age where science has become the great democratizer. This is not to suggest that privilege and wealth no longer exist, but only that—more than ever before—previous barriers to education, opportunity, and information are dropping thanks to human innovation and our unending quest to improve the quality of our lives.
And the most wonderful thing of all is that many of these advancements came not from any collective and conscious effort, but from the small contributions of many, working to solve one intractable problem. The economist Adam Smith, arguing for the general benefit of self-interest wrote that, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” We only need to add the mechanic, the engineer, the software developer, and the numerous others who have done their small bit to improve our lives.
Of course, we are not done yet. In fact, that is the best part of celebrating human achievement. We can do so knowing that in future years, there will be new advances that we could only have imagined previously. Will we see true energy independence? More sustainable methods of agriculture? A true end to hunger? Mankind dreams and then does. And so, this Saturday, I will be in the light, celebrating the best of human achievement, and dreaming of an even better future to come. And maybe drinking a beer. Because why not celebrate all of mankind’s great achievements while I’m at it?