The Biggest Challenge to Humanity

The biggest challenge to humanity is to adapt to technological changes, even bigger than adapting to environmental changes. This is because technology changes much faster than the environment. A prominent biologist, Colin Pittendrigh, told me once that he felt the most serious threat to the survival of the human race was that technology changed significantly within a person's life time. Of course, these comments apply to the post industrial revolution (IR) era.

Drop in Demand for Unskilled Labor

One of the biggest effects of IR is to reduce the demand for unskilled human labor. The computer revolution (CR) has accelerated this trend. At the same time the IR (and CR) has increased the rewards for highly skilled labor, so "the poor become poorer and the rich richer." The full effects of such a change can be quite insidious.

In feudal Europe Jews occupied the niche of middle class (they could pose less of a threat to the feudal lords). Jewish males were able to read and engaged in commerce and banking. In this way they were better able to fill the skilled positions created or augmented by the IR. Banking became far more important with the rise of capitalism. For example, according to Wikipedia the Rothschilds' "family ascent to international prominence began in 1744, with the birth of Mayer Amschel Rothschild in Frankfurt am Main, Germany." They were granted nobility titles in 1816 in Austria and in 1847 in Britain. However, the relative prosperity of the Jews created a resentment. Anti-semitism has been ebbing after the Enlightenment era, but it re-surged in late 19th century. The Dreyfus trial took place in France in 1894 and the notoriously anti-semitic mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger, was in office 1897-1910. We may note that Hitler lived in Vienna during 1905-1913.

In Muslim countries the niche of the middle class was occupied, in addition to Jews, by Christian: Orthodox Greeks and Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. It is well known that both groups prospered in the 19th century. Could it be that the Armenian genocide of 1915 was motivated by a resentment? The situation is more complex with regard to the Greeks, but they were also expelled from Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman empire in 1922-24.

Today similar kinds of resentments lead to hostility against Asians living in the West.

Hitler's anti-Semitism fell on willing ears in Germany with the ultimate result being the Holocaust. It is not so important to know the reasons behind the ideas of demagogues than to realize that they choose to say what a lot of people would like to hear. The question of how ideas come into existence and impact history is beyond the scope of this essay. In both Europe and the Middle Eastern countries hostility towards religious minorities has been present since early Middle Ages so the opportunity was there for exploitation by demagogues.

The short term solution to lack of demand for unskilled labor is to provide social benefits to them that are funded by taxing the skilled affluent. This might seem as unfair but it is the price for a degree of social peace. Otto von Bismarck realized that when he introduced health insurance and social security in Prussia in the 1880's.

A longer term solution is to train people. Compulsory education was introduced in Prussia in 1763 with Austria and Hungary following a decade later. England waited until 1870. In the U.S. Massachusetts was the first state to adopt the system in 1852 and Mississippi the last in 1917. The result is that most people today know how to read and write while few did so before 1800. Today we have fallen behind in training people for the skills needed as a result of the CR. The social consequences of such neglect can be huge.

Family Size

The improvement in hygiene an medicine that followed the IR means that most children now survive to adulthood. Yet human attitudes about family size were formed when few children survived to adulthood. A society with many large families faces the Malthusian challenge. The Englishman Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) pointed out that population increases exponentially while improvements in food production increase only linearly. Therefore at some point the population will outstrip the resources with resulting conflict. Population will not increase if the average family has only two children. (It may still increase slightly because of increase in longevity.) During the 20th century family size decreased in many countries by the use of birth control. This was either voluntary (Europe, North America, Japan) or by state intervention (China). As a result some people claim that Malthus was proven wrong. Unfortunately this is not the case as the table below shows.

Country Approx. Ratio of
Population in 2010 over Population in1960
3.9 (in spite of genocides)
Saudi Arabia
U.Arab Emir.
92 (almost 100 times)

Is it a coincidence that countries with high population growth also face unrest? In some cases (Saudi Arabia and UAE) a significant part of the increase is due to immigration and in the same countries oil revenue may have calmed things. But how long is this going to last?

There is another disturbing trend even in the developed world. Family size is small among educated (and affluent) people and large among the poor. In other words we produce more unskilled workers and fewer skilled workers. The need for family planning education cannot be overemphasized. But education might not be enough. All over the world conservative religious groups eschew birth control and continue to have large families. The same groups also dislike secular education, so we have a potential explosive situation. Today most countries provide tax breaks for families with many children. That policy may have to be reversed.

No Need for Land and thus No Need for War

One of effects of the IR is that wealth can be created by manufacturing and therefore how much land a country has is not important. Small rich countries such as Switzerland and Singapore provide examples. Before the IR agriculture and minerals were the main sources of wealth, therefore land was important. It paid off for a country to wage war in order to acquire more land. After the IR war became both more destructive and unnecessary.

Unfortunately, it took 100 years too long for political leaders to realize that. Today all major powers eschew war, but they learned the lesson the hard way, after nearly 100 million people were killed in the two World Wars and subsequent conflicts. Why Europe blundered into WW I requires special discussion because it illustrates the dangers of obsolete thinking on the part of political leaders.

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