The Sciences

The Good Old Days

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorDec 22, 2011 10:11 PM


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Ryan Avent at the Economist gets my nostalgia award for the day with this romanticized dreck:

But turn again to those living 100 or 500 years ago. How would they have viewed civilisation today? Think of all the animals, languages, and societies that have since gone extinct. Modern lives might seem like a vision of hell. The coastal, urban corridor along which I live now is horribly changed from its condition a century ago. Those of us who live along it spend the vast majority of our time indoors and only rarely glimpse anything that could honestly be called nature. The food we eat is highly processed and often unidentifiable as one plant or animal versus another. Many of us rarely see many of our close friends and family, and communicate with them only through the tinny interfaces of our electronic devices. "Some life!", a resident of the past might conclude. Yet how many of us would switch places with those who lived centuries ago? A century from now, much more of the world will likely have been despoiled. Humans might live in underground bunkers eating lab-grown meat. But who's to say they won't prefer their lot to ours?

A reader at the Economist thread tells Avent this is "possibly the dumbest thing you have ever written" and asks:

Have you never read an account of life back in the 1500s? Your teeth would be rotten. Probably would go your entire life without eating a banana. Raw sewage sloshing around in the streets, constantly added to by the emptying of chamber pots and horses crap. Reading by candlelight, if one was even literate and had access to books. Indoor pollution would be horrible, with heat provided by a poorly ventilated fireplace. Bed bugs and other creatures would be the norm. The food would be absolutely disgusting and monotonous. Would own probably, what, 2 pairs of clothes, made of burlap? One would probably never travel more than a 50 mile radius in one's entire lifetime, and travel, when it did occur, would be via stagecoach over horribly bumpy and potholed roads. I could go on. Modern day life is quite literally heaven compared to the life of centures past, which was -- as Hobbes famously put it -- nasty, brutish and short. I'd be surprised if even a single person outside of royalty wouldn't trade places with your average American.

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