Yes, I love to talk about topics—like fairies and an atemporal fall—that don’t fit into most modern categories. Nonetheless, I’m truly on board with the modern scientific method and grateful for the many blessings of contemporary life. As a history major in college and graduate school, I’ve long loved to think about the question of progress in human history. Owen Barfield thought C.S. Lewis was a little backward for thinking that human history showed no signs of overall progress. My favorite thinkers, however, have always been the ones who agree with C.S. Lewis in this rather unpopular conclusion. David Bentley Hart, for example, writes in his most recent subscription newsletter essay “Time, Technology, and History: Disjointed Reflections on the Rise of Homo Interreticulatus” that “there is no such thing as a science of history, in the sense of some theory or experimental regimen that could reduce the flow of human events to a set of invariable laws—economic, social, political, anthropological, or whatever—or produce reliable models for predicting what comes next.” After rejecting even the grand systems of Hegel and Heidegger while pressing this point as far as he can, Hart maintains that:
Historical eventuality is a vast, tumultuous, uncharted river carrying all our fragile vessels along—hazardous, scarcely navigable, and with unanticipated bends always just ahead. All we can really be certain of is that there will be moments of acute crisis when all the river’s currents will be forced together in a particularly turbulent confluence or precipitated down a particularly steep chute, and survival will depend on whose hands hold the tiller.
Coming down from the heights of these sweeping philosophical claims, I also love to think about the more mundane causes of modernity and tallying up what we have lost. Skipping over the delightful considerations of how our modern secular world came to be (which I will likely continue to blog about for years to come as I’m endlessly fascinated with the rise of many wildly irrational modern ideas such as secularity, the autonomous individual, the sovereign nation state, and a libertarian concept of freedom), this blog post will just focus on tallying up of what we have lost. Of course, what has disappeared in the face of modernity is generally much less visible to us than the many celebrated benefits.
While we generally think of modern life as far more secure and non-violent than premodern life, the total number of human deaths by conflict have climbed astronomically since the rise of the secular nation state and its totalizing ideologies (generally connected to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648). Take a look at the death tolls from the many devastating (and often ideological) conflicts of modern nations compared to those of premodern nations:
Charts like that one above are ideally read with some understanding of the ways in which Marxism, fascism and capitalism are all expressions of the totalizing ideologies that serve the power of secular nation states. However, such considerations take us off tract.
Getting back to the numbers, of course, the massively escalating total numbers of human deaths by conflict within the chart above are in some large part the result of rapid growth in the worldwide human population (due substantially to the positive benefits of modern medicine and agriculture). However, even when the growing human population is factored in, per capita death rates due to human conflicts have still been measurably higher overall since the Enlightenment (not discounting the great blessing of well over a decade of historically low rates of human conflicts globally):
(As an aside, before moving to the next types of data, it is worth noting that any consideration of human death rates across time should include the increased rates of induced abortions to some extent. Obviously, this is an extremely politicized topic that creates distractions and understandable concerns from multiple directions. However, I’ll simply point out here that there were an average of 56 million induced abortions each year from 2010 to 2014 according to the World Health Organization. Any serious consideration of human death rates across all of human history would need to take these substantial numbers into account to some degree.)
Moving past global human death rates, however, the real genius of the secular myth of progress is that the devastation of modernity is hidden underneath piles of improvements—the majority of which are truly very good (certainly, we should all celebrate and continue to advocate for medical progress and progress in the legal protections provided to the most vulnerable). However, we should also track the losses. These make up a massive but hidden list such as environmental devastation, losses in human attention and consciousness (difficult to define and measure of course) as well as vast extinctions in local culture, craft and lore of place. Especially these last factors (of human attention and consciousness along with local culture, craft and lore of place) all correlate profoundly with the real empowerment and happiness of people. My strong suspicion is that humans in the modern world are substantially less happy, perceptive and capable on average than humans in the premodern world. If we could measure the presence of mental health needs, depression and addictions in the premodern world globally, I suspect that our modern world would not compare as favorably as many today might imagine.
However, this kind of data is not easy to find and perhaps not even possible to extrapolate in any form. Instead, I will do what I can here to sketch a picture with the various pieces of disjointed data that I have been able to find.
Insects are a good place to start. As a boy (in 6th grade), I got to know a couple of PhD students in entomology from Cornel University. They gave me a tour of the facilities there which were some of the best in the world. As friends of our family, they spent time looking over my own collections as an amateur naturalist of various insects, skulls, birds eggs and many other small items arranged with care on the shelves in my bedroom that I called my museum. Because my father was a PhD student (in literature) at SUNY Binghamton, I was able to check out books from the library at Cornel University. By the end of 8th grade, I had checked out well over a hundred books on insects from one of the best entomology libraries in the world. In addition to raising all kinds of bugs to feed to my many snakes, lizards and other pets, I also did a lot of things that many other children did. I collected milkweed leaves and raised monarch butterflies. I spent hours looking through the inches of bugs that piled up under streetlights at night. One time I found a beautiful female specimen of a giant water bug close to four inches long. I had read about these in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard where she recounts her astonishment at watching a frog, who she thought was beautiful and filled with life, collapse suddenly in on itself before its empty skin floated ghostlike to the bottom of the shallow water where it had been sitting at the surface in the sunlight. Dillard spent some time reading to find what could have caused this incredible vision, and concluded that it must have been a giant water bug. I named mine Cleopatra, and I watched her feed happily on several frogs before I released her.
With my own children, I’ve tracked down the nuptial flights of queen ants on warm days after light rains. We’ve collected these native queens and raised them carefully until they lay eggs and the eggs hatch so that the queen is attended by the nanitics as she begins to build her colony. (Nanitics are the very first generation of workers who are smaller and hatched without the benefit of other workers to care for them as eggs.) Despite growing up for 14 out of the first 18 years of my life in Taiwan, I began to suspect while raising my own children that insect populations in America were not what they used to be when I was a child. As I looked into it, there have, in fact, been massive world-wide drops in insect biomass globally since I was a child. This study shows a global 45% decline of invertebrates over the past 40 years (Dirzo Science, 2014):
Another study shows a 75% loss of insect life from 63 locations in Germany identified as low-altitude nature protection areas surrounded by human populations and measured between 1989 and 2016 (Hallmann in PLoS ONE, 2017):
While I don’t find that most people know about the global loss of insect biomass, there have been some reports on the struggles of honeybees and monarch butterflies. Just to look at the data on monarchs is truly saddening. When eastern and western monarch populations are taken together, we have seen an overall 75% decline from 1975 to 2019:
Just focusing on the western monarch, we see that while the number of overwintering sites monitored by concerned people has climbed dramatically, the total number of monarchs reported has dropped to virtually zero in 2020:
While we don’t know much about why insect populations are declining, one candidate is pollution levels that are not connected to local areas but are instead widespread in global ocean and ground water sources. Prominent among these kinds of pollutants are micro-plastics. I do not know much about the definitions of what constitutes micro-plastic pollution or about its possible harm to living things or ecosystems. At any rate, micro-plastic are just one example out of many kinds of pollutants that we could look at. They are an area of growing study, and the initial data on the prevalence of micro-plastic pollution is sobering:
Turning to a human health indicator that gets limited new coverage (and where micro-plastic pollution is also one suspect), there are several studies of male sperm counts dropping substantially in recent decades worldwide. This most well-publicized study was from France:
With far more complicating factors involved but nonetheless worth considering when evaluating longterm changes in human culture, it is also worth looking at overall fertility rates for humans in various parts of the world:
Now we come to one of the most important indicators of human cultural health: the prevalence of local artisan guilds and handcraft traditions. These are numbers that are not easy to find, but there is not doubt that these numbers are in dramatic decline worldwide as a result of globalized industrialization. Both human languages and human handcraft traditions are disappearing completely on a yearly basis. This first study shows the decline in Japan and then in a specific city in Japan (revered for its many handcraft traditions):
Finally, one more local study in the loss of handcrafts, this one from Pakistan:
Of course, handcrafts indicate the life of towns and cities. Human cultures also involve food production and agricultural life. On this topic, Wendell Berry is, of course, a leading contemporary thinker. (However, his basic concepts of human scale and collectively learning how to care for your particular place are equally applicable to cities, towns and farmland.) Without getting into the theories, here are some simple examples of numbers regarding the relative size and number of agricultural land holdings over time (generally showing the replacement of the family farm with corporate agriculture:
This next chart shows data that I’ve found almost no examples of (with this one being a low-budget study). However, one key indicator of human cultural health is our relationship to work versus sacred time, and this indicates what we would expect in the modern world:
While wealth distribution, of course, involves a very complex set of factors, there is a case to be made that our long-term trends in this regard from premodern to modern times have not been healthy. This is related, as well, to the factors above involving our relationship to local places and to work versus sacred time.
Finally, here is some data that has gotten a great deal of attention (and of which much more could be found). Our collective consumption of mass media and entertainment has escalated dramatically by every measure. Much of this, of course, is saturated by increasingly sophisticated efforts to keep our attention and to shape our appetites. One of many books on the topic that I recommend is Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy by James Williams. Here are some basic charts regarding out consumption of entertainment, specifically:
Most of the charts above are easily found online by searching key terms on the charts themselves. I’m glad to answer questions about sources in comments here as well. This is, obviously, not a formal study of any kind, but just a tour of categories where I have found numbers that felt relevant to me in consider what we may have lost as people with the rise of the modern Enlightenment in Europe and the secular nation state (which has been exported as a concept to the entire globe).