Stop apologizing for the world we’re leaving behind

The end of a year and the beginning of a new one are always accompanied by messages like, “Thank goodness that horrible year is over,” and “Let’s hope the new year is better.”

After seeing 67 new years, I’ve had enough of that formula. Every year has both good and bad. The only difference is the proportion of each.

I’m not known as a raving optimist, but I’m getting good and tired of the hackneyed cynicism of accentuating the negative year after year. And it’s not just around January 1.

There’s a story in a recent edition of the New York Times, with some old guy wailing about the world we’re leaving the next generation.

Here’s his fact:

  • His generation has messed things up beyond all recognition, burdening youngsters with climate change, mountains of government debt and much more spending on us old fogies than on the productive millennials.

The first of these articles I recall would have appeared around the time I started reading the paper in 1955. The older generation apologized for World War II, the Holocaust and the first use of atomic weapons. There was the constant threat of instant annihilation in a nuclear war if the Cold War (a concern by itself) turned hot. Already then, there were concerns about fossil fuels that would one day run out.

Twenty years later, my fellow university graduates read apologies for the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the threat of nuclear war and deficit government spending. And, of course, the problems inherent in overuse of fossil fuels.

And so on.

The author in a mood

The author in a mood

There is no reason to minimize the negatives, but there is also no justification in ignoring the positives.

Between 1955 and 1975, for example:

  • A vaccine against polio began wiping out a disease that killed and maimed millions. Remember iron lungs? If so, you just gave your age away.
  • A new strain of wheat (GMO, whether you like it or not) saved many millions from starvation in India and Pakistan.
  • Israel progressed from its poor beginnings toward economic power.
  • A pioneer computer called UNIVAC, which filled up a huge room, called the 1956 Presidential election.

You see where we’re going with this.

Now 2014 just ended, and we’re wringing our hands again. What an awful world we’re leaving. Of course there are problems. But look what we old fogies have presided over:

  • Almost everyone in the developed world has a little computer in his pocket that can instantly connect with practically everyone else and access the world’s treasure troves of information — so that we don’t have to rely on our fading memories for much of anything. We don’t even have to read maps.
  • Diseases like AIDS, once incurable, are on the run. Some forms of cancer are actually curable now. Tuberculosis can be treated, rendering the old warning “You’ll catch your death from consumption” yet another anachronism that youngsters don’t even understand. There have been setbacks, like drug-resistant viruses, and the developing world has yet to benefit from most of these advances — but it’s inevitable that they will become universal, just as polio is nearly finished.
  • The Cold War and the threat of instant nuclear destruction are gone. True, other threats have emerged, but that one dominated the world’s subconscious for decades, and it doesn’t anymore.
  • In 1975, automobile seat belts were optional and not used much. Cars built in this century have
    Cairo infrastructure

    Cairo infrastructure

    mandatory lap-shoulder belts, air bags, reinforced bodies and too many other safety devices to list here. Traffic deaths in the US and even Israel are dropping, despite poor driving. Again, the developing world lags—traffic deaths in Egypt are alarmingly high because of poor infrastructure, poor maintenance of vehicles and lax enforcement.

  • Awareness of the environmental impact of practically everything has never been higher. Governments are slow to take real measures, but instead of apologizing, we should be proud that after decades of warning about the use of fossil fuels, we’re actually starting to do something.

Now the one that really gets my old goat. The Times article wails that much more money is spent on old people than on the productive millennials. It quotes a figure of 10 percent of the American GDP being “spent” on Social Security and Medicare, while spending on younger people lags far behind.

“Spent” is in quotes because it isn’t being spent. It’s our money. Each of us seniors has been pumping money into Social Security and Medicare for at least 40 years. Most of us will get back only a fraction of what we put in. Comparing that “spending” to infrastructure, education and other responsibilities of government isn’t apples and oranges—it’s apples and bullsh*t.

So excuse me if I call bullsh*t on yet another groveling apology to the younger generation. The fact is, the world they are getting is much, much better than the one we got. It can be even better. We must work together to accomplish that.

And stop whining.

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