It seems a natural human intuition to think the world is going down the tubes. We look back across our lives and identify what seems more worrisome now than when we were born. We then worry about what sort of world future generations will inhabit. Written accounts demonstrate that such concerns go back at least to the classical world.
There is certainly some validity to that perspective, especially when it comes to cumulative threats like climate change. That said, there do seem to be many cases in which anxieties proved unjustified – such as when wave after wave of immigrants ended up successfully integrated into North American and Western European cultures, despite fears that they would create all manner of entrenched problems.
I started thinking about all this earlier today, reading Ken Alibek’s account of the Soviet biological weapons program. Until I was nine years old, the Russians were still doing open air testing of biological weapons on Vozrozhdeniya Island. That reminded me of two probable cognitive failures. Firstly, we are less aware of the dangers that existed in previous times, which reduces the validity of our apprehensions about a future that is worse. Secondly, there can be real improvements in the state of the world. While there are certainly still risks associated with Cold War era weapons, at least the spectre of their intentional use is less haunting now than it was in previous decades.