What are the markers of human progress? We can now do our weekly shop, host a business conference, meet our next potential partner, send a birthday greeting to an Antipodean pal, book a fitness class, track our kids whereabouts, and check our bank balance, all without leaving the sofa. And when we absolutely must leave the house, we can go about our business safe in the knowledge that our smart phone will alert us should a stranger call. Thanks to webcam technology, we can spy on our empty property and with home automation, we can control the heating, washing machine and dishwasher from the car or office.
And yet… British homes have the poorest energy efficiency in Europe with only around half properly insulated. And homelessness in the UK soared between the years 2010 and 2019. Despite politically motivated attempts to rid the streets of rough sleepers during the pandemic, numbers are on the rise again; this is predicted to continue with the Autumn and Winter fuel crisis looming. According to Shelter’s most recent research, between the months of July and September last year, 397 households became homeless every day and a total of 36,510 households were tipped into homelessness. That’s roughly speaking the population of Burnley. Doesn’t sound like progress to me.
While we might be able to keep tabs on our children’s virtual interactions and use parental locks and screen time control to keep them safe online, when it comes to their mental health we are failing miserably. 5 children in a typical classroom now has a mental health problem and around 25% of older teens use self-harm as a coping strategy for dealing with high levels of psychological distress. I can personally attest to the stress that schools, social services and health care services are under. Each time a new referral is made, a game of pass ensues, with the ball bouncing back and forth while parents become increasingly desperate and the child’s condition worsens. Some families resort to paying for private therapy, but for most, this is beyond their means. Teachers are being expected to take on the role of social worker and deal with increasingly severe mental health indicators, which in turn puts pressure on their own mental health. The NHS has a commitment to ensure anyone needing mental health assessment is seen within 18 weeks. 18 weeks. Anyone who knows anything about mental health knows that early intervention is key.
Recently there has been a worrying upward trend in deaths by suicide in the UK’s top universities: every four days a student takes their own life and in just 18 months, Bristol lost 11 students to suicide. That’s not progress.
But look how far we’ve come in terms of AI. However keen Boris Johnson might be to convince us that he single-handedly formulated the Covid vaccine, robots were actually used to analyse that all important granular data. Scientists are developing driverless cars – some Chinese cities are already trialling robotaxi services. Just imagine: soon we might be able to do away with delivery drivers as well. The ‘unskilled’ workforce could be redeployed as care workers for the aging population. Because surely android companions inhabit novels and films; they could never be a reality. Wrong. ERNIE-GEN (sounds like the cuddly Sesame Street puppet infected by malware) is a new type of robot. It’s being trained to recognise subtle language features, like emotions and intent and to respond to them. Intelligence and the ability to manufacture it, must be one of the key factors in measuring the progress of a civilization. But how well do we nurture and utilise our talented brains? Tony Blaire’s famous mantra, ‘Education, Education, Education’ was used to secure Labour’s second term in government, but the promise to close the gap between state and grammar schools by recruiting more teachers and more support staff has been demolished by Tory cuts. Since 2010 the budget for schools has been slashed to the tune of £10 billion. With climate change now the biggest threat to our continued existence on Earth, why aren’t we investing in mega-think-tanks – pooling our best brain power to find green solutions to this existential crisis? I’m no scientist, but here’s a thought – might there be a way to turn all that landfill into fuel?
If you’re old enough to remember Michael Fish’s famous storm clanger, in which he assured viewers that a hurricane wasn’t about to hit British shores, you will also remember the 115MPH winds that subsequently killed 18 people and cut off power supplies to over a 100,000 homes for days. These events now seem all too familiar, but at least we can predict with a good degree of accuracy what is coming down the line. But what is the good in knowing if inadequate action is taken? How many more times do we have to see flood victims evacuated from their homes and rivers swallowing up streets? Forecasters were warning of this year’s heat wave a good week before temperatures soared into the 40’s. And still we were unable to take measures to prevent transport services grinding to a halt and wildfires from blazing out of control. Our infrastructure isn’t built to cope with extremes of weather and our fire services are not trained or equipped to deal with such large-scale events. The Kardashev Scale (designed by a Russian astrophysicist in 1964) is a tool for measuring degrees of civilisation dependent upon energy use. Type 1 is described as able to access and store the energy available on its own planet; Type 2 is described as capable of harnessing energy of its own star; and Type 3 would be a civilization that manages to tap into the energy sources of its entire galaxy.
Since we have yet to fully utilise solar energy and cannot even efficiently store the energy naturally at our disposal, we don’t even meet the criteria for Type 1. As a small island, the UK has the largest wind and tidal resources in all of Europe. As an all-weather cyclist it comes as no surprise to me that the UK is the windiest country in Europe; our tidal resources account for 50% of the continental capacity. But government lacks the vision and political will to adopt a renewable energy policy that would actually enable us to deliver on our green targets, leaving us behind many of our European neighbours. If only the billionaires, so eager to build their property portfolios, would invest some of their wealth in this sector.
If you want to measure progress by wealth, then Britain is right up there. While many were feeling the squeeze during the pandemic, trying to eke out their furlough, the number of super-rich was actually on the increase and reached a new record. We are the number one country in the world when it comes to billionaires per capita. And what part do these billionaires play in the progress of humankind? Frederick Barclay bought himself a national newspaper and The Spectator magazine; Rupert Murdoch has acquired a global media empire that counts The Sun, The Times and Fox News among its assets; the Reuben brothers famously splash their cash on private jets and super yachts, as well as owning racecourses and an aerodrome; Leonard Blavatnik owns a record label. Allegedly, before David’s death, the Barclays scrapped on the deck of The Lady Beatrice over their shared assets, while over the pond, Bezos, Branson and Musk are fighting it out in the space-race. What’s that saying about great power and something that comes with it? You would think that after 300,000 years on the Earth, we would have matured as a species. You know, gotten over childish spats in the playground and selfish adolescent preoccupations.
It's time to sit old Homo Saps down on the shrink’s couch and apply a little psychoanalytical theory. Dr Freud might say that the Id is running the show. We’ve regressed. Back in the days of The Industrial Revolution, it was the affluent that led the reform movements that improved living and working conditions for their poorer cousins: Edwin Chadwick worked on the Poor Law commission, Richard Oastler called for the Factory Act to address the issue of child labour, and Dickens is almost as famous for his philanthropy as he is for his novels (many of which explored the theme of class prejudice). Whatever happened to this social conscience? Human Rights are now being rolled back rather than advanced with Roe vs Wade overturned in America and Britain’s draconian Nationality & Borders Bill.
There are some signs of morality if we look beyond the world of business and finance to the Arts. Banksy’s Christmas reindeer were a statement against homelessness, Little Amal has travelled over 8,000KM to raise awareness of the refugee crisis, and Marcus Rashford, Patron Saint of School Dinners, has set up his Book Club in collaboration with the Literacy Trust to ‘nurture a love of reading and get free books to children who need them most’. But The Arts are even more woefully underfunded than the UK’s public services. Andrew Lloyd Webber spoke out against what he called the government’s ‘blunt instrument’ that forced him to cancel Cinderella on what should have been ‘Freedom Day’. The furlough scheme was not extended to artists, whose jobs are far from secure at the best of times. Anything that cannot be commodified is now deemed worthless. Iconic British novelists and dramatists from Shakespeare to the Brontes; from Orwell to Christie are revered the world over. Literature is in our DNA. But publishing is now very much a business: with Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Hachette, and HarperCollins dominating the industry. Writers are now considered in terms of how marketable they are rather than how talented they are. All due respect to Marcus (I’m sure his Breakfast Club book is every bit as good as the seminal 80’s film) but he got that book deal because his name will sell.
So, we can launch ourselves into space, genetically manufacture food, clone animals, cryonically preserve ourselves, store data in the clouds, turn a Swedish pop band into holograms. We’ve created works of staggering genius and breath-taking beauty from The Sistine Chapel to Mozart’s Magic Flute. We’ve conquered Cholera and Polio and tamed HIV and Covid. We’ve got Brexit done. But progress? We are still waging wars and the wealth gap just gets wider and wider. It is estimated that the cost to eradicate world poverty is around $175 billion per year for 20 years. Last year, 9 countries spent $82.4 billion on nuclear ‘defence’. With all this technology, surely someone ought to be able to join these dots.