Why it’s difficult for us to accept the world is getting better

I.

The world today is a better place than it used to be. If you’re reading this essay today, you are very fortunate to be born into this era. It took me a long time to grasp this and I’d like to help you grasp it too. To help you understand this fact, I want to start out by explaining how we arrived at this point in time. The human body came about through a long trial and error process. Once the first living organism came into existence billions of years ago and began to multiply, new mutations to the genetic code occurred at random. Over time, those mutations that encourage fitness became more common than those that didn’t. Every individual change that increased an organism’s reproductive success spread, regardless of whether it benefits the individual itself or not. Some of these changes have been very harmful to us. Huntington’s disease is caused by an inherited mutation that makes us more extroverted and flirtatious when we near the end of our reproductive window. As the damage caused by the mutation escalates further, it eventually leads to dementia and death. The reason the mutation persists in our gene pool, is because it increases our chances of having children.

Evolution has a habit of being cruel in this manner. Mutations that increase our tendency to reproduce tend to spread, even if they come at the cost of our own longevity and happiness. This has been an important cause of the human aging process. Alzheimer’s disease seems caused by a similar problem. The APOE4 mutation increases the risk of dementia, but increases our cognitive ability while we’re young. For our genes to spread, beauty merely needed to last from our teenage years until our thirties and our health was needed for at most a few decades afterwards. The entire phenomenon you witness in the mirror is discarded by evolution and left to slowly decay once your own offspring are capable of taking care of themselves.

II.

People have a very long history of not enjoying this simple fact. After we eradicated big predators and gave birth to social hierarchies, people who were liberated from the need to toil in the fields became keenly aware of the fact that their minds were dependent on bodies that grow frail and eventually succumb to one ailment or another. People began to seek solutions to aging, but no means were available to them that could put a significant dent in the aging process. As we entered the industrial era, infectious disease was eradicated and death evolved from something that can occur to us at random, into something we expect will catch up with us after we retire. The desire to address aging grew further.

As we transitioned from the industrial age into the information age, the need to address aging became even more acute. In the information era, human beings mature slowly. Jobs that once required a high school degree now require a bachelor’s degree. People no longer form lifelong relationships based on shared backgrounds. The average age at childbirth climbs upwards, as a growing cohort of women leaves the reproductive window without giving birth. Growing numbers of people spend the last decades of their lives, unable to contribute to society. Western societies gradually fall apart, burdened with unbalanced demographic pyramids. Immigration has proved incapable of solving this problem, as even second generation migrants suffer from much higher unemployment rates.

III.

Conservatives will generally insist that the solution to these problems is to go back. People need to go back to church, marry young, women need to stay at home, birth control and abortion need to be prohibited, homosexual indoctrination needs to stop and migrants need to return to their country of origin. This will allow us to maintain society as we have known it for centuries, they argue. I don’t think this is desirable. There are a lot of issues to go over, but it’s worth pointing out that Victorian England, with its uptight morals, had an epidemic of dead infants found in abandoned alleys. That’s the kind of situation you return to, if you abandon modern mores.

Another issue you encounter is that we eventually suffer from an epidemic of overpopulation, particularly among the poor. In nations where abortion and birth control are illegal or taboo, the upper class tends to maintain access, whereas the underclass becomes convinced that “God will provide” for them. Americans have succeeded at making it difficult for the poor to restrain their fertility, by brainwashing people into believing it’s better to give birth to a child you can’t take care of than to have an abortion, but upper classes won’t voluntarily abandon the privileges afforded to them by the modern world.

IV.

The better and more realistic solution, is to increase the healthspan of people. What we genuinely benefit from is if people at age ninety still have the mental clarity of people aged sixty. We similarly benefit from a situation, where women aged fifty are as fertile as women aged thirty. We want to live in a society, where people have the liberty to choose for themselves when to have children. We shouldn’t resort to superstitions and rationalizations after the fact, to justify births that happen against people’s will, or births that can’t happen due to limits imposed by aging.

The biological limits imposed upon us in this matter, are not a blessing but a curse. The female body is capable in some cases of giving birth at age ten and in most cases at age thirteen, but nobody would argue that girls should give birth at such an age. A recent case happened in Paraguay, where a 10 year old girl became pregnant. As she was not allowed to undergo an abortion, she eventually gave birth. She now suffers chronic pain in her hips and waist. She also regularly self-injures, due to the psychological trauma. It’s a comforting thought, to believe that nature or some divine force created a higher order that underlies the world around us, but just as it makes little sense from an ethical perspective for a ten year old to be capable of pregnancy, it makes little sense to proclaim that around age forty childbirth should stop. Whether something is naturally possible or not, has no significant relationship to the question of whether it is desirable or not.

V.

What we would benefit the most from instead, is if we would transcend our human biology. We should aim to liberate ourselves, from our dependence on the ruthless process of natural selection. I was born a full week too late, at which point in time my head was too big to allow my mother to properly give birth. I could probably have died back then or suffered brain damage, my parents would have been traumatized and nothing good would come out of that. Instead I was born through forceps, which is associated with a nine points higher IQ on average than a natural birth.

In pre-industrial societies, infant mortality rates hovered at anywhere between 25% and 33%. I’ve seen arguments against life extension, arguing the process to be unnatural, but I’ve struggled to find any bioethicists who argue in favor of bringing infant mortality rates back to their historical level. The problem for anyone who wishes to argue against human augmentation, is that it’s very hard to draw a clear line in regards to forms of augmentation we should avoid. Would you argue that diabetic children shouldn’t receive insulin, but be left to die instead? Nobody will argue such a thing. Would you argue that children who are deaf should not receive cochlear implants? Again, nobody will argue such a thing.

People are comfortable with others being lifted up from incapacity to an average level of capability. Once we look beyond the average however, I notice an awful lot of squeamishness. If I receive normal medical treatment and a healthy diet, I can expect to live much longer than at least 90% of humans who lived in pre-industrial ages. Nobody minds this fact, everyone accepts the idea of me dying at age eighty. If however, I wish to live until the age of 200, it’s mired in controversy.

In a similar manner, we’re fine with deformed people receiving cosmetic surgery to look average, but we don’t like average people receiving surgery to look beautiful. But where do we draw the line? We’re generally fine with average people wearing make up. We’re fine with people who exercise, lift weights and avoid direct sun exposure. We’re generally fine with people who have warts, scars and similar issues removed. If you have a face lift, remove the double chin you grow with age, undergo surgery to lengthen your legs, or undergo any other radical procedure, it leaves people somewhat uncomfortable. It seems as if our brain is weary of being misled.

VI.

There’s another problem involved here, which is that humans are wary of rapid change. Taking a nutrient to improve your cognitive capacity is something that won’t bother anyone. Giving your child a synthetic gene that boosts their IQ by 20 points leaves people upset. The question I’m left with however is: Why? Why does this upset us? We might imagine that life is a zero-sum game, that you boosting your kid’s IQ by 20 points will make it impossible for mine to thrive without similar enhancements. If other kids receive transgenes, yours might never make it into Harvard without transgenes, you fear.

My answer to that argument is that we already go through painstaking effort to enhance our children. What upsets me is a kid who has to spend four hours every day doing their homework. A kid with a synthetic gene who can spend two hours every day memorizing Latin words and spend the other two hours playing outside or doing other stuff kids like is a child who is better off. If we fear the competition that results from any child being genetically enhanced, the real issue we face is that our society is hypercompetitive. If we can satisfy more of our needs with less work, the result should be less work and a less competitive society. In Scandinavia and the Netherlands this has been essentially achieved. We are intelligent people, but we work very little and avoid placing excessively high demands on our children.

The most important point to understand perhaps, is that your child is not harmed by the genetic enhancement of other children. Rather, your child benefits from their enhancement. A child whose intelligence has been artificially enhanced, is a child who is less likely to bully other children. The intelligent child develops intelligent and productive habits. Intelligent children serve as inspiration to the other children and lift a classroom up. When intelligent children grow up, they become intelligent adults, who deliver important contributions to society. You should be afraid of children who bring knives to school, not of children whose genomes have been changed to make them more intelligent and social.

VII.

For now, genetically engineering children is still a far off dream, but we are booking success in other places. People who carry mutations that lead to breast cancer, Huntington’s disease and other deadly ailments, are able to implant eggs that don’t carry the mutation. Over time we will expand the realm of conditions we can eliminate from our population. As an example, there’s a rare mutation that reduces men’s IQ by roughly 15 points and makes them extremely aggressive. Should parents be allowed to prevent their children from inheriting such a mutation? My answer is yes and I think the majority of people would agree. If we’re allowed to eliminate such conditions, we’re already capable of boosting the IQ of the human population. Once this is commonplace, enhancements that are more controversial right now become a subject that can be discussed. Should you be free to make sure you pass on the gene to your child that made you a great musician? How about a synthetic gene guaranteed to give a child great math skills?

Another issue to consider, is that human beings now have choice. If the European Union won’t allow you to give birth to a child who won’t inherit your hereditary condition, you can fly around the world to visit an IVF clinic in Singapore, where local politicians might not have an issue with such a thing. The cost of traveling to another country is much lower now than it used to be. Medical tourism today is a widespread phenomenon, people fly around the world to receive treatments not offered in their country of origin. Ireland’s strict abortion laws could not survive in a globalized world, where pregnant women simply fly to the United Kingdom to have an abortion. My expectation is that strict bioethical laws will suffer a similar fate.

VIII.

The most exciting outcome we’re witnessing so far, is in the field of senolytics. A small minority of your cells become old and enter a shut-down mode known as senescence. These cells release inflammatory signals that prohibit your other cells from functioning properly. In recent years, we’ve discovered a number of methods that allow us to eliminate such cells from the body, with dramatic increases in life expectancy witnessed in animals undergoing such interventions. The most recent of these studies looked at Fisetin, a natural chemical found in strawberries. Give old mice a large dose of Fisetin and the animals lose a portion of their senescent cells, leading to a significant increase in their average and maximal life expectancy.

These are treatments we could implement today. They’re not implemented in humans yet, because such treatments always go through a long review process, in an effort to ensure safety. However, there’s essentially nothing that prohibits old people from ordering large amounts of Fisetin from the Internet and carrying out the experiment on themselves.

The important thing to understand, is that this discovery will help us address nearly every part of aging. Menopause is regulated by the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus sends signals that cause aging, because senescent cells build up in the hypothalamus. If you can remove senescent cells from the hypothalamus, you can thus begin to address menopause. Senescent immune cells are thought to make it more difficult for women to get pregnant too. It seems self-evident that when you remove senescent cells from the human body, you can’t just help people live longer, but you will be able to allow women to have children at a later age.

IX.

We should understand the fact that human lives, cultures and rituals are largely built around the cycle of life, disease and death. This plays a significant influence in some people’s objections to radical life extension. If we radically change the way human beings die and age, we’ll radically change human culture. Access to contraception and abortion likely played a significant role in the demise of marriage and religion. An end to aging would similarly have important effects on how we live our lives.

Consider a few things. Men tend to marry women who are younger than them. Very wealthy men tend to marry women who are much younger than them. It’s unavoidable to consider the fact that men’s tendency to remain fertile for a longer period in their lives plays an important role in this phenomenon. If women can reproduce for as long as men, this relationship changes. If human beings could live for centuries, but becoming an adult still takes just eighteen years, we would find ourselves living in societies largely free from children. Similarly, it would probably become more difficult to maintain lifelong stable relationships between individual partners within marriage.

If aging no longer poses a genuine risk, violent and tragic deaths would become more significant to people. An airplane crash transforms from a tragedy into an absolute horror, a murder an unforgivable act. This may be a cultural downside, people might genuinely become more risk-averse. I can’t imagine it to be as big of a tragedy however, as the fact that millions of people have to say farewell to their friends and family every year.

My expectation is that our culture would become more individualist. A society free from aging and infectious disease, is a society where we probably give up on trying to form lifelong exclusive relationships with other people. It’s worth noting that Aubrey de Grey is non-monogamous, he had a wife two decades older than him and girlfriends much younger than him. This seems to have been commonplace before the neolithic revolution, when agriculture led to an explosion of STD’s as well as a need for people to claim property. People harbor the paradoxical instincts of desiring polygamy for themselves and monogamy for their partners.

It shouldn’t be a shock that people from Abrahamic cultures are uncomfortable with these modern day heathens, who plan on living forever and abandoning all social constraints. They see their worldview and their way of life as being under threat. Their way of life evolved under conditions of permanent constraints to our carrying capacity, where any man’s gain was another man’s loss.

X.

It’s easy to underestimate the huge impact that these treatments will have on our lives. A society in which forty year old women are as fertile as twenty year old women, is a society in which men and women can develop healthier and more functional relationships with each other. A woman today is faced with a choice between “children” or a “career”. Men are faced with an endless pursuit of wealth and status as they age, to avoid becoming irrelevant to young women. The biological limits imposed upon us enslave us and lead us into conflict with each other.

Even more interesting to consider however, are some other implications that are easy to miss. We generally don’t want to use nuclear energy, because we realize that nuclear accidents release pollution that leads to cancer and premature death. The main reason nuclear radiation causes death however, is because the damaged cells become senescent and start to clog up our body, releasing inflammation that damages us from inside. The image we have of cancer, of a single mutation somehow giving birth to a monster inside our body that consumes us from within, is flawed, because a healthy well-functioning immune system tends to kill such cells. If these concerns can be relieved, nuclear energy may become a more viable option for the energy transition again.

Even more ambitious is the realization that space exploration is becoming a viable option. Astronauts who visit the moon are found to suffer significant radiation damage. The fact that we are learning how to recognize damaged cells and purge them from our body is of tremendous use here. The first studies on senolytics used mice that were prematurely aged by exposing them to large amounts of radiation. The senolytics purged the damaged cells from their bodies and allowed them to live healthy normal lives again.

XI.

There are various concerns I see regularly, that people would eventually be faced with meaningless lives, or that the world would eventually become overpopulated. I don’t consider these objections to be genuinely relevant. To start with, the idea that life would become meaningless is nonsense. The human brain begins to fail as we age. It becomes less capable of processing new experiences. You’re not eager to do new things when you’re old, for the same reason you become grumpy when they change the opening tune of your favorite TV show when you’re old: The decline of your cognitive capacity makes you eager to keep everything the same. The dysfunction of your brain similarly makes you afraid of undergoing new experiences and bored with life. Depressed young people are legitimately just as bored with life as many of the old people who receive euthanasia now. We should give them some NMDA antagonists and see if such people still want to end their lives.

The other issue we face is that people are afraid of overpopulation. This is a more legitimate concern, but my main concern right now in the near term is underpopulation. The world’s most advanced societies, with the highest quality of life, are failing to reproduce themselves. People in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Europe are dying out. They have fewer children than necessary to sustain their population. The nations where the population is currently shrinking, are the same nations where life extension technology would first become available. In other words, life extension technology would at first serve primarily to solve demographic problems, rather than making them worse.

After sufficient time however, it’s indeed true that we would begin to face overpopulation. There are different issues to consider here. One issue has to do with how we use our environment. Most of our use of physical space isn’t through cities, it is to grow food. Most of the land we use, is used to feed animals, who are then fed to human beings. We should find ourselves able over time, to reduce our dependence on animals for human nutrition. We might transition to a diet largely based on shellfish, fungi and seaweed. This would dramatically reduce our need for farmland and thus create large amounts of free space that can be occupied by human beings. We may also start cultivating meat in Petri dishes.

We can use the space we have today more efficiently, but there’s another fact to consider, which is that large amounts of physical space on Earth go unused. Most of the Earth is covered by oceans, places where human beings currently can’t live. Most of the ocean is devoid of life. In the long run, I expect it would be perfectly possible for human beings to build floating cities on the ocean. On the dark ocean, concrete infrastructure would serve to reflect sunlight back up into the atmosphere and ultimately into outer space, thereby reducing global temperatures.

XII.

There’s no guarantee I can offer that we would accomplish all of this. There may be physical limits we’re unable to overcome. There may be aspects to the aging process we can’t adequately address (my bet would be on glucosepane crosslinks or DNA damage), the maximum power principle might lead religious fundamentalists to continually reproduce like rabbits until we hit our carrying capacity again, microplastics in our food might have long-term catastrophic health effects, or we might perish in a civil war caused by global warming before we set up a sustainable energy infrastructure. There are a lot of hypothetical obstacles on the road that are difficult to rule out.

My bigger point however, is that the road itself is worth embarking on. When it comes to radical life extension, I consider the objective to be worthwhile and all the benefits to greatly exceed the costs. There are a lot of things we could accomplish, that are difficult under the conditions we currently live under. To end aging, is merely the first step in an era I would characterize as post-human. In the post-human era, we render the most elementary obstacles of existence that we have taken for granted obsolete. The technologies to accomplish these outcomes already exist.

Our society as we know it operates on the basis of human beings, with legal rights on the basis of being born into our species. A few ten thousand years in the past however, we shared this planet with non-human hominids, who had radically different cultures and skills than we do. There’s nothing today that fundamentally prohibits us from giving birth to a Neanderthal or Denisovan child. The implications of this would be earth-shattering, for a culture founded in Judeo-Christian-Humanist values, in which the world still revolves around interchangeable human beings.

I consider the reward we can earn by embarking on the post-human era to be tremendous. Most of the traditional religions we have inherited damage our society today, by clinging onto an outdated view of what it means to be a human being. The Catholic church for example, insists on outlawing abortion, because life starts at conception and every human life is somehow sacred. This is an outgrowth of humanist Christian philosophy. Posthumanist secularized philosophies have emerged since then, that recognize the value of human life exists on a gradient. The life of an infant born without a brain is not as important as that of a healthy happy person, while the life of a whale or an elephant can exceed that of a fertilized human egg.

The posthuman era will force religious fundamentalists to confront a world in which life can not be neatly placed into a human or non-human category. Just as the invention of safe and reliable contraception made an enormous dent in the viability of traditional Christianity back in the 60’s, the transcendence of the barrier between human and nonhuman will be a final death knell for philosophies that continue to linger on today to the detriment of humanity.

XIII.

It’s similarly useful for us to consider the role of Western civilization within the posthuman era. The values that we characterize as Western, may be better understood as post-industrial values. If history had evolved somewhat differently and China continued developing coal power during the Song Dynasty until it reached a positive feedback loop of self-perpetuating industrial development, the values we call Western today might have been thought of as Chinese.

We’re individualists, because individuals who are free to pursue experiments have radically transformed our society. We celebrate the crank, who experiments by himself in his toolshed, because we live in societies where penicillin was discovered by accident in a fridge, where the first man who understood infectious disease was ridiculed by his peers and thrown into a mental hospital, where college dropouts who take LSD become CEO’s who change the world. Individualism was a necessity for us, to get to the point where we are today.

As Westerners we are secular iconoclasts, because the inventions and discoveries we made rendered the traditional religious teachings we inherited obsolete. Geology made it clear to us that the Earth is not 6000 years old, evolution made it clear that we share a common ancestor with the chimpanzee. Archaeology allows us to debunk the book of Mormon with incredible ease: Horses were extinct on the American continent when the events described in the book supposedly took place.

Societies that develop the standard of living and level of human development observed in the West, will gradually adapt to the cultural values found in the West. I am not referring to a narrow level of human development here, comprised just of our economic wealth. Saudi Arabia might be wealthy, but in regards to the production of culture and scientific developments, it lags behind Western civilization. Its people are free to harvest the fruits of Western civilization without endorsing the associated values, in exchange for the oil we need to keep our system going. This ends when we will no longer need them.

XIV.

Perhaps most important about Western civilization, is that our values are aggressively cosmopolitan. Whereas Judaism, Hinduism and Yazidism are religions that see themselves as a set of values specifically relevant for specific ethnic groups, we want to impose our values upon the rest of humanity. We’re intolerant towards cruelty, regardless of the location it may occur. We started out by addressing the cruelties we witnessed within our own societies. Slavery, torture and child labor were recognized as cruelties and subsequently prohibited. In non-Western societies where we encounter such practices, we aggressively take a stand against them. The British and French colonial empires abolished slavery whenever they encountered it. The British implemented a global blockade of slave vessels and readily fought wars, to overthrow African monarchs who participated in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Slavery was not unique to Western civilization. What is unique to Western civilization is that it gave birth to a global campaign to eradicate the phenomenon.

The cosmopolitanism of Western civilization functions more through seduction than through force however. Force is used against those who benefit from the perpetuation of an unjust situation. A rural Pakistani sheikh with four wives benefits from the perpetuation of a situation in which young unmarried men can be brainwashed into blowing themselves up in name of medieval superstitions. The vast majority of people, stuck in positions of powerlessness, are converted through seduction. The vast ocean of opportunities delivered by Western civilization is so enormous that people can’t convince themselves to maintain their hostility towards us.

Thousands of people lose their lives on boats in the middle of the Mediterranean sea, because Western civilization is so unimaginably superior to the cultures they were born into that they are willing to risk their lives to catch a glimpse of what we have to offer. We should tell them not to risk their life, because we are going to bring it to them. We bombed Oba Kosoko’s palace in Lagos in 1851, because Oba Kosoko refused to end the slave trade. Hulda Stumpf was murdered in Kenya in the year 1930, because she sought to eliminate female circumcision among the Kikuyu of Nigeria. Her murderers mutilated her before killing her. We aggressively and confidently brought cruelty to an end in the past, we will do so again.

Consider that in the Netherlands, doctors have implemented procedures that reverse the damage caused to Somali women by female genital mutilation. The clitoris is restored, new labia are constructed out of skin and scar tissue is removed. These are women who could not urinate, give birth or have sex, without suffering pain, or reliving a trauma inflicted upon them as children. And today, we have reached a level of development and understanding within Western civilization, that allows us to put an end to the suffering imposed upon them by a set of cultural values that reduces them to other people’s property. How could you possibly cling onto a culture that imposes such cruelty upon you? These cultures will fade away like distant memories of the past.

We have not just developed the means to address surgical traumas, but rather, we have developed the means that allow us to address psychological traumas as well. Western psychologists have developed effective means to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, through use of psychotherapy combined with MDMA or Psilocybin. People who have lived as child soldiers or as sex slaves, can have their scars addressed and go on to live normal, happy productive lives. The only obstacle we face to widespread deployment is our own inheritance of cumbersome religious philosophies that harbor a reluctance to tolerate the use of psychedelics to address people’s suffering, but those traditions are dying out in our own countries as well.

Francis Fukuyama was correct in his assessment, while Samuel Huntington came up with an amusing although unrealistic science-fiction scenario. Western civilization conquered the world, reigns supreme today and can no longer be defeated. There won’t be a clash of civilizations, because there exists no viable alternative to us. A culture that liberates and restores dignity to people who have been dehumanized can’t possibly lose, because there are simply not enough people with a motive to put up any form of resistance against us. We won and we planted giant yellow Ms as victory columns from Cairo to Hong Kong, as everything else rots away in the dustbin of history.

XV.

To get to the point where we are today did not just take ingenuity. It required bravery and sacrifice. The reason it’s difficult to accept the world is getting better, is because it’s difficult to be humble. When I deny that the world is getting better, as I have done for a very long time, I’m failing to display the proper gratitude towards those who struggled so hard to make the world a better place. Pride makes it difficult for us to accept gifts. It’s a moral failure, a failure that means spitting on the graves of those who sacrificed so much to deliver it to us.

We won the race to global dominance, so now that we see the grand prize within our reach, we have to consider those who did not live to see it. I had a grandfather who never lived to see me. He had to work in the dirty industrial facilities of the harbor, cleaning dirty silos. As he grew old he developed lung cancer and struggled through obscure literature, hoping to find a cure because he wanted to live on and see more of what the world had to offer. There are generations of men who worked through torturous labor, so that their children might live to see better days. There are even men who were murdered, because they wanted their children to reap the fair proceeds of the progress they had witnessed in their own lifetimes.

We need to be grateful towards those who made sacrifices that imposed such a cost upon them. I’m grateful towards the 1,200 striking coal miners in Ludlow, who saw their families murdered by John D. Rockefeller Jr’s henchmen, for demanding the enforcement of an eight hour workday law. I’m grateful to the 2000 dead men, women and children in Chili, murdered by the Chilean army when they demanded a 15 days advance notice upon termination of their labor contract. It’s easier to celebrate men who died on the beaches of Normandy defeating a now vanquished enemy, than it is to celebrate those who died in a conflict with an upper class.

Not every hero is politically palatable, but these are the heroes who made it possible for us to enjoy the fruits of the unprecedented progress witnessed today. We work ten to twenty hours less than these men every week, while enjoying much greater wealth.  We don’t work underground, we don’t inhale coal dust that will kill us before we retire. The greatest threat I face at work myself is dying from excessive comfort, by sitting on a chair for too long. The next generation won’t even have a distinct concept of work within their lives, they will carry out activities they genuinely want to commit to, with greater income as a side-effect of secondary importance.

Even my own father had to work with machinery that killed men. He lived to see a man ripped apart by machinery at his workplace, barely still recognizable as a human being once the machine came to a halt. I was liberated from the need to face such horrors in my own life, I work a comfortable office job. Like most men of my generation, I’m ten to twenty centimeter taller than the generation of my grandparents, because I was fed a diet that would have been reserved for an aristocrat in their era. The men who lie in unmarked graves today would have to raise their heads to gaze into our eyes, but they would do so with justified pride, not with envy.

We’re a product of their struggle, men who witnessed their children’s hands mangled by machinery and decided that no such indignity should be tolerated. A hundred thousand textile workers in Philadelphia went on strike in 1903, demanding that children and women should not have to work in the middle of the night any longer, in textile mills where their fingers are ripped off when they’re not careful. They could never imagine the kind of wealth we live in today, the problems we face are trivial compared to the ones they overcame. We can never repay them and their names were lost to history, but we can make the best of what they passed onto us.

It’s easier to celebrate men who died on the beaches of Normandy defeating a now vanquished enemy, than it is to celebrate those who died in a conflict with an upper class. Not every hero is politically palatable, but these men died because they wanted their children to live in dignity and their struggle paid off. These conflicts now lie behind us. We have elites who rule over us today and harvest a disproportionate share of wealth, but they exist by virtue of our consent. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are going to donate 99% of their wealth to charity, less than 1% will be passed onto their own children. Elites today no longer wish to isolate themselves in palaces, they want to be part of society and respected for the contributions they delivered. Elites like those in Saudi Arabia, who martyr reformers like Khashoggi, sign their own death certificates.

And as we live today in an era where we are taller than our parents, fluent and literate in two or more languages, fed with fruit shipped from foreign continents, endowed with the world’s collective body of knowledge at our fingertips and a cure for aging within reach, hopefully better able to be grateful for what we have inherited, with cautious optimism we can begin to gaze towards the stars.

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