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Why A.D. 2011 beats 100,000 B.C.: More choices, free will, freedom

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Jacket cover for 'Freedom'Has civilization been a big mistake? My friend and former neighbor Kirkpatrick Sale thinks so. Sale is a smart, feisty critic of modernity, and especially technology and big government. His writings have inspired environmentalists such as Bill McKibben, whose book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (Times Books, 2010) cites Sale.


Sale's book Rebels Against the Future (Basic Books, 1996) celebrates the so-called Luddite rebellion of British workers against textile factories in the early 19th century. The book ends with a rousing call for a new Luddite rebellion, in which we reject computers and other technologies that increasingly rule our lives.


Sale serves up a similar anti-progress message in After Eden (Duke University Press, 2006), which argues that our despoliation of Earth is bearing us toward "a conjunction of crises that will create havoc, war, starvation, disease and death on a wide scale in every land on earth, and bring our civilization crashing down around our heads." Yikes! Sale yearns for the simple, pre-technological existence of our Paleolithic ancestors, nomadic foragers who according to Sale lived in harmony with each other and with nature before civilization messed everything up.


After describing Sale's radical nostalgia to students taking my history of science and technology class, I asked them to write an essay on this question: Would you rather be alive today or in the Paleolithic era? The Paleolithic lasted from the dawn of the Homo genus two million years ago to the dawn of agriculture, towns and cities, chiefs and kings, armies, ziggurats, moola, shopping malls and other building blocks of civilization 10,000 years ago.


A few students—perhaps guessing, wrongly, their hippy-dippy professor's preference—sided with Sale. During the Paleolithic, David wrote, "one would have time to stargaze and lounge in the beautiful world we live in, pastimes which are not common in the world today. People would thus respect nature and not pollute it and destroy forests, contrary to how the world is today." "It’s a cookout every night, boys,” Chris, another student, exulted, “and the girls are doing all the work!"


Most students, however, chose the present, for obvious reasons: iPhones, cars, jets, fast food, television, the Internet. "We have things such as supermarkets where we can buy our food, as opposed to having to hunt it and cook it over a manmade fire," Carlos wrote. "I honestly don’t think I could survive more than a day in the Old Stone Age." Tim provided the answer I was looking for: "In today’s world anyone can try to do anything they want. It is this freedom of choice that is the reason why I would rather live in modern times than in the Paleolithic era."


"Yes!" I wrote in the margin of Tim’s paper. There is no better measure of the vitality of a society than the number of choices it offers its people. Choices about the important things in life—education, career, religious worship, sexual behavior, even the books we read and films we watch and Internet sites we visit—are what make life meaningful. That is why I argued so strenuously in my last post that free will—which I equate with freedom and choice—is not an illusion, as Einstein and other misguided reductionists have claimed. That's also why I love living in 21st-century America, despite all of its flaws.


Our profoundly ignorant Paleolithic ancestors had little or no choice in where, how or with whom they lived; the very notion of choice would have been foreign to them. Many people around the world—too many—still don't have meaningful choices because of crushing poverty and tyranny. But civilization keeps giving more of us more freedom—including the freedom to turn our backs on a highly technological, consumerist culture and live like the Amish or other modern-day Luddites.


Freedom is not some airy-fairy concept but an objective, measurable quantity. The non-profit organization Freedom House has been charting the ebb and flow of political freedom since the 1940s. Freedom House defines a nation as "free" if it meets two criteria. First, it must "elect representatives who have a decisive impact on public policies and are accountable to the electorate." Second, the nation must allow "freedoms of expression and belief, associational and organizational rights, rule of law, and personal autonomy without interference from the state."


According to Freedom House's 2010 annual report, 89 of the world's 194 nations, representing less than half of the global population, are free; another 58 are "partly free." People were "not free” in 47 countries, home to 34 percent of the global population; a single nation, China, accounted for roughly half of this percentage.


The report warns that for "the fourth consecutive year, declines [in freedom] have trumped gains." Set-backs were especially severe in Latin America, Africa, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East. Although the U.S. has orchestrated elections in Iraq and Afghanistan, Freedom House categorizes these nations as "not free."


The report points out, however, that "the overall state of freedom in the world has improved over the last two decades. Many more countries were in the 'free' category and were designated as electoral democracies in 2009 than in 1989, and the majority of countries that made major progress 20 years ago have retained those improvements." We're moving in the right direction.


A freer world is also a more peaceful world. As political scientists such as Bruce Russett of Yale have been pointing out for decades, democracies—although they obviously, especially in the case of the U.S., fight non-democracies—rarely if ever wage war against other democracies. Russett and others assert that the surge in democracy since World War II—when fewer than 20 nations were fully democratic—has contributed to the recent decline of international war.


Big Caveat: More freedom does not necessarily equal more happiness. In fact, more choices may mean more confusion, mistakes, regret, even despair. That is the irony at the heart of Jonathan Franzen's latest novel Freedom (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2010). Consider his character Patty, a smart, sassy college basketball star who marries a good man, an environmental lawyer who adores her. He makes so much money that Patty doesn't have to work; she can focus on raising their two bright, healthy kids.


"By almost any standard she led a luxurious life," the narrator muses. "She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable." I can identify with Patty, and so can many other people, if Freedom's sales and accolades are any indication. But just as I would rather live in A.D. 2011 than 100,000 B.C., so I would choose to be free and unhappy rather than vice versa.


May your New Year be happy and free!


Illustration courtesy Wiki Commons

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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