Looking for hope in a scary world

Paris Achenbach, a college student who blogs a little in her spare time, has typed up some thoughts about the recent spate of bad news, and at the end she poses a question that I’ll take a stab at answering. First, here’s Paris:

Could the Apocalypse have arrived a year early?

The year 2012, as predicted by the Mayans, was supposed the be the year the world ended. I’m starting to wonder if they gave us a little extra time.

Every time I turn on the news, or open the Washington Post homepage, the world seems to be in worse shape. Global stocks? Crashing. Peaceful and harmonious and unassuming Norway? Terrorist attack. Amy Winehouse? Dead at 27. Debt ceiling debate? Didn’t even matter in the first place, seeing as our country’s economy is the worst it’s been since 2008.

London is on fire. The midwest had some of the greatest floods in 2011 the Mississippi River watershed has ever seen. Japan experienced its biggest earthquake in 1,200 years, followed shortly thereafter by terrifying tsunamis that carried actual flames along with its waves, not to mention exploding nuclear power plants. Floods! Fires! It’s like Fahrenheit 451, only we still have bookstores, kind of.

Oil prices are sky high. Extinction rates are accelerating. June 2011 was the 316th consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average. Coincidence? I think not.

Meanwhile, kids are getting fatter, the Internet is taking over society, and mankind is destroying the Earth that gave it life in the first place. Even my father, the eternal optimist who finds a bright side to the most hopeless situation, is now blogging about “Earth Downgraded”, where everything is just a little bit worse than it used to be. Thanks, Dad.

It’s ironic, because as a youthful, vibrant, enthusiastic 20-year-old, I feel like I should have nothing but excitement for the possibilities my future holds. I should be that “idealistic youngster” who believes anything is possible! Instead, I’m conflicted between feeling positive towards the future and humanity, and feeling disturbed by the current state of things.

Is this a normal wake-up call to receive at the age of 20? Or is it specific to my generation? The world has always, and will always, have problems, and a part of growing up is realizing this; but I’m wondering if, as I’m aging, the planet is actually heading into a downwards spiral. Are things really getting worse?

Maybe you shouldn’t answer that. — Paris Achenbach

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Here’s my answer to these very big questions: Ask your mother.

OK, maybe I can do better than that.

Yes, things are getting worse, but they’re also getting better, and a few things aren’t changing at all. Part of being an intelligent information consumer is making sense of contradictory trends. You have to decipher a lot of riddles and enigmas. And whether the world is getting better or worse is not a purely objective issue. It depends on what you value. And where you live. And to what extent you are capable, or willing, to roll with the changes, and be adaptable and resilient.

The scale of problems tends to be larger in the modern, technological, crowded, shrinking world. Like climate change: We didn’t worry about when there were only a few dozen of us cowering in a cave. We didn’t worry about nuclear weapons proliferation when we thought the world was made of earth, water, air and fire. And we surely didn’t worry about entitlement programs for the elderly when the average life expectancy at birth was 28 years.

I’ve always believed that we live in a world of Progress, antiquated though that notion is. Someone of my generation who grew up in the segregated South tends to see the world as a better place than it was 50 years go.

We worried, back in the day, about nuclear apocalypse. We saw the scenario played out in movies like “Dr. Strangelove” and “Fail-Safe.” Meanwhile the rivers were catching fire and smog choked the air and we were mired in Vietnam and our heroes were assassinated and there were riots in the streets and our politicians were crooks and our rock stars died of drug overdoses and don’t even get me started on the rise of disco. Somehow, we survived all this.

The future looks scary because it always has.

Sure, the challenges for the younger generation are immense. Will these young men and women be equal to those challenges? Undoubtedly.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."

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