Guy Crouchback: Down with glib pessimism

25 Jun 2008

By The Record

In the latest edition of the University of WA magazine Uniview, former WA Premier Carmen Lawrence is quoted as saying: “We are wealthier than we’ve ever been, but no more content. We have more ‘stuff’ than ever before and we are, in aggregate, three times richer than our grandparents, but we are no happier.”

I find this statement not only glib and false, but positively offensive.
Who is this affluent politician to tell people that they are no happier although better off?
According to the United Nations Development Program Human Development Report of 2000, between 1900 and 2000, life-expectancy in developing countries went from 30 years (roughly the average everywhere before the Industrial Revolution) to 65 years.
According to the World Bank in 2004 the number of people living below $1 dollar a day (in 1993 purchasing power) dropped in the same period by about half a billion, despite the growth in population. Who says these people are not happier living more than twice as long, and not having to bury large numbers of their children dead in infancy?
For having lives that are something more than, as Kipling put it, “A long-drawn question between a crop and a crop”?
Were all the sacrifices of our ancestors to build a better world for us pointless? Who says we are no happier, or – it comes to much the same thing – no more grateful, as a result?
And if our ancestors’ strivings were pointless and have brought no happiness, is it equally pointless for us to strive to build a better world for our own children?
Have the labours of scientists, doctors, inventors, authors, agronomists all been in vain in increasing human happiness as they have increased human welfare and life-expectancy?
Are universities, dedicated to expanding knowledge, completely futile?
Have the efforts of missionaries like David Livingstone and Father Damien in spreading Christianity been pointless, leaving us as benighted and miserable as ever?
If we are no happier than before, why bother with education, charity, scientific research or any other endeavour?
Why did men of the intellectual calibre of St Augustine and St Aquinas urge us to follow Reason, and the monks of post-Roman Europe (sometimes called the Dark Ages) work to improve human living standards not only by keeping literacy alive but also with water-wheels, drainage, vineyards, hospitals and stock-breeding?
Why did one of those monks write a delightful song of praise to an early water-wheel that saved horses’ backs being broken and men dropping from exhaustion grinding corn?
Christianity holds that poverty is blessed, but that it ought to be relieved. Is there in fact no point in relieving it? Does the sump of misery remain the same?
Or as that gloomy atheist Philip Larkin put it in one verse: “Man hands on misery to man. It deepen as a coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can, and don’t have any kind yourself.” – If all our endeavours have come to nothing, is that a creed for anyone, Christian or Pagan, to live by?
I venture to say not. To say that we are no happier for all the strivings of those who preceded us is to say that good work and good works – to which all Christians are called –  are futile.
It was not, I am sure, the speaker’s intention, but words like this can make glib, insidious undertone to our lives which, if we listen to it unthinkingly and unreflectively, may in the end have the power to overthrow our hard-won civilisation.