In his new book, Daniel Callahan, cofounder and President Emeritus of The Hastings Center, takes on five global crises: climate change, food shortages, water shortages and quality, chronic illness and obesity. “I have not been able to find any global crises of similar magnitude in terms of death, morbidity, or projected destruction that have proved so recalcitrant to change,” he writes in his new book, The Five Horsemen of the Modern World: Climate, Food, Water, Disease, and Obesity, published by Columbia University Press and nominated for a National Book Award. Callahan has done a comparative examination of the five horsemen and found insights that could lead to a way forward.
He begins by mapping the history of each of the crises. Among the threads common to all of them is that they have gotten markedly worse since the 1970s and sparked ideological splits, infighting among specialists, and conflicting public opinion.
Next, Callahan examines features that contribute to each of the horsemen. They include a growing world population– and one that is rapidly aging– and an expectation for continued economic growth that is necessary but is itself often harmful to the good of the planet and, as Callahan puts it, “the good of our individual bodies.”
He ends with recommendations for addressing the crises. They involve reckoning with the most tenacious root of the problems: “the potent and enduring idea and value of progress, that human life ought always to get better, that it has no natural stopping point and should never cease to move ahead.” While the love of progress is unlikely to be abandoned, Callahan says it might be tempered by “a combination of intensified fear of environmental and biological harm,research and policy drive, and an agitated public, eager for solutions and prepared to accept some high economic and personal costs.” An era in which the public accepts such limits would amount to “a new Enlightenment to supplant the Enlightenment we now live in, which goes back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”