Is the world getting better?
Is the world getting better?
Yes - and on a mass and unilateral scale. But just because things are getting better, doesn’t mean that we’re anywhere near where we should be.
For the longest time the status quo has been that we are living in dismal times and that things are getting worse and worse. The world is now a crazy place, scarier than before, like a car without breaks.
I’ve never understood this, because to me we are living in the best of times. I’ve always felt this way, but I didn’t voice it for a really long time. I kept thinking if I’m in the minority of people that think this way, maybe my optimism is actually delusional. And so, it is with absolute glee that I’ve started to see widely-read newspapers bring in experts and read acclaimed books that actually back the feeling I’ve had for such a long time.
Doom and Gloom
I remember the first time I felt disconnected while someone told me with absolute certainty that ‘the world is now an awful place, worse than before’. I was in Paris, where I lived in my early 20s. I was in some shouty backstreet bar in the east of the city. A guy, late 30s, was swaying slightly and drinking local beer. He started talking at me -
‘Things are getting worse you know’
People in Paris often struck up conversations in teeny stone spaces with tightly woven tables and chairs.
‘Things were much easier when I was younger. I genuinely feel sorry for your generation, because you’re inheriting a shittier world full of problems’
I remember feeling absolutely baffled that he felt sorry for me. The concept had never even come into my brain. Firstly, I was young, so what could be better? And secondly, I had more opportunities and live in a better world than he did at my age. I could worry less about rape, violence, homelessness and getting a disease. I could travel the world with a month’s salary, during a time when women were finally seeing the start of equality and fair pay. I grew up with the internet.
Don’t Stop Me Now
Over the last 5 years I’ve had various people from all walks of life tell me how the world is getting worse – from Airbnb hosts (and university lecturers) in Glasgow discussing how I am part of the ‘lost generation’, to people on the street shaking their heads at front page news and sighing ‘dear me...the world’s gone mad’.
But has it?
I really don’t think it’s madder than it used to be. I think we are actually living in the best of times, and I’m not the only one who thinks this way. Prominent economists, statisticians and journalists are publishing reports, papers and articles based on official global figures that show we are, on average, leading safer and higher quality lives compared to just 20 years ago, nevermind 100. From violence to poverty, everything (in general) is moving in the right direction and has been since records began.
Fact me up
I can hear the pessimists wriggling in their seats, struggling to contain the question burning in their lungs -
So what are the actual proven figures to back up that the world is getting better?
Firstly, experts are writing high-profile papers that describe our time ‘as the best in human history’ because we are living through colossally positive and historic moments, which are time and time again falling under the radar.
Here are a few facts that blew my mind:
· In 2016 the proportion of the world in extreme poverty fell below 10% for the first time ever.
· Child mortality is roughly half of what it was compared to the 1990s
· 300,000 more people are gaining electricity every day
· The absolute number of war deaths has been declining since 1945, from half a million people per year to 87,432 battle related deaths in 2016.
· Homicides are systematically decreasing on a global scale
· In the 1960’s the majority of the adult world was illiterate – which has since risen to 85% literacy rate.
· While inequality can sometime rise in particular countries or during historic moments, global inequality is actually declining and with it the protection of human rights is strengthening.
Still don’t believe me? Here are a few more stats
So why all the doom and gloom? Why do most of us think that we are living in a more dangerous and unjust world, when the facts prove otherwise?
One of the theories doing the rounds is that us humans love to drown in our own misery. Some think that we need to live in self-indulgent pessimism, like narcissus drowning in our own self-pity lake. We also love a juicy drama, so our thirst for negative news is a bit like how people slow down to have a good look at a car crash on the motorway – we just can’t help it.
On a much lighter note, others believe it’s just our survival instincts kicking in, because predicting the worst thing that could happen prepares you for all eventualities and keeps you alive. Imagine us as cavemen, who think there’s potentially a predator behind every savannah rock, when in reality 99.8% of the time there’s nothing. Our brains prepare us for that rare time when there is actually danger. Crucially though, if you are over-exposed to negative information, which is essentially addictive, it becomes harder to distinguish between predicting danger and thinking danger is all around.
The blame game
It’s also easy to shift all the blame to the media. The media of course has an important role to play in why we are walking around with negative blinkers on. But, the media reacts to public attention and panders to our apparently insatiable interest in bad news.
If we started choosing to read more balanced views, both bad and good, they (the big bad media) will be forced to change their strategy, because they are dependent on readers and ratings and more importantly, advertising.
On the flipside, a French psychologist and fellow rational optimist, Jacques Lecompte, thinks we actually prefer good news – which he thinks is why we all love a happy ending and catapult internationally hopeful films like ‘Demain’ into overnight sensations. So maybe we are just stuck in a negative cycle but actually want to see the brighter side of life.
Another thing humans are great at is thinking the past was easier. We look at previous decades with rose-tinted glasses and often hark ‘ah the good old days!’. This happens with every generation who get older and look back at their past.
The world was a lot more violent and unfair before, and we shouldn’t forget that fact. The world also can’t be getting worse for upwards of 400 years, so the logical next step is realising that our brains leave out all the truly awful bits and let us reminisce.
Why does the brain do that? Well, quite a few psychologists reckon that we remember the past in sepia as a coping mechanism. We would quite literally break down, not sleep and be emotional wrecks if we remembered every single horrible moment in our lives. So the brain ‘forgets’ them or manipulates them into bearable memories and then we tell our children how much better it was before. Time is quite literally a healer when it comes to your past.
Rainbows and Buttercups
I consider myself a rational optimist because I don’t want to live in a bubble gum world of make believe but I do think we are doing much better than we think.
There is also a world of difference between saying that a lot of important things are getting better and saying that things are anywhere near where they should be. Yes violence is in general decreasing, more people are being lifted out of extreme poverty and widespread child mortality is gradually disappearing, but they still exist at a colossal and unacceptable rate, as do many other local and global atrocities.
What is important to remember though is that we are becoming more educated, disease and famine is rapidly disappearing, and technology is providing us with more opportunities to invent, cooperate and communicate as one human race.
So when we shake our heads at the news or feel like crying about a far-flung war, it isn’t our deep shock and disgust at the world getting worse, it’s because we are utterly heartbroken that it isn’t better by now or anywhere near where it should be.
Our alarm bells are ringing because we think hate crime, racism, violence, wars and inequality should be a thing of the past. A good sign is also that we are actually disgusted and shocked. Strong gut emotions, such as disgust or shame, show that our morals and understanding of ourselves as humans is moving faster than the status quo.
I personally think one of the reasons we feel like racism, violence and war haven’t caught up to the modern mindset is because we are living in a time of phenomenal transition.
There have been various very important moments in human history, where everything seems to be moving and transitioning. Whether it’s through inventions that change the fabric of our lives or through gut wrenching revolutions. So what’s going on in our time? What’s so revolutionary? The first thing that should be on everyone’s lips is technology.
Technology has quite literally turned our world upside down and flung us into a new gleaming era. The problem is we are still blinking against the glare. Tech is changing absolutely everything. It’s even changing the speed at which we are inventing ground-breaking inventions. In the past, it would happen every century or so, then every generation, now it’s within 10 years. Think the internet, laptops, smartphones, bitcoin, IoT, AI, self-drive cars and virtual reality – the ‘revolution’ kicked off and has since been breaking ground every decade and is now heading towards every 5 years.
The rapid evolutionary nature of technology means that our daily habits and how we navigate the world is changing at warp speed and our social constructs aren’t catching up quick enough. Jobs, communication, authority, community and our own role in society is already being flipped on its head. Some people are running with the wind, but most of us are trying to walk in Gail force wind.
When rapid change like this happens, it mostly scares the shit out of people. Understandable so. And that’s when populism rears its ugly head, and the likes of Brexit and Trump bring up the drawbridge. People want to control something that can’t be stopped.
That need to control goes right back to the idea that ‘the world is a very worrying and worse place’ because it’s easier to think something is worse than face the real, fact-based reality. Because we are creature of habits, and although change is good for us in the end, we will always naturally resist it.
Pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones is scary. But being part of that push will mean that we all get to become the painters of our own destiny, rather than just being dragged along for the ride. And to survive in the new world, we’re all going to have to step up together and realise that yes things are changing, but in the right direction.
Like what you just read and want to find out more? Check out Factfulness by the brilliant statistician Hans Rosling – a book I’d recommend to anyone on the verge of believing the world might be a bit better than we think.
And if you want to read more about society, identity and travel have a look through my blog for more articles.