The world is much better than you think : Combatting our Pessimism with some Optimism

By Zain Shah

With 2020’s theme of (R)Evolution: Revolutions and Evolutions; motions of change, Agora aims to bring us, students of social science, old and new problems to care about, and individuals with valuable ideas to share with us their insight and solutions. At Agora, we try to combat our growing pessimism with optimism. 

Because, there really is a great sense of pessimism about the world that we, as students of social science carry with us. We find ourselves in perpetual conflict with the world on how disastrous and unusually fucked up it can be.

I don’t blame you. Climate change, Nuclear Proliferation, growing Inequality, Humanitarian and Refugee Crisis in Yemen, Syria, Myanmar, Venezuela, Hong Kong, China, and Kashmir, Putin, Erdogan, MBS, Modi, Trump and the growing populist nationalism, and also just Boris’ face. Liberalism and Conservatism and other meaningless ideologies, there is a lot to complain about in the world we live in (…like Boris’ face). None of these individuals or problems give us any ease about moving forward with our future, and much of it has to do with the bias, polarizing and profit based (attention equals money) mainstream media – be it news, Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter – we absorb ourselves in that remind us of problems we somehow MUST have opinions on. There is a natural human bias towards bad news. We love bad news significantly more than we love good news. A conclusive 1998 study found negative stimuli getting much more attention than positive stimuli in our brains – which makes evolutionary sense for survival, but also explains our pessimism about the world, making us forget all the great things we as human beings have achieved. The world is better than you think, and in fact much better than the “good old days” your parents saw.

The so called “good old days”, they understandably forget, was an age of race wars, surging crime, smaller houses, worse food, more hours and a life expectancy seven years short of ours, AS well as great music, the latter being one of the only memorable things they remember. But don’t blame them. Frightening events seem much less in retrospect, memory highly selective, and youth as a nostalgic golden age. Much of these selective tales are excruciatingly false when put into numbers. A Harvard cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker, when looking upon surveys of fourteen countries – United States, U.A.E, Thailand, Sweden, Singapore, Norway, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Great Britain, Germany, France, Finland, Denmark and Australia, found an overwhelming majority of the people surveyed believing the world is getting worse rather than better. Pessimism can be great. In many ways, it is what lead rebellious philosophers of the enlightenment away from the overwhelming conforming nature of religion, and into the age of science. They were pessimistic of the role the church played in daily life. But spreading fear-based pessimism, Hans Rosling, a real OG in the field of Global Development, argues can also generate reactionary and ill-considered responses, and erode trust in those who spread such fear. 
So, let’s take a look at the numbers, for our sake and memory, in the simplest way possible. 

Economic

Poverty seems like a problem simply innate to humans. So innate, that even the Bible, the Quran, Sikhism’s Guru Granth Sahib, and the Hindu parables of the Vedas happen to discuss it. But much to the disbelief of these Holy Books, poverty is dramatically declining. Much of our progress owes its debts to the fall of Berlin Wall and the beginning of globalization. Global poverty rate fell from 75% in 1950 to 41.7% in 1990 to just 11.6% in 2015. Just two centuries ago, only a privileged few were not living in extreme poverty, but for all the evils of industrialization, increased productivity and new capital raised people out of poverty. This is an astonishing achievement mainly because, even though as population grew seven-fold in the last two centuries, resources became less scarce and goods more available. If the media we absorb ourselves in was truly unbiased and objective, Steven Pinker argues, the extraordinary fact, that “number of people in extreme poverty fell by 137,000 since yesterday every day for the last twenty-five years” would be screening on the television, but it doesn’t. 

Obesity kills more people than car crashes, terrorist attacks, Alzheimer’s combined, and also thrice the amount of its enemy, malnutrition is able to do. This in no way makes anything better as people die regardless. Nevertheless, it shows the astonishing fact that it is not the scarcity of food or relatively unavoidable incidents that are causing these deaths but the sheer overabundance of food. Whilst child labor, a practice that of any amount is already too much, has shown dramatic decline at a rate of more than 50% from 2000 to today, and workers in developed countries show a dramatic decrease in working hours and increase in leisure, from over 70 hours a week in 1900 to just under 40 hours a week on average in 2000.

Health

The progress of human health unlike poverty is much more obvious. Your parents will live (probably) longer than your grandparents, and your grandparents will live (definitely) much longer than your great grandparents. It’s the simple evolution of science and the product of improvement and accessibility of our health services. What is astonishing nevertheless, is how long it took us to reach this period. Lifespans oddly fell in Europe through 1850-1880’s due to a neglect of health improvement driven by imperial neglect more so than anything else, but since 1900, have doubled or more around the world, including Africa and Asia, where the gains were most significant. This increase has persisted even more so in recent decades, with life expectancy growing to more than six years in the last two decades, and – thanks to regulations and technological improvements – accidental deaths (car crashes, lightning strikes) are in steep decline. While despite what we’re told, students today report (taking into account the abundance of research today) being less lonely than in the past. Child mortality has fallen more than half since 1990; 69% in India and 83% in China. Whilst we have rarer cases of death in childbirth, less teen pregnancies, increasingly taller generations, decrease in smoking and vaccines available globally. No, I am not going to make an Anti-Vax joke, although I really want to.

Peace and Security

Residents of France; are you worried a woman in Hijab may suddenly appear and attack you. Don’t fright, because that’s not what statistics say. The majority of terrorist attacks that have taken place in Europe and North America are the result of Far-Right and Far-Left groups at 19%, in comparison to attacks perpetrated by Islamist groups at 6%, shedding light on the decline of the once feared Islamist terrorist groups. Terrorism, all in all has decreased by 13% around the world. Homicide rate in Europe shows a steep decline from 32/100,000 in 1600’s to just 1.4/100,000 today, despite the growing population. Nuclear Proliferation, although still a sensitive issue, has seen an overall decline from its peak in 1986, at 70,300 active warheads to 3,750 active today after the decline of American and Russian stockpiles, and voluntary submission from countries such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, South Africa and Ukraine.  

Freedom and Social Services

It is increasingly hard to measure freedom quantitively, but political freedom has unarguably made progress. Given the emergence of populist leaders and new dictators around the world, it is easy to forget the political freedoms and civil liberties many people enjoy today in developed and increasingly developing countries. Autocracies outnumbered democracies by a considerable margin in the 1970’s and ‘80s, and as recently as 1993, the majority of the world’s population lived in autocracies. Today, more than half of the global population lives in democracies, and the majority living in autocracy, 4 out of 5 specifically live in one country, China. If it weren’t for China, the statistics would be much better, not gonna lie. Exceptions obviously exist as political progress is highly susceptible to change and infrequencies due to it being malleable. Changing political climates, and the attitude of one leader or various policy-makers can cause unpredictable outbreaks, such as the Suleimani assassination, Hong Kong or even predictable longstanding conflicts such as the continuous struggle in Israel/Palestine, Syria, Iran and Venezuela, but it doesn’t take away the unavoidable fact that political progress has been real in most countries in comparison to the “good old days”. Education has also dramatically increased. Literacy over the last two centuries has gone from a tiny elite to a world where 8 out 10 people can read and write. Progress has been made in reducing racial gaps in literacy as well. In 1890, 80% of African Americans, aged 14 or older were illiterate. By 1950, the number had fallen to 10%, and to 1.6% today. 

This in no way determines that our world is perfect, but rather, that progress has been indisputably real. Optimism today is more important than ever when pessimism on real issues such as climate change leads to irrational solutions for the future. Not only is pessimism mentally straining for us as students, but in vain as it limits our prospects and visions for development in the future. Hans Rosling, whether we agree or disagree, argues that it is our political will and imagination that is lacking and limiting, and not the natural resources of the world. His claim is ambitious and based on assumption, but much necessary for change. So, for our sake, let’s close some of the tabs we have opened in our heads – on every existing issue possible – and be grateful of the progress we’ve made as people. 

This article is part of the special edition created in partnership with Agora

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