Last year when I mentioned in a speech that the world has never had it so good, people asked me afterwards whether I was trying to be funny. I don’t do funny well. My family are forever telling me that I should lighten up.
The thing is, compared to the rest of history – the average human being is better off than ever before. A recent article in the FT reminded me of this. We also recently wrote a similar story in our newsletter, ‘Why so blue?’
However, a quick scan on Twitter or social media does not present this view. Instead our current story of civilisation and humanity looks bleak. It feels like we’re living in difficult times.
So, what then are the actual facts? The FT article highlights a few:
Only 1 in 10 lived in extreme poverty in 2015. This is down from more than 1 in 3 in 1990 according to the World Bank.
Fewer than 90 000 people died worldwide in organised conflicts in 2017, according to Uppsala Data Group. That’s down from a peak in 2014 and significantly lower than the 1946-1950 period (as a percentage of the population).
The world is a freer place – especially for previously disadvantaged groups like women, people of colour, LGBTQI and disabled people.
In South Africa we face daily reminders of our unique problems and the need for progress. Mix those reminders in with our current political climate and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by negativity. Yet most South Africans have never had it better. We have made huge progress in tackling poverty and the marginalisation of previously excluded groups under the Apartheid era.
Yes, the needs that are being met are often very simple, basic needs, but they are also life-changing. For example, over 80% of the population now have access to clean water. They didn’t before. Basic, but life-changing.
The point is that we consume horrific news through social media and global news networks in real time. New Zealand’s mosque shootings is one of many examples. But as Steven Pinkerton from The Guardian points out: ‘Bad things can happen quickly, but good things aren’t built in a day, and as they unfold, they will be out of sync with the news cycle’. He goes on to say that: ‘Whether or not the world really is getting worse, the nature of news will interact with the nature of cognition to make us think that it is’. This from a man in the business of reporting news.
The world faces many threats. Climate change, nuclear war and global pandemics are just a few that the WHO and World Economic Forum name. And I am not denying that we have major challenges. However, it is very possible that we may look back on this time and think how good we had it. Perhaps if we change our perspective to a historic one, we will have a better chance of having a positive outlook on our current situation.
Hans Rosling’s book, Factfulness, enlivens the stats and facts that point to why the world is a better place today. So if you want to challenge the pessimist stance and become what is termed a ‘serious possibilist’ click on the link to read more.