EDITION: December 2018 - February 2019

Hope for a Brighter Future

By Jerry Brownstein
If you get most of your information from the mainstream media then it is very easy to think that the world is in terrible shape. TV, newspapers and the internet focus our attention on negative events like the wars in Syria, Yemen, Myanmar and beyond. Every day we are told to be afraid of terrorism, crime, immigrants, epidemics and impending economic doom. On top of all that we see a new wave of heartless autocratic political leaders arising in many countries (including Russia, China, Turkey, Brazil and the US). Yes, it sounds pretty grim, but that is only because our sources of news have no perspective. When you look at the big picture you can make a strong case that our world has never been better... and that it is continuing to improve. The media’s focus on bad news obscures what may be the most important story of all time... the continuing progress of humanity towards a brighter future.

There is a mountain of empirical evidence showing that our lives, and the societies that we live in, have been on a constant path of improvement for centuries. A smaller percentage of the world’s population are hungry, impoverished or illiterate than at any time in history. Even as recently as the 1960s a majority of the people on our planet lived in extreme poverty (less than about €2 per day), but today there are less than 10% and it is continually decreasing. Oxford University economists estimate that the number of people around the world living in extreme poverty goes down by over 200,000 each day. They also estimate that every day about 300,000 more people gain access to electricity and clean drinking water. There is still a lot of work to be done, but clearly things are getting better.

Steven Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard University who has explored this topic with a long-range perspective. In his book “Enlightenment Now” he looks at the material progress we have made over the course of centuries in a broad array of areas including health, wars, the environment, equal rights and quality of life. The message of his book is that the best way to see and appreciate this massive progress is to look at the empirical facts and figures. For example:

Health: Life expectancy is up from a world average of less than 30 years in the 18th century to over 70 years today; and the increases are seen in all age groups and on all continents. The rates of child and maternal mortality have been particularly improved. The threat of infectious disease has been greatly reduced via sanitization, antibiotics, and other scientific advances. Just since 1990 the lives of more than 100 million children have been saved by diarrhoea treatment, breast-feeding promotion and other simple health measures.

Poverty and Famine: These were a normal part of most people’s lives throughout history, but that has changed drastically. It is estimated that even as late as 1820, 90% of the world’s population lived in poverty, but as noted before, that figure is now less than 10%. Food is plentiful in the industrialized world, and things are getting better in the world’s poorest regions. There is still a lot to do with regard to world hunger, but progress has been made.

Peace: General George Patton famously said that, “War is Hell!”. Even the smallest wars or instances of violence of any kind are a blight on humanity and need to be wiped away. That said, Pinker points out that there has not been a war between great powers since World War Two (1945), and the wars that rage today cover much less of the world than in the past and involve less loss of life. So some progress has been made, but this is clearly an area where much more is needed. Any violence by one person against another is untenable; and organized killing by war or genocide is an abomination.

Quality of life: For most of human history the vast majority of people were illiterate, and even just 50 years ago over half of us remained so. Now over 85% of the world can read and write. Work hours have decreased from over 60 hours per week in both the US and Western Europe in 1870, to around 40 hours today. The average amount of housework has decreased from 60 hours per week in 1900 to 15 hours today. As a result people have more time for leisure, and they are travelling much more which gives them greater knowledge and understanding of the world.

Freedom: About 50% of the world’s population now lives in relatively free societies, whereas only about 1% did in 1820. Personal values such as freedom, autonomy and individuality are widely accepted, whilst racism, sexism, and homophobia have been steadily on the decline. As noted above, the rise of autocratic leaders is alarming, but the long term trend of personal freedom has been positive.

These facts and figures quantify a legacy of progress from our earliest times until today. Yet there is so much more to be done... so much more progress to be made if we are to realize the more beautiful world that our hearts know is possible. Pinker concludes his book by saying that all of the progress we have made is not automatic, and must not be taken for granted. His message is that “we need to keep doing more of what’s working.”  

So are we doing enough? Paul Hawken is a futurist and activist who answers that question with a resounding ‘Yes’. In his book “Blessed Unrest” he brings light to a massive movement that most people are not aware of... not even those who are involved in it. It is a movement that has arisen spontaneously as a reaction to humanity’s needs for social justice, economic fairness and the preservation of our environment. Hawken estimates that there are over two million (Two Million!) organizations around the world that are responding in countless ways to make the world a better place. This incredible movement includes NGOs, non-profit agencies and dedicated individuals - including several billionaires who have pledged to donate much of their wealth to good causes.

It is a movement based on the shared belief that by working together we can change the world. Hawken explains it this way:  “Life is the most fundamental human right, and all of the organizations within the movement are dedicated to creating the conditions for life - conditions that include livelihood, food, security, peace, a stable environment and freedom from external tyranny.” He likens the organic arising of the movement to the way that our bodies fight disease. “It is humanity’s immune system responding to political disease, economic infection and ecological dysfunction.” This movement is a great source of hope because it reminds us that we are not alone... that there are millions of people working every day to cure the ills of society and quicken the pace of human progress. Each one of us can be part of this movement... in large and small ways... through the personal choices that we make and the policies that we support. The future is bright and the future is Now.