IT’S GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME
By Adrianna DeLorenzo
Researchers from King's College have documented a rise in anti-depressant prescriptions since Brexit. Psychology Today reports that in America, psychiatric visits are up and President Trump's election has caused "exacerbated experiences of “paranoia, hypervigilance, anxiety, depression, intrusive thoughts, somatic complaints, difficulty concentrating and sleeping, and nightmares.” People are stressed out and pessimistic about the future. Brexit has torn the country apart and it may not ever be repaired again. We are living in an age of deep political division, Russian dismantling of Western democracy and inequality such that 8 billionaires have as much wealth as half of the entire world. Millions of refugees are running from war and poverty. The world is awash in nuclear weapons and global climate change will soon render much of the Earth inhabitable.
Things have never been worse, right? But no. Life as we know it has never been better for humanity.
The world is, factually speaking, getting better every day. One can always trick themselves into seeing a decline if you look at the day’s heavy headlines. For example, this past Sunday’s heavy hitters around 7:30 pm were: 1) “Louisiana shooting: Police arrest suspect of five killed”; 2) “Brumadinho: Search for survivors resumes after second Brazil dam alert”; and 3) “Notts County FC owner tweets ‘inappropriate photo’”. These are all frankly depressing headlines. Where are all the happy, feel-good news headlines? When looking up “happy news”, one can find headlines such as: “86-year-old has lost 120 pounds simply by walking around her one-bedroom apartment” and “Police officer finally gets to meet the man who kept her dry for 30 minutes in the rain.” Does this mean there aren’t any positive global news articles? Research has proved that statistically, The New York Times headlines and world broadcasts have become more morose over the past few decades. Researchers pulled titles from news sources and placed them into an algorithm sorting them into positive and negative. The results showed revealed a shocking shift towards negative lexicon. A satirical piece from the Onion, aptly entitled “CNN holds morning meeting to decide what viewers should panic about for the rest of the day,” exemplifies just that. News is about things that happen, not about things that don’t. You would never see a journalist saying, “I’m reporting live from a country that has been at peace for 40 years.” And that could have been reported in many countries worldwide today. Disheartening events happen immediately and can be reported immediately and forgotten the next day, but good event don’t make an appearance. Most news sources have a programming policy: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Did you know that in the past 25 years or so, 1.25 billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty? Every newspaper, every day for the past 25 years, could have had on their front page the title “137,000 people escaped from extreme poverty yesterday.” This statistic has never been reported. Why? Maybe because sensationalism sells newspapers, and maybe because as a human race we are attracted perversely to the horrible and shocking parts of life.
One can parrot out statistic after statistic of how the world has gotten better and progressed over the past decade and century. If we look at present data versus 30 years ago, in America, the homicide rate is down from 8.5 persons in every 100,000 to 5.3. The percentage of poor people in the world has depleted from 12% to 7%. Last year there were 12 ongoing wars, 30 years ago there were 23. In 2018 there were 60 autocracies, but 30 years ago there were 85. 10% of people were in extreme poverty last year with more than 10,000 nuclear weapons worldwide, but in 1988 there were 4 times as many people in extreme poverty and more than 6 times as many nuclear weapons. Was 1988 a particularly bad year. 1988 wasn’t a date that sticks in everybody’s minds because something bad happened such as 9/11 or 1945. Maybe the world just gets better.
There are 10 categories in which Steven Pinker, a Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, thinks he can measure progress. These are: life, health, sustenance, prosperity, peace, freedom, safety, knowledge, leisure and happiness. The life expectancy for much of history has been 30 years, which has now sky-rocketed to 72 years worldwide, and 80+ years in developed countries. 250 years ago, in the richest countries, 1/3 of children wouldn’t reach their fifth birthday. Now, only 6% of children in the world’s poorest countries share the same fate. 200 years ago, 90% of the world was in extreme poverty, now we boast a less than 10% poverty rate. Even wars are fewer and less deadly; the annual rate of war casualties has fallen from 22 per 100,000 per year in the early 1950s to 1.2 per 100,000 today. Concerning democracy: even though there have been setbacks in Venezuela, Russia and Turkey, the world has never been more democratic than it has this past decade, with 2/3 of the world living in democratic countries. Even homicide rates have depleted enormously; every Western European only has a 0.025% chance of being murdered. We have become safer in every way. Compared to the last century, we are 96% less likely to be killed in a car crash, 88% less likely to be mowed down on the sidewalk, 99% less likely to die in a plane crash, 95% less likely to be killed when working, 89% less likely to be killed in a natural disaster, and 97% less likely to be killed by lightning. We are even less likely to be killed by lightning! Even literacy rates: before the 17th Century, 15% of Europeans could read and write. By the middle of the 20th Century, all of Europe and the United States had universal literacy. Let’s not forget the information explosion in the past few decades: we all have access to millions of books in our pockets. Almost everyone in this country has access to phones, computers, education, heating, and food. In the world today, 90% of people under 25 are literate. In the 19th Century, Westerners worked 60 hours a week, now that figure has dropped to fewer than 40, a statistic that should please the laziness in us. The amount of time we devote to housework has also fallen from 60 hours a week to fewer than 15, thanks to technological advances such as microwaves, stoves, vacuum cleaners and washing machines. Do any of these statistics actually make us happier? Yes. Results show that even happiness has increased in recent decades by 86%.
So why do we still have the glass half-empty mentality, that the world will end in a few years and an apocalypse is nigh? Following from what was said before, we have been force-fed depressing news about kidnapping, death, torture and punishments. There is a more scientific reason as well. Termed “cognitive psychology”, it explains perhaps why we have such a pessimistic view of life. We estimate risk using a mental shortcut called “availability heuristic”. The easier it is to recall something from memory, the more probable we judge it to be. It relies on immediate examples that come to mind when we evaluate a certain topic, decision or method. As we are constantly surrounded by these news topics when we watch TV, read newspapers, or listen to the radio, we are subconsciously storing these headlines and articles in mind. Therefore, when we subsequently think about or discuss the same themes, the depressing titles spring into discussion and we allow ourselves to believe that the worst is true. If there were a headline yesterday about a plane crashing and everyone dying, you would remember it. What isn’t it reported is that yesterday 40,000 planes took off and flew hundreds of miles unharmed. Maybe if we were exposed to happier news, the reverse would happen and we would recognise the world for the good that it is.
We have everything that we could ever need. In the Sunday Times this weekend, there was a small piece entitled, “Meet the new squeeze.” We now have cuddle therapists and professional cuddlers, with treatments costing £65 for a cuddle, who can help brighten our days. Overpopulation? The entirety of the human race could fit in Rhode Island, America’s tiniest state. No food? We currently have so much food that 1.3 billion tons is wasted every year. Even our hamsters have excess food. In 1965, Boserup, an economist, wrote that, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” She argued that if we ever needed anything, humanity would invent it and find a way to protect its survival. Technological advances have secured us all possible amenities that we could desire. What more could we possibly want?
A topic which must be on the tips of your tongue: but what about global warming? Surely that’s a huge issue that we are now facing, which is a direct contradiction to my claim that “it’s getting better all the time”? No. Through all of modern and probably ancient history, from the 100,000 Millerites who took to the hills in 1843 to wait for the end of the world, to ecologist Paul Ehrlich in 1968 who wrote that “the battle to feed all humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines- hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death”, the end of the world as we know it has been predicted countless times. Jimmy Carter, US President, in 1977, said “We could use up all of the proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the next decade.” But studies show that global reserves could almost double by 2050 despite huge consumption. The world is no longer at risk of running out of oil or gas! Existing technology is capable of unlocking so much oil that we could practically bathe in it. In 2011, estimates showed that global gas resources would last at least 250 years. In the past 50 years, warnings of population explosions, famines, plagues, wars, shortages, Y2K bugs, killer bees and mad cow epidemics to name but a few have been splashed all over the news. Have you ever heard of sex-change fish or Y2K bugs being an issue nowadays? In January 1970, Life magazine said that by the 1980s all city dwellers would have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution, and by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching the earth by a half. Instead, air quality has improved dramatically over the past few decades. Levels of dangerous gases in the atmosphere have fallen dramatically. A whole other article could be written about why an apocalypse is not coming to earth, and we’re not all going to die from starvation and alone. None of the threatened “ends of the world” have come to fruition. With history being so, why is everyone believing that we are all going to die with cataclysmic claims made now about climate change? Rajenda Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in 2007 that “if there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late.” But humanity is still around is it not? Obviously global warming isn’t a hoax, but it’s not as drastic as it’s made out to be in the news. The Spectator Magazine published a study last week about how, since the government launched its new Clean Air Strategy, we have seen significant reductions in common air pollutants since 1970. Sulphur dioxide has gone down 97%, Nitrogen oxides 72% and particle matter down 73%. We hear a lot from two extremes, the nay-sayers and the ones who think we will die a horrible, hot death, but there is no consideration given to those who are in the middle. The problems that have the highest probability of occurring consist of us facing 1-2 degrees Celsius of warming this century, or the Greenland ice sheet melting no faster than its current rate of less than 1% per century. Ecosystems have survived temperature lurches before like the Ice Ages, and will adapt for survival. Technology and innovation will, like it has hundreds of times before, be our answer. We will counter any future threats by innovating to meet them as they arise.
It is good to be accurate, and be aware of suffering and danger in our lives. However, we should also be aware of how these same issues may have improved in recent times. Kings and queens of the past would gladly switch positions with the average person in society today. You didn’t live very long, it was cold, the food was awful. In many ways, we all live better today than Henry VIII did. What exactly causes progress? We do. It’s not an inevitable thing, we fuel it and control its path. Human efforts are governed by ideas. Human ingenuity. It has saved us every time. I’m not saying that everything is better for everyone everywhere all the time. We will never have a perfect world, and it is dangerous to seek that. We can’t take this progress for granted. On the contrary, there are no limits to how much we can better the world if we apply our knowledge and our skills. Although much remains to be fixed, ideas and solutions have been and continue to be voiced. Instead of lamenting on how bad the world is and seeing problems as reasons why we will be hosts to a zombie apocalypse in a few years, we should seek solutions for problems like a nuclear war or climate change. Benjamin Franklin said that, “The progress of human knowledge will be rapid, and discoveries made of which we have at present no conception. I begin to be almost sorry I was born so soon, since I cannot have the happiness of knowing what will be known 100 years hence.” More than 9/10 people think the world isn’t getting better. Let’s change their minds.