Updated: Jun 30
Doom. Gloom. Calamity. After everything humanity has endured in the last few years: global pandemics, moronic populist leaders, climate change, Vladimir Putin, and the Kardashians, one would be forgiven for thinking that our species is swirling down the plughole of history. I mean, it makes sense, doesn’t it?
But what if I told you that, measured across a number of crucial metrics, such as literacy, life expectancy, infant mortality, famine, poverty, violence, work health and safety, housing, technology and education, that (to paraphrase Harold Macmillan) we’ve never had it so good?
You’d be incredulous, I’m sure, but let’s look at a few examples.
I assume readers with young kids don’t want them to die of disease. Well, for most of human history, 50% of children didn’t make it to the age of fifteen, dying of simple maladies that are routinely treated nowadays. Medical advancements over the past two hundred years ensure today’s two-child families mostly stay that way. And medicine is improving every day.
Yet, some readers who accept that medical research has improved our lives might still argue, “Yes, but what about humanity’s destructive tendencies? The world is a more dangerous place than ever.” While I can understand the impulse to think this way, this proposition is patently wrong. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker clearly demonstrates how violence—including war, deaths by terrorism, and rates of homicide—has steadily declined over the years, despite the public perception to the contrary.
How about technology? Has that gotten better? Now, that’s an easy argument.
Let me answer with the example of my grandmother who was born in 1895, before the invention of powered flight, yet lived to see humans land on the Moon. Now that’s technological advancement. As a young married woman, she washed clothes by hand in a copper boiler, yet by her death in 1986, people had been using fully automatic washing machines for decades. Household electricity wasn’t even available in her hometown until 1904, but when it came, it brought innovations such as: Electric lights, labor-saving devices, and eventually, radio and television. In her youth, it was still possible to die of smallpox, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and even the plague. Understandably, my grandmother used to laugh derisively at people who longed for the ‘good old days’.
The truth is our quality of life is at an historic high. When the current era is studied by future historians, on statistics alone, they’ll view it as a marked improvement on what came before. However, there are also anecdotal factors that also point in the same direction.
Let’s face it, our minimum expectations are so much greater than our ancestors’ wildest dreams. We expect to live in McMansions when they just hoped for a roof over their heads. We need vacations around the world; they’d have been happy for a weekend off work. When we dine out, we expect Instagrammable food presentation, while they just tried not to starve. There’s a reason many of today’s petty complaints are written-off as ‘First World problems.’
Humans always want better. Our need for self-improvement is deeply embedded in our collective psyche. Parents work to give their children better opportunities. Religions seek to move believers towards enlightenment. Corporations strive to maximize stock values. Inventors are still trying to build a better mousetrap. There’s a reason Self-Help is such a popular book category, because we always want to ‘level-up.’ Well, so do civilizations, and right now, humans are as leveled-up as we’ve ever been.
At this point, I expect most people are asking the question: “If we’re all doing so bloody well, why do we all feel so terrible?”
The World Happiness Report describes the last ten years as “a long-term moderate upward trend in stress, worry, and sadness in most countries and a slight long-term decline in the enjoyment of life.” Why all this sadness and stress if things are getting better?
There’s no doubt we’ve been through a lot recently (such as the aforementioned pandemics, wars, and climate change, etc.), but our narrowly focused sense of perspective also plays a large role in how we perceive our circumstances. We tend to view current events through the lens of the 24-hour news cycle which regurgitates bad news hour after hour. And that’s not even counting the fake news that’s specifically designed to outrage us.
Eventually the 24 hour news cycle will end… (Midjourney and S.E.W.)
Then we doomscroll through our social media feeds, the algorithm continually stoking our confirmation biases and fueling our darkest thoughts. Worse still, our leaders attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and are driven to myopic short-term decisions based on the paranoia and fear induced in the community. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.
We need to change our perspective, step back, and take in a more global view.
An overarching view of history, such as that provided by David Christian’s Big History helps with readjusting our perspective. Big History doesn’t sweat the small stuff. It is about big ideas and monumental movements which shift the zeitgeist, most improving the lot of the human race. It’s about the incremental growth of humanity’s intellectual capital.
Across hundreds of thousands of years of collective learning, humans developed from inconsequential apes to the most powerful creatures on the planet, all by iterative development. And we’re still going. The bottom line is that, when viewed dispassionately from sufficient distance, humanity is on a gradual, quantifiable, albeit slightly wonky, uptick.
Surprised? You should be. Like I said, watching the news rightly fills us full of dread. We need to look beyond the details and see the big picture. We need to think in geological timeframes. We also need to think positively.
It is that human ingenuity that propels civilization’s upward trajectory. When humanity stumbles into a pothole, it eventually drags itself out and moves slowly but inexorably towards better ideas. Socially, scientifically, and even politically. Yes, these potholes can sometimes be difficult to escape. Sometimes, it even seems like human achievement is dead. However, when viewed through the lens of Big History, these potholes are minor corrections.
I’m not for one moment saying that times aren’t tough right now. Our confidence has been shaken on a number of fronts. Climate change looms, causing us to rethink our way of life. The information revolution and globalization have displaced many people from their jobs. Social media has given a platform to people who really shouldn’t have one.
People are worried and looking for easy answers.
Yes, things may seem bleak right now, but in time, a new and better equilibrium will be reached. Let’s face it: every time we’ve had our backs against the wall, whether it be after the Black Death or world wars, we have recovered and rebuilt. Adversity begets innovation. New technology and new ideas in public policy emerge to meet the challenges.
Education and creativity will allow us to solve our multitude of problems, the solutions won’t just magically appear, and there will be pain along the way. We face real problems that will require some heavy-duty big ideas to find a solution. Recovery isn’t guaranteed but, given what we’ve seen over the arc of history, it’s likely.
It will be a combination of collective learning and humanity’s lightbulb moments that will save us. We’ll survive further pandemics, climate change, Putin, and even the Kardashians.
Just don’t give up hope.
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