2015 does not seem to have got off to an auspicious beginning. The news has been almost unrelentingly grim so when I came across an article headed ‘Why Now Is The Best Time To Be Alive, Ever’ I was only too eager to see what it had to say, especially as it is not a million miles from my own world view. The article cited most of the same examples that lead me to think the world is better than it has been throughout most points in history, though if you take a look at the headlines on any given day you might be forgiven for thinking quite the reverse.
I studied history at university and as a result I find I become quite annoyed with those who hark back to a ‘golden age’ when life was simpler and somehow better. History is sadly less glamorous and more grisly than that, not to mention very much more complicated, but plot the trends occurring over centuries and you start to realise that we are by no means in any kind of decline.
We’re getting healthier and living longer, not just in the richer parts of the world but as a general worldwide trend. There’s still a massive gap between the richer and poorer nations but all of them have an increased life expectancy compared to 200 years ago and for most of them the increase has been dramatic.
The world has become less violent, even if it doesn’t always seem that way. Our chances of dying due to the purposeful actions of other human beings have vastly decreased over the past few thousand years.
We have made the kinds of social progress that would have once been thought impossible. From the start of 20th century to the present day we can see a series of massive social changes bringing about greater (if by no means perfect) equality. In Britain we’ve extended voting rights, legalised homosexuality, abolished the death penalty, given women better control over their own bodies with the option of safe and legal abortion and contraception, and also taken steps towards a level of sexual equality that seems so very far from the situation of women at the start of the 20th century.
100 years ago I couldn’t have voted (and nor could a large proportion of men), I’d probably be married with children by this age and if I were not I would likely be subject a large amount of societal pressure on the matter. I’d be unlikely to have a university education. I’d be less likely to have even survived this long due to higher rates of child mortality. My difficulties with depression could have been described in any number of denigrating terms and treatments would have been likely to have been vastly unpleasant and dubiously beneficial if they were offered at all.
It makes me angry when people talk about being the first generation to be worse off than their parents because it just isn’t true if you value anything other than money, and possibly even then dependent upon who you are. Life was not better for those born fifty years ago if they happened to be female, or gay, or transgendered, or an ethnic minority, or indeed if they were in need of medical treatments not then invented.
So why are we so afraid of saying things have improved? Do we really think that by saying things are better that that means we condone everything about the world as it is? There is plenty of room for improvement (and there always will be) but acknowledging every once in a while that not everything we do is terrible, that the world around us is dark but not bereft of light, seems to me to be in no way in opposition to further improvement. This idea of forever blaming ourselves and assuming the human race can only end in disaster is not helpful to anyone. Thinking the world needs improvement may motivate you to do something about it, even if that something is as seemingly small a gesture as ticking a box on a ballot paper or throwing your empty can into the recycling. The attitude that things are getting worse and will not get better however seems unlikely to inspire anyone towards anything conducive to improving the world around them. It has become fashionable, it seems, to be cynical, to assert that the world and the human race are awful beyond redemption, that it always gets worse, that all groups, businesses, political parties, are corrupt and self-serving, and that those who think otherwise are either hopelessly naive or else peddling the latest opium for the masses.
Perhaps at the heart of this cynicism is the fear, not that we are going to fail, but that we might succeed. Failure is easy, success however requires hard work and effort and then is still not guaranteed. To hold success as a possibility is to admit we have a hard road ahead. Cynicism can be funny, thought-provoking and, as long it is kept in check, there’s nothing wrong with it, but cynicism seems to me an unlikely path to progress. Just as we should not be naïve about the mistakes we are making, we should not be overly cynical about the successes we enjoy.
You’ve never had it so good? Perhaps. It should go without saying though, still not good enough. Why not let past successes spur us on to greater efforts and better things, rather than being dragged down in the morass of mistakes we have made. The world’s been getting slowly better over centuries but it’s up to us to determine whether or not this trend will continue.
Some interesting links that might make you feel a little better about the world.