My guess is you feel that me saying that the world is getting better is like me telling you that everything is fine, and that feels ridiculous. I agree. Everything is not fine. We should still be very concerned. As long as there are plane crashes, preventable child deaths, endangered species, climate change sceptics, male chauvinists, crazy dictators, toxic waste, journalists in prison, and girls not getting an education, we cannot relax. But it is just as ridiculous to look away from the progress that has been made. The consequent loss of hope can be devastating. When people wrongly believe that nothing is improving, they may lose confidence in measures that actually work.

    How can we help our brains to realise that things are getting better? Think of the world as a very sick premature baby in an incubator. After a week, she is improving, but she has to stay in the incubator because her health is still critical. Does it make sense to say that the infant’s situation is improving? Yes. Does it make sense to say it is bad? Yes, absolutely. Does saying “things are improving” imply that everything is fine, and we should all not worry? Not at all: it’s both bad and better. That is how we must think about the current state of the world.


This article reminded me of the excellent BBC Radio series "A History of Britain in Numbers" from a few years back where it illustrated quite excellently just how far we have come in 150 years. The presenter was the Head of the UK statistics agency and one of his summary statements near the end of the series was so good I had to transcribe it:

"It’s easier to romanticise the past than the present. People know every blemish on the here and now and we dwell on them our daily toils and woes with a foul cry of injustice over the late running of the 8:03. At the same time, familiarity can create the habit of taking the good for granted. It doesn’t make for a balanced judgement of how we are doing [….]

To me the groaners have it the wrong way round. Today we live beyond the dreams of our ancestors. If you doubt that: pull out half your teeth; solve your pension problem by dying early; contract TB; quarter your income; make your home more affordable by stripping out the toilet, hot water, heating, phone line and let it grow damp, dark, cold and overcrowded; cancel all leave bar bank holidays and work, WORK, HARD until you drop. If you are a woman give up all hope of the same freedoms and opportunities as men and have four or five extra kids the mourn the death of a few of them in infancy."

posted by user-inactivated: 314 days ago