The Soviet Union was disbanded a few weeks after I was born, and until recently, and certainly during the 1990s, it was hoped that the event marked what Francis Fukuyama called the End of History. The universal values of freedom, equality before the law and enterprise would be protected and spread by the benevolent hegemony of the United States. “Western liberal democracy would be the final form of human government.”
Over twenty years on, we find Vladmir Putin chipping away at the edges of Ukraine and Syria. A cancerous theocratic fascism is festering in the cradle of civilisation, feeding on weak government and failed institutions. President Xi is beginning to enforce a brazen territorial claim, first devised in 1947 by the Kuomintang government, to the mineral rich Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. And the institutions of the European Union have driven a wedge between creditors and debtors in a crisis that won’t go away.
It would seem that our Second Belle Époque barely made it out of adolescence. Everywhere you look, the world appears to be fragmenting at a time when the United States – weary from campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and growing heartily from a boom in energy – is developing a penchant for comfortable isolation.
Confronting a geopolitical landscape that exposes our innate fragility, we might be reminded of Seneca, mourning the deterioration of Rome under Emperor Nero, when he asked: “What need is there to weep over parts of life [when] the whole of it calls for tears?”. Lurching from crisis to crisis, it seems as if we are stumbling yet again under the weight of our collective histories towards the edge of a great precipice.
We urgently need perspective.
Adapting to a hostile environment has made us sensitive to threats, which in modernity creates a lucrative market for bad news. Two-thirds of neurons in the amygdala are geared toward negative events, immediately responding and storing them in long-term memory, whereas it can take up to 12 seconds to process good news. Yet progress in the state of the world has rapidly outpaced human evolution, which serves to raise the cost of reactionary politics.
Hans Rosling, the delightful Swedish medical statistician, thinks we need to be more optimistic. He tours the world to expose negativity bias as part of his Ignorance Project at Gapminder. In one of a series of questions for a recent TED talk, he asked his audience about the development of extreme poverty in the last 20 years.
Despite a 59% increase in the developing world population, the share living with less than $1.25 per day fell from about half in 1981 to 21% in 2010, according to the World Bank. Yet two-thirds of US adults thought poverty had doubled, 29% believed it had remained the same, while only 5% knew better. Eradicating poverty is an important first step to securing prosperity throughout the world. The ultimate prize is the achievement of a global middle class, which in 2009 measured 1.8 billion in number and which the Brookings Institution expects to grow to 3.2 billion in 2020 and 4.9 billion by 2030.
Put away your depressive realism – for at least 12 seconds – and have a look at these incredible graphs collected by Max Roser at the Oxford Martin School, which show the wonderful progress that has been made in improving the state of the world.
Thomas Hobbes, writing in the 17th century, believed that the life of man was “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” In this century, billions of people have the opportunity to prove him wrong. We live in the safest, most prosperous time in human history – and while we have always faced grave challenges, we should not lose sight of how much has been won.
1. Democracy is still in vogue
2. At the beginning of the 20th century just over 10% of the world population lived in democratic countries – now it is more than 50%.
3. Better government is driving the growth of a global middle class
4. Despite the financial crisis, low income countries are now catching up with the rich world
5. Prosperity is a very recent concept (Real GDP by region in 1990 $m)
6. We’re all becoming more productive….
7. …which means we spend less time working
8. Open markets are driving prosperity
9. Trade, according to Richard Cobden, “destroys the antagonism of race, and creed and language; and makes large and mighty empires, gigantic armies and great navies redundant.”
10. Poverty is declining at the fastest rate in human history
11. Global hunger has fallen by 39% since 2000
12. Malthus was wrong
13. Life expectancy in 1800
14. Life expectancy in 2011
15. Health inequality is falling
16. Child mortality is in rapid decline
17. We were never at risk of catching Ebola