2017 Update: We must keep in mind that progress is not a linear process.
After a year of terrible attacks and crisis, many people have the feeling that the world is getting worse.
But is that really so? Here is my year-end speech for you (;
An article I read today and my FB newsfeed inspired me to add some facts to the subjective feeling that everything is becoming worse.
The world in 2015 – A retrospective
With all the terrible things happening all over the world it is easy to see why we would get the feeling that 2015 was a terrible year and humanity is going down.
Paris, Donald Trump, the comeback of the MacRib, German Wings, Wars, Syria, Refugee Crisis, ISIS, Mass Shootings, Roundup, Gang Violence, Deflation, Inflation, Ebola, Corruption, Racist Blame Games, Drug Abuse – one could think that the world has become a large pile of crap.
It would be silly to say that all is good because most of us own a smartphone, clean drinking water and family guy announced another season.
But we should have a closer look. Some numbers and developments show that the world is getting better in many aspects.
Good things do not happen at the speed we would hope for and in the intensity we would love – but they do happen. For them to continue to happen and happen faster we need every person to be active and engaged.
Extreme Poverty and Hunger
Especially when a feeling is foggy it make sense to keep to the facts. There are many small successes and trends that point in the right direction. They imply that we live in a world where terrible things happen but also in a world where more people are in a good position than ever before.
200 million people less than 2012 suffer extreme poverty (less than $ 1.90 per day). That means that still a horrifying amount of 702 million people suffer extreme poverty. That´s 9.6 % of the world population. In 1999, that number was still 29 % while in 1990 37 % suffered from extreme poverty.
795 million people suffer from chronic malnutrition (I hope I am using the correct term, I mean undernourishment – not corndogs). That is so terrible it´s hard to find words to describe it. But 2012 it was still 821 million people and 2005 even 942 million. In the early 90ties, over 1 billion people suffered from chronic malnutrition.
The number of malaria infections has gone down 37 % since 2000.
The child mortality rate is half of what it was in 1990.
In America, for the first time since ages the number of obese people is going down. For the first time in like forever McDonalds is forced to close more restaurants then they open. Monsanto is facing trial for crimes against humanity.
Education for all
America might still have a lot of homework to do, but we are looking at trend worldwide. Compared to 1999, 48 million children more are send to school. The illiteracy rate fell from 18 to 14 % since 2000.
Clearly, the message is: That´s not good enough. But the message is also: Things are NOT getting worse and we just need to keep pushing.
This list could be extended. The Human Development Report of the UNO sums it up like this: We achieved more since 1990 than we dared to dream.
Why do people still see only negatives?
When some of the numbers are positive why do many people still have the feeling that the world is getting worse? The first reason for it is our perception.
Many pessimists can produce statistic in an instant that suggest the world is in a terrible state. “The glass is half empty” statistics historically have an easier job of influencing us.
The UNESCO rarely mentions successes. That´s part of their job, they need money to achieve all of the many goals we have not yet achieved.
The solution of former President Bill Clinton is as current as ever:
“Follow the trend lines, not the headlines.”
How about Wars?
That´s where our distorted perception shows most clearly: War and organized crime.
The renowned Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) said back in 2014 that the 126.000 victims are more than in the last 20 years.
Do not get me wrong. I am 100 % pacifist. I do not even eat meat. 80 % of my shoes are from El Naturalista, a brand that uses sustainable caoutchouc, a natural rubber. I do not even kill mosquitos – I use natural oils to keep them away (basically, I get bit a lot).
My point is: You have to read beyond the headlines. A deeper look into the report of the UCDP also shows: “Compared to the many international wars of the 20th century the number of death was relatively low.”
“The world is less violent than in the times of the cold war.” “Seven conflicts registered in 2013 were pacified one year later.” “A positive trend is the number of peace agreements since 2011”.
The number of conflicts is growing since a few years. From 31 in 2010 to 40 in 2014. In 1990 49 conflicts have been registered. From 1997 – 1990 it was 40.
Every conflict is one too much and every victim of violence is one too much. But is the world getting worse every year? I do not think so.
Is there still a lot to do? Absolutely, and therefore, the world needs us active – not depressive.
Perception and Social Media
It is not always the numbers that change but also our condensed perception.
If the world is bad today how was it when civil wars rampaged the Balkan Countries? Or when the Hutu in Ruanda killed so many Tutsi, that this number has been excluded from the genocide statistics and showed separately.
A few years back if at all we saw a few pictures of the horrors in the news. Today every terrorist films his terrible crimes with a smartphone and puts it on social media where it goes viral.
“Share” and “like” on facebook. A disgusting reality of our modern world.
Facebook also censors our newsfeeds. You follow/like one topic? You will see more of that. And even more. FB will present you with a completely one-sided view of the reality.
Terrorist propaganda becomes a war of content. Everything gets shared, reconstructed and analyzed in a speed that maybe our brain can process. But not the rest. No matter if you call it “heart” or “soul”.
We are left with a diffuse feeling of threat and sadness.
And then we are easy prey for those who want to manipulate us for their ulterior goals. Whether it´s hate speech or the government canceling the last bit of laws that protect our privacy.
Neuroscientists explain this knowledge paradox. We know more and understand less. We know everything really fast, every detail in live ticker mode – but we cannot comprehend the complexity.
Neuroscientist Mark Waldman offers the great advice that it´s easier for the mind to comprehend bad news when we read them (as opposed to watching). And he also advises to sometimes for the sake of your sanity take breaks from following the news.
Religions and ideology offer seemingly simple solutions to handle the complexity. And we try to interpret it with simple patterns and overstatements.