Updated: Feb 20, 2021
But First, Some Historical Context: Humanity Is Not Doomed
When you think of future generations, are you hopeful?
If your immediate reaction was that humanity is doomed, I'm here to tell you otherwise. When thinking of civilization as a whole, historical context is imperative. Over the last few hundred years, almost every aspect of society has improved for humans around the world. I’ll save the nitty gritty for future blog posts, but here are some (note: there are plenty more where that came from) graphs illustrating the progress Homo sapiens have made globally:
Now, you may be wondering how it’s possible to be a pessimist given this information. When looking at the data, it’s important to understand that significant progress does not mean suffering ceases to exist. It still does, and there is a lot of work to be done to help those in need. These statistics illustrate immense change over time--for myself, these brief glimpses into the past make me more grateful for the life I live today. But there are some key factors at play in the 21st century that may lead you to believe suffering is more prevalent than it is. In fact, these forces are so strong that some are left to believe that things are getting worse, when this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Fundamentally, these forces are: 1. Personal Bias
Your surrounding community and its ideologies do not represent the world. 2. Outdated Education
Textbooks are not being kept up to date.
3. Media Bias
There are two main components to media bias:
a. Bad news is more gripping than good news.
b. Progress (good news) takes significant time to be realized, whereas bad things are immediately portrayable.
To illustrate (b), I often give this thought experiment: Imagine we could only give a news broadcast to society once every 20 years. Would we spend time talking about an isolated incident? Probably not. Rather, we would likely be discussing statistical trends and shouting from the rooftops, “the percentage of malnourished children around the world has dropped significantly in the past 20 years!” (Among other global improvements.)
This is one arbitrary example, but you get the point.
These forces, when paired with our fallible intuition, leave us unequipped to understand the real world. One of the more common misconceptions about societal progress is the idea that countries must get rich before social improvements can be made, when in fact the opposite is true; It’s more prudent to help countries instantiate social progress first to help drive industrialization. For example, one of the strongest predictors of long-term societal growth is the normalization of women and girls getting educated within.
The Ngäbe Tribe: The Panamanian Rainforest
I'm going to read off some global statistics from 2016:
-Proportion of people having their basic needs met: between 80 and 90 percent
-Proportion of children vaccinated: 88 percent
-Proportion of people with electricity: 85 percent
-Proportion of girls in primary school: 90 percent
If I told you that in 2016, 4.2 million babies died worldwide, your reaction may be along the lines of, "...that's absolutely unacceptable. We must do something!" Well, we have been. Compare that number to 1950, where 14.4 million babies died worldwide, and you would have an accurate picture of the progress we've been making globally. (15% mortality in 1950, down to 3% in 2016)
And the key to all of this? EDUCATION! Nothing brings more widespread growth to a country than education.
Have you ever wondered what a tribe of ~1000 people on an island rainforest looks like? In your imagination, did you picture a group of people with a focus on education? See the video below for an inside look into the Ngäbe tribe’s life. This video is important to me, because it illustrates just how wrong our preconceived notions of other cultures can be.
Disclaimer: I give the information above as I feel there are woeful misconceptions about the global progress we have endured over the last few hundred years. Again, it’s paramount that we continue to help those in need and strive for lifting humanity as a whole. To say that progress has taken place is not to justify the remaining suffering that still exists. This moral illusion will be covered in a future post.