"A long memory can drive a man crazy."
-- Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half

Sunday, March 21, 2021

It's Not as Bad as You Think

     In her current bestselling book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, Isabel Wilkerson compares America to Nazi Germany and says that the state of race relations in the U. S. today are about where they were in the 1880s. Yes, the 1880s, not the 1980s.

     Elizabeth Kolbert in The Sixth Extinction argues that due to climate change we are facing the very extinction of the human race as we know it.

     And surely you know -- as we do -- somebody's grownup kids who have said that they're not going to have kids themselves, because they don't want to rear children in a declining white nationalist nation, or bring children into an overpopulated world that's already choking on its own carbon dioxide and industrial waste. 

    It's enough to make you want to get away from it all and move to Mexico or Madagascar . . . or Mars.

     But then I read How I Learned to Understand the World, a memoir by Hans Rosling, a Swedish doctor and bioethicist who spent several years taking care of poor people in Mozambique and later went back to Africa to help put out the fires of the Ebola epidemic. He died in 2017 at age 68, but even his early demise did not dampen his optimism.

     Rosling is best known for his series of TED talks and the book called Factfulness. He says we hear about all the terrible things in the world from the media, and so we leap to the conclusion that the world is getting worse. What we don't hear about are the slow, ongoing improvements in health, longevity, education, non-violence, that go on year after year not just in the U. S. but all around the world.

    The media report on the rise of nationalistic and authoritarian governments around the globe, from Russia to Turkey to Venezuela. They report on the rise of racism and religious hatred. They search out examples of economic inequality. They report on the nuclear threat, the endless wars. They focus on global warming and even tell us we're running out of water.

     None of this is wrong. It's just one-sided, looking at the problems not the progress. To get a more balanced -- and more accurate -- picture of the world today, Rosling tells us, we have to look at the facts. And the facts demonstrate that the world has improved dramatically over almost any time frame you consider.

     So for example:

     Life expectancy: If you were born in 1900, you would have had a 23% chance of dying before age 20 and a 38% chance of dying before age 45. Kids born today have about a 1% chance of dying before age 20 and a 4% chance of dying before age 45.

     Modern Conveniences: When our grandparents were born, virtually no one had electricity ... or telephone or indoor plumbing. They didn't have a car and couldn't fly in an airplane. Today, 85% of the people in the world enjoy the benefits of electricity. And two-thirds have a cellphone.

     Poverty: Twenty years ago 29% of the world population lived in extreme poverty. Today it's only 9% . . . and the rate is still falling.

     Crime: Violent crime has been on a downward trend in the U. S. since 1990. Almost 14.5 million crimes were reported in the United States in 1990. By 2016, with a larger population, that figure was down below 9.5 million.

     Retirement: Some 90% of 65-year-old American men who were still alive in 1870 were working. Today only about 20% of 65-year-old American men are still working ... and many of them are working by choice not necessity.

     Safety: Americans became 95% less likely to be killed on the job over the last hundred years. Seat belts, air bags and other safety features have brought down auto fatalities from 50,000 a year in the 1970s to about 37,000 today, despite more cars on the road. The auto fatality rate per 100,000 people has dropped from 25 to 11 -- less than half what it was in the 1970s.

     Disease: In the past century, vaccines and antibiotics have brought miracles to modern medicine. Just since 1990, the control of infectious disease has saved the lives of an estimated 100 million children. Or consider the development of the Covid-19 vaccine. They couldn't do it in 1918. But we did it in 2020.

     Food. Between 1961 and  2009, the amount of land used to grow food increased by 12%, but the amount of food grown has increased by 300%.

     Climate change. The world was getting dirtier and dirtier until the 1970s when the Environmental Protection Agency was established and people started to care about the environment. The world is still getting dirtier. But at a slower pace. And with the development of solar and wind energy, of geothermal and tidal and possibly hydrogen energy it is entirely possible that we will be smart enough to overcome even this latest and most serious problem.

     If you don't believe Rosling, turn to Bill Gates, the computer wizard who now focuses on world health. He tells us: "Headlines are what mislead you, because bad news is a headline and gradual improvement is not." So next time someone corners you to drone on about how bad the world really is, tell them: "It's not as bad as you think."

21 comments:

Wisewebwoman said...

Good news really gets a headline, you are absolutely right. Much needs to change in this world we have created but I am always and forever heartened by the helpers, so many out there doing good important work benefitting (wo)mankind in so many ways, mainly in female poverty which lifts families out of desperation and early mortality by educating the girls and providing birth control and menstrual products. Just one example. I had one friend open a clinic in Nigeria to stop FGM.

I need to reflect on these good people more.

XO
WWW

Arkansas Patti said...

Thanks, I needed that. I worried more when our last administration seemed hell bent on profit over world health. Now I am a bit more hopeful but still think I will avoid any future pregnancies. Oh yes, I am 81--that night be a given:)

Kay said...

I think we're certainly better off than 100 years ago. BUT, there's still that awful racism. I'm feeling pretty insulated here in Hawaii now and it was fine (more or less) for me in Illinois 15 years ago. But I can't help but worry for my children and grandchildren now in the Midwest and East coast. I've always felt terrible for the racism that African Americans have faced throughout the years, but now I worry for my family as well. It was very bad for Asians after the 40's, but I thought it was getting a little better. I guess not. It only took one president to make it all happen again.

DJan said...

Thanks for the optimistic post, and I too hope that we can continue to concentrate on the good in the world but still not be Pollyannas about the state of the world. :-)

Olga said...

That is good to know. I needed to see this today!

ApacheDug said...

This was a very good piece Tom, and a reminder that our lives don't have to be defined by that night's headlines. In fact, it's one of the reasons I stopped watching the (11pm) local news. Sports, weather & who strangled who in the neighborhood next to mine. Pass.

Red said...

Interesting post. Yes the media picks stories that will sell. Now if we could only clean up politics.

Tom said...

Thanks, Red, but cleaning up politics? Let's not be, er, Pollyannas about it.

DUTA said...

Racial conflicts are unsolvable as they do not appear in 'God's book of World Creation". God has indeed created the races, but put them in different territories, not together.
If Man (european race mainly) went for slavery and colonialism, then he's forever going to suffer. Money, rights, prizes won't solve anything; will make things even worse, much worse.
The world will have to be reset. Covid-19 and climate change might be the prelude to that.

Laurie Stone said...

Wonderful, hopeful things to keep in mind. I'm in awe of these medical scientists who came up with vaccines so quickly for this virus. There's a lot to be thankful for.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting read. One comment I have, though, is that doctors only learned in the 1880s that they needed to wash their hands after surgery, before proceeding with other patients (or other surgeries!). So it seems too much to ask that they would have been able to figure out a vaccine in 1918, so soon after what seems to us such basic information. I definitely agree, though, that the media in general has lost its way. I have been a news junkie for as long as I can remember, and I am now pretty much on a news blackout, at least from my usual sources, for that very reason. I'm finding I need to read nonfiction books to get the info that the news media should be reporting on.
Nina

Jennifer (UnfoldAndBegin) said...

I think it's better for some, but not better for others. I do try to go to happy news sites (there are some out there) to get a refresh. But that doesn't change the facts of life right now.

gigi-hawaii said...

What I like is the medical progress over the past 100 years. Meds for mental illness, for instance, and surgery to implant new knees, new shoulders, new heart and lungs, etc.

Carol Cassara said...

These things are true. Much progress has been made in many sectors. It's not all bleak. However, we have some serious socio-political issues that can't be denied. Those who are in targeted groups, either racial or socio-economic, deal with this every day. I feel acutely for them.

Rita said...

What a great article. As a journalist, I had classes and worked in newsrooms where "if it bleeds, it leads," was taught and practiced.

As a consumer and personal finance blogger, I often write about things to watch out for, for example, hidden funeral costs, pyramid schemes, toxic chemicals, and unsafe consumer products.

I'll have to think about writing about good consumer and financial news, too. Any suggestions?

Kathy @ SMART Living 365.com said...

Hi Tom! Thank you! I also believe that there is more good happening in the world than we know. That doesn't mean that we deny the negative (or bad) things, but it does offer hope and hope builds resiliency and increases our ability to problem solve...which is FAR better than feeling hope-less and dissolving into hopelessness and depression. Of course we must be mindful and aware of how our actions cause trouble and do our best to actively stop the actions of others that do harm, but if we let our brains focus on worry and pain and a diminished world we will get nowhere.

Unfortunately it is much easier just to passively absorb the bad news being thrust upon the average person than to actively seek out the good news and to help when possible.

What did Gandhi say, "We must be the change we want to see in the world." ~Kathy

Linda Myers said...

Here's a good thing. Yesterday I volunteered for seven hours at a pop-up vaccine event. No one had to sign up; they just had to be qualified according to the current Arizona status. There was a drive through and there was a walk-in. The venue was in an underserved area of Tucson. I'd say 85 percent of the vaccine seekers were Latinx. Front-line workers, grocery store checkers, restaurant servers. We had registration forms in Spanish and English.

I am a white woman. I was an early recipient of the vaccine because I volunteer one day a week at a health clinic so I am a health care worker. I would have waited about three weeks longer to qualify by my age (I'm 72).

I wanted to volunteer once, but not at one of the big sites. This one was just right. My feet hurt A LOT at the end of the event, and I went straight home and fell soundly asleep for an hour. My whole body hurt until I went to bed at night.

We, each of us, can do one small and good thing. Anything helps.

Barbara said...

Thanks. I needed that. I have become so forlorn over the state of the USA and the World. I need to remind myself that ugliness sells headlines and to skip them.

Dick Klade said...

News media report the news. "News" is perhaps best defined as what is the exception to what is generally happening. It will truly be a great day when the headlines say things like, "No murders today in Chicago," "No air pollution over LA," or "No warfare in the Middle East." About time for folks to stop blaming their own laziness in seeking accounts of progress on the major media.

Rebecca Olkowski said...

I've been binging on the underrated TV series "The Knick," which takes place in a pre-1900 Hospital in New York City. To see the bigotry that took place then, and what people had to endure medically as they were experimented on is eye-opening. They mention the use of Eugenics in the series which was a way some doctors tried to cleanse the races by giving immigrants, blacks, and mental patients vasectomies or tying their tubes. What a frightening concept that some folks still believe in. I recently took a haunted tour of Pasadena near where I live and learned that there was an office for Eugenics enthusiasts on Old Colorado Blvd. I get chills every time I pass by it. Anyway, it's worth watching the show if you can handle the gore. My great grandparents lived in NYC during that time and both miraculously made it to age 95. I don't know how.

Mage said...

I like these stats. Then a gain, I'm not going to make it to 85, and I would really like to live lots longer.