We know what is going wrong. But we ought, for a moment, to acknowledge how much is going right in the world
FROM THE GUARDIAN | JULY 4, 2017
As the United States commemorates 241 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Americans are not in a celebratory mood. According to most polls, 60% of the country believes that America is on the wrong track; that number is slightly higher among Republicans.
That sour mood is not a product of the Trump administration; the last time a majority believed the country was headed in the right direction was shortly after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. And this is not solely an American phenomenon.
According to global polls conducted by Pew, in France, Spain, Great Britain, Poland, Mexico – you name the country – less than 40% of the public feel that their polities are headed in a positive direction. Notable exceptions are China, Vietnam and Germany, each of which have been doing rather well economically, though so have many other countries whose citizens are far less sanguine.
What has been and remains remarkable about the outbreak of global pessimism, anger and despair is how at odds those sentiments are with certain unequivocal material realities. Never before have so many people been so well-fed, long-lived, decently housed; never before have so many people had so much say in their local and national affairs, had so little to fear from random or state-sanctioned acts of violence, and had so little risk of untimely death due to war or famine.
And yet, it is fair to say that never before has such a large swath of humanity been so royally pissed off, so aware of all that remains broken in a world where many things have been fixed, and so convinced that we are, nationally and collectively, on the wrong path.
There has been no shortage of voices reminding us of how much the material circumstances of our lives have improved over the past century. Yet, somehow, those notes have been almost utterly drowned out in the cacophony of despair.
Still, for most of us, life today is more abundant, more materially secure, and free from the fatal and lethal threats that humans confronted for the vast preponderance of our time on the planet. And not free as if by magic. Free because of the assiduous, dogged, passionate efforts of generations of us to address those challenges, scientifically, politically, philosophically, and eradicate the worst of them.
Take a series of statistics about the United States and the planet: every part of the world has seen an increase in calorie consumption since 1960, with all the concomitant benefits in terms of health and longevity.
Increasingly, more people face health challenges from obesity (a derivative of caloric affluence) than from malnutrition, which was one of the primary causes of human suffering, disease and premature death for most of recorded history.
Every part of the world has seen vastly reduced risk of early death not just from starvation, but from disease and from war. For all the attention to the parts of the world where violence and state disintegration are endemic, there are fewer deaths from war and violent conflict than there were throughout most of the 20th century, even after the second world war.
Yes, there is some debate over what precisely constitutes a “war” and how to count fatalities, but your actual chances of being caught in a violent conflict have only been decreasing.
So too have your chances of being caught in a political collapse. For all the economic uncertainty of the past decade, few countries have seen the total political collapse of revolution. Governments have fallen, but not entire systems. Political upheaval can be positive; the post-1989 era in eastern Europe was mostly beneficial.
But political upheaval historically is also closely connected to war and famine and violence. Consider the tens of millions who died in China during the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s and then the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, and the waves of war and violence that followed the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the subsequent Iran-Iraq war.
Then there are longer lives thanks to medical innovation and ever-widening access to safe, potable water for much of the world’s population. There is increased literacy and higher levels of education, which often correlates to high incomes. There is increased participation of women in the workforce, even with inequalities of payment persisting, which also means high levels of education for women, better health, and in much of the world, decreasing numbers of children.
In the United States, for all the legitimate unease over the costs and unpredictability of health insurance, most Americans are spending less on life’s essentials than their parents and grandparents did. And they are getting more for what they are spending, whether on food, shelter, clothing, education or entertainment.
In the years just after the second world war, the new subdivisions of Long Island’s Levittown were touted as the key to the American dream and the middle class. The size of those homes? Seven hundred and fifty square feet, with a living room, two bedrooms, one bathroom and a kitchen with no modern appliances.
Today, the average American home is nearly 3,000 sq ft, with an array of equipment that would have been unfathomable mid-century; even in 1973, the average home size was 1000 sq ft less than it is today.
The percentage of income spent on food has gone from nearly 25% in 1930 to under 10% today. The percentage spent on apparel has also come down precipitously. It will come as a surprise to learn that spending on healthcare hasn’t actually changed markedly, although consumption of healthcare has increased with lifespans.
The only thing that Americans do spend more on relative to income is housing, and even there the increase from 1950 to the present is much less proportionately than the decrease of other costs. In essence, Americans have taken the savings derived from lower costs for life necessities and spent them on nicer places to live, work and entertain.
These are broad averages, of course, yet similar pictures could be painted of most countries. The average person living in China enjoys a level of abundance, safety and stability that almost no one in China could claim (even the upper classes) for much of the 20th century. Yes, averages mean that many millions can be doing quite a bit worse, and therein may lie an explanation for the disconnect between how we are doing and how many of us worldwide feel we are doing.
The reasons for such global dyspepsia are both evident and mysterious. The “news” every day bears witness to the obvious: there are portions of the world – Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan – mired in violence. There are people determined to destroy what they can when they can in the name of a God they call their own. There are states – Venezuela, Zimbabwe – that teeter on the precipice of collapse. And there are nations ruled by angry, calculating souls who, it seems safe to say, do not wish their fellow humans the best.
In the developed world, there was a financial collapse in 2008-2009 that shook confidence in our collective ability to keep economies afloat, and given that all of the economies of the developed world now rely on digital systems of currency and ideas, these systems appear both mysterious and fragile.
There has also been a continual resetting of expectations. There’s an old saying in the financial world that people always remember the most they made and the least they spent. It’s your grandparents tsking that something used to cost ten cents, without the context that that was when an average salary was $2,000 a year.
As human life has expanded, as homes have gotten larger, calories cheaper, war less frequent, senseless death rarer, political injustice more the exception than the norm; people have become less tolerant of that which used to be tolerated. In short, it would seem that the more we have, the more aware we become of what we still lack.
Which leads us back to the “news”. The news has become a daily focus on what is broken, rather than on what is working. That doesn’t make it wrong, but it does make it distorted.
Yes, as life expectancy has expanded in general, across certain swaths of the United States, it is decreasing for white males and others, coincident with dying industries and opioid addiction. Yes, millions still face bankruptcy or substantial economic harm from sudden illness, accidents, loss of work, jobs made irrelevant by technology. Yes, in the United States, not nearly enough is done to address and ameliorate those challenges.
The fact that we are collectively doing so much better should never obscure the degree to which some of us are doing so much worse, or at the very least, struggling. The fact that much of the world is at peace should not obscure to the degree to which some of the world is ripping itself apart.
But losing perspective is dangerous. It creates a climate of fear and anxiety, fed by stories of harm and danger, that threatens to become detached from the manifest good we have done in addressing human needs and wants.
It also, oddly, inhibits our ability to meet the actual challenges of the world today. Yes, terrorism as a tool of the weak is a problem everywhere, and will continue to be. But obesity and climate, both of which are the result of abundance, will affect exponentially more of us. We focus obsessively on terrorism, to the exclusion of challenges that may ultimately matter more.
But on this American Fourth of July, we ought, for a moment, to acknowledge how much is going right in the world. We know what is going wrong; news of that, awareness of it, and the feeling of it is impossible to escape or deny. But what is going wrong is only one facet of a complicated story that has seen much go right. For a day, at least, we can take a deep breath and say: yes.