Saturday, March 10, 2018

Hard to believe – but the world is getting better

A United Kingdom Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, once won a General Election — by a landslide — by telling the electorate ‘you’ve never had it so good’.

It would be a brave, or extremely foolish, politician who would dare to say anything like  that today in a world beset by random acts of terrorism,  increasing tensions between nations, a possible trade war and highly unpredictable  international diplomacy.

Yet Macmillan was right when he coined that slogan back in 1959, and continues to be right today.

I pondered this after listening to Canadian philosopher Steven Pinker who asked us to put aside the 24-hour news cycle and the so called counter-enlightenment of United States President Donald Trump and consider the fact that fewer people are dying of disease or hunger, fewer people are living in abject poverty and more are receiving an education than at any time in human history.

This has been a trend in progress at least since the medieval era and has actually been accelerating since the Industrial Revolution.

In a wide-ranging interview, the kernel of Pinker’s argument was this: “It’s just a simple matter of arithmetic. You can’t look at how much there is right now and say it is increasing or decreasing until you compare it with how much took place in the past.

“[Then] you realise how much worse things were in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. We don’t appreciate it now when we concentrate on the remaining horrors, but there were horrific wars such as the Iran-Iraq war, the Soviets in Afghanistan, the war in Vietnam, the partition of India, the Bangladesh war of independence , the Korean War, which killed far more people than even the brutal wars of today.  

“We ought to be aware of the suffering that continues to exist, but we can’t take this as evidence that things have gotten worse unless we remember what happened in the past.”

Pinker goes on to show that in historic terms  global inequality has decreased, democracy has advanced and Governments have become more aware of their responsibilities to the people they serve. The figures are there, and they are undeniable.

Of course this is a massively long-term view, something which is not appreciated by human beings who see the world only in the context of their own lifetimes and perhaps those of their children — and of their immediate environment.

It would be pointless to argue with the inhabitants of Ghouta that the world is steadily improving or, on another scale, remind the residents  of an Australian suburb of the inadequacies of Victorian sewerage systems when their homes are inundated by overflowing stormwater drains during unprecedented rainfall, possibly the result of climate change.  

So the horrors remain, and through the 24 hour news cycle (created by unprecedented advances in technology) we are fully aware for the first time in history of the massive forces at work in the world.

Of course this is daunting, but understanding it is the first step to solving — not to throw up our arms and walk away saying it is all too hard.

In 1959, Macmillan got away with his slogan due to a unique set of circumstances: Memories of World War II and the post-war austerity it created were fading; new schools and hospitals were being built; televisions were going into every home; the United Kingdom still seemed to be a major global player.

Finally ‘Supermac’ (a title he secretly adored) was able to run circles around a weak Opposition that had no answer to his unbounded optimism.   

The stars aligned for Macmillan’s benefit then. Today’s circumstances make it inconceivable they will do so in the short term again, yet that is no reason to abandon efforts to work for a better world, even if that world is one we will probably never see.

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