It may not feel like it, but 2012 has been the greatest year in the history of the world. That sounds like an extravagant claim, but it is borne out by evidence. Never has there been less hunger, less disease or more prosperity. The West remains in the economic doldrums, but most developing countries are charging ahead, and people are being lifted out of poverty at the fastest rate ever recorded. The death toll inflicted by war and natural disasters is also mercifully low. We are living in a golden age.
To listen to politicians is to be given the opposite impression — of a dangerous, cruel world where things are bad and getting worse. This, in a way, is the politicians’ job: to highlight problems and to try their best to offer solutions. But the great advances of mankind come about not from statesmen, but from ordinary people. Governments across the world appear stuck in what Michael Lind, on page 30, describes as an era of ‘turboparalysis’ — all motion, no progress. But outside government, progress has been nothing short of spectacular.
Take global poverty. In 1990, the UN announced Millennium Development Goals, the first of which was to halve the number of people in extreme poverty by 2015. It emerged this year that the target was met in 2008. Yet the achievement did not merit an official announcement, presumably because it was not achieved by any government scheme but by the pace of global capitalism. Buying cheap plastic toys made in China really is helping to make poverty history. And global inequality? This, too, is lower now than any point in modern times. Globalisation means the world’s not just getting richer, but fairer too.
The doom-mongers will tell you that we cannot sustain worldwide economic growth without ruining our environment. But while the rich world’s economies grew by 6 per cent over the last seven years, fossil fuel consumption in those countries fell by 4 per cent. This remarkable (and, again, unreported) achievement has nothing to do with green taxes or wind farms. It is down to consumer demand for more efficient cars and factories.
And so on. It is hard to keep this big picture in mind. Tragedies seem common or at least too frequent. Good news doesn’t seem to trickle up to the top of the news heap as much. Or perhaps it is because our relative status in the United States and elsewhere in the West seems precarious. Or perhaps it is because due to globalization we are also more aware of the risks in the world around us.
This argument reminds of Stephen Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature (my quick review here). Pinker argued in the book that humans have had a much more violent past and today is marked by relative peace and conflict today tends to be more limited in terms of deaths and how big of an area is affected. Yet, the average citizen would not probably pick up on this.
Before watching The Hobbit on Friday night, my wife and I were struck by the number of movie trailers for post-apocalyptic films. Granted, we didn’t see any trailers for romantic comedies or many Oscar worthy dramas – the theaters clearly think there is a certain audience for The Hobbit – but these sort of narratives seem to be on the rise. People want to watch fictionalized movies and TV shows about the end of times, when the narrative of human progress is clearly smashed and small groups of people try to put the pieces together again. Of course, such movies can also be an excuse for monsters and violence but this is a fascinating trend tied to pessimism about the present and future.