Friday, April 29, 2011

The miserable people are wrong

When I lived in Australia in 2004 I once had to give a talk in college about Buddhism. I remember taking a walk out to Sydney's Hyde Park to study there under a tree, and finding the text difficult to reconcile with that environment.

A fundamental principle of Buddhism is that life leads to suffering, so individuals should seek through Buddhism to escape the painful cycle of birth and rebirth. It was bright and warm in the park as I read this, and around me happy Australians chatted or threw frisbees. The sky was clear blue, it was fresh and warm for spring. If this was suffering, I wanted more of it.

I pointed this out to my classmates the next day, suggesting that the wealth and health of modern life had removed a great deal of the ancient suffering. I wondered if modern material improvements could make some ancient religions - with their emphasis on escaping material misery - a little less relevant. My classmates disagreed, one arguing that life now is much more stressful than it was in the past, making Buddhism more applicable than ever. We had no smallpox, bubonic plague or Mongol hordes to worry about, yet they were convinced that modern pressures to succeed were greater than the ancient pressures to survive.

I see this pessimism all the time. A great many people are convinced that modern life is violent, dangerous and depressing. I read unhappy Facebook updates by friends complaining that things are so much worse "these days", that nobody cares about anyone else and the world is closing over with corruption and darkness. Yet my instinctive sense of the world was completely different, that without the ancient dangers of famine and plague we were uniquely fortunate, that life was getting better, not worse.

A few years ago I discovered Sweden's Gapminder Foundation, which plots vast quantities of data onto animated graphs. This data illustrates the radical changes experienced almost everywhere during the 20th century. Below, for example, is a graph plotting life expectancy against GDP per capita in 1945, at the end of World War II. With each country as a dot - size determined by population - the world looks like this:

In that graph, every single wealthy country is Western. The countries with the very highest life expectancies are Norway, Sweden and Australia, at 68. Ireland makes it to 61. Indonesia is one of the most miserably poor places on the planet, with a life expectancy of 28.

Fast forward to 2009 and the world looks very different:

Japan, Kuwait, South Korea and Taiwan have rushed up to sit among the Western states with the greatest wealth and longevity. Poorer countries have improved dramatically too: today Madagascar has the same life expectancy as post-war Ireland, while India has already surpassed it at 64. Thailand and the Philippines, considered "developing" countries today, nonetheless have higher life expectancies than the healthiest (Norway, Sweden and Australia) did in 1945. Indonesia has been utterly transformed, with a life expectancy today of 71. There has been an upward rush right across the world, with billions of people escaping poverty.

Years ago when I pointed out the wealth and health of modern developed countries to a left-wing friend, she said that we "exported poverty" to poor countries, that we were growing at their expense. Gapminder's graphs show that this is nonsense: almost everyone has gained very, very rapidly over the last few decades. Those countries that lag behind are almost all sub-Saharan African, many stricken with AIDS and war. Yet these too show major increases in life expectancy, with individual states like Namibia and Botswana showing that African states can compete with the rest. Today Botswana's GDP per capita is higher than East European states like Bulgaria or Romania.

I worked out once the average life expectancy of an English ruler from the 15th to 17th centuries: Edward IV to Oliver Cromwell. These men and women, the richest elite of a powerful European state, managed a pathetic life expectancy of 43.7 years. That is worse than Afghanistan, Zimbabwe or DR Congo today - worse than any country in the world by Gapminder's numbers.

The Simon Community, a charity for homeless people, point out that "in 2009 when we looked at the 62 people that passed away from our community, the average age of death was 40." This is shocking and saddening, but it also puts into perspective the misery of life just a few centuries ago. The poorest and most vulnerable people in Ireland today live about as long as kings and queens of old.

Even violence has waned dramatically. A glance at the Old Testament shows us a brutal world of genocidal triumphalism:

They took the city, its king and its villages, and put them to the sword. Everyone in it they totally destroyed. They left no survivors. They did to Debir and its king as they had done to Libnah and its king and to Hebron.

So Joshua subdued the whole region, including the hill country, the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes, together with all their kings. He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded.
- Joshua 10:39-40

The evidence for historical butchery is widespread. Corpses dug up from peat bogs in Ireland again and again show signs of murder and torture, like the Oldcroghan body found with stab wounds, slashed nipples and holes cut in his arms for a restraining rope. Shane Hegarty's The Irish and Other Foreigners describes written records from the 9th century describing Viking raids on Irish Christian monasteries. These raids are well known, but Hegarty points out that the records mention first raids by other Irish bands instead of the foreign Vikings. Clearly murderous raiding was a relatively common practice at the time.

Ireland was hardly unique, Lawrence Keeley's War Before Civilization argues that wars were more common and more bloody in pre-state tribal societies than they are today. Far from the Noble Savage depictions of eco-friendly folk living in harmony with one another and with nature, most tribes were locked in bitter insecurity and violence. Terrified of their neighbours, they engaged in preemptive raids and occasional massacres. Some tribal peoples caused catastrophic deforestation and environmental collapses, they suffered plagues and famines. A 16th century depiction of Aztec human sacrifice:

People panic today over terrorism, yet terrorists exist only because they are too weak to wage conventional war. Hamas fires rockets at Israeli civilians because Israel kept destroying Arab armies in conventional battles. If Al Qaeda could trundle into the US with tanks and flatten its cities with stealth bombers it would. Instead the best Al Qaeda has ever managed is a bunch of men with boxcutters on aeroplanes, who managed to kill a total of 2,996 people on September 11 2001. The following year diabetes killed 73,249 people in the US. That is, the worst terrorist attack in history was 24 times less effective at killing people than diabetes.

Again instinct should tell us that war is a receding risk today. Ireland has made it from 1923 without a single war. Switzerland makes it back to 1815. There have been no wars within the borders of the EU. East Asia, the graveyard of millions during World War II and Cold War conflicts in China, Korea and Vietnam, is now settled into an uneasy peace, with standards of living rising or already equal to Western Europe. For a large and ever-expanding number of people, war is becoming something that happens to other people. The Human Security Report sought to put numbers on this decline in war, pointing out a sustained decrease in war since the end of the Cold War:

The number of high-intensity conflicts or wars—i.e., those that cause 1,000 or more battle deaths per year—has declined steeply, but unevenly, since the end of the Cold War. The pronounced, though uneven, downward trend in the number of battle deaths has continued.

Paranoia over Islamist violence in the Middle East and South Asia took headlines away from dramatic improvements in Latin America, where peaceful democracies emerged from civil war-ridden dictatorships. The Global Terrorism Database shows a massive decline in terrorism in South America since the end of the Cold war:

Democracy has grown rapidly to the point where almost all countries claim to be democratic, even those highly autocratic states which remain. Dictators have to call themselves democratic because it is increasingly considered the only legitimate form of government. The end of the Cold War only speeded a long-term rise in democracy.

Almost all the trends are positive. The present is more democratic, peaceful, wealthy and safe than the past. Readers should be cheered, and be aware of the constant slow improvements dragging billions of us to ever greater peace and prosperity. For that reason I smiled when I saw the title of Dan Gardner's final chapter in Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. After pointing out the great misconceptions most people have about relative risks, Gardner ended on an optimistic note. His final chapter is called Conclusion: There's never been a better time to be alive. He's right and the miserable people are wrong. Things are getting better.


  1. seems like nostalgia is indeed blind, maybe people are simply apprehensive of a rapidly changing world.

  2. Absolutely, Rohan, and I understand this fear too. Crime rates really are higher in Ireland now than they were when my parents were my age, a good many of the old communities have been disrupted from migration and a lot of old traditions have been abandoned.

    Yet some of the fears seem absurd. I often hear people complaining about the 21st century youth who, they say, don't engage with politics and care only about their iPods and iPhones. Yet the largest anti-war protest in history was in 2003, not during the 1960s.

    As a child I was told that our generation was the worst thus far, ruined by television. When we grew up I saw my peers denouncing the new generation of children, allegedly ruined by computers and mobile phones! Could it be that none of us are really as damanged by technology as people fear? In the meantime, IQ rates rise gradually, each generation scoring higher than the last.


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