Happy New Year everyone!
And yet, while the champagne is still chilling, I can practically see many of you rolling your eyes and groaning. For many, 2016 was quite the disaster. What good can Brexit possibly bring in 2017? Or Trump, to be sworn in as POTUS in a mere 20 days? Talks of Weimar are rife, as are fears of a new weapons’ race.
For others, of course, 2017 will be a year when finally Britain gets rid of its European shackles. And a year when the US gets a chance to return to a better past. But what kind of past is that?
How do you feel about the past?
No matter where you stand on these issues, 2017 will be a year to remember, from the looks of it. Love it or dread it, the future is upon us. And, interestingly enough, it is fairly easy to predict whether you are currently under a duvet awaiting the impending missiles, or in the middle of the square celebrating the promises held by the new year.
As The Economist points out in its review of “Progress,” a new book by Johan Norberg, humans, in general, are a gloomy species. Some 71% of Britons think the world is getting worse; only 5% think it is improving. Asked whether global poverty had fallen by half, doubled or remained the same in the past 20 years, only 5% of Americans answered correctly that it had fallen by half. People are predisposed to think that things are worse than they are, and they overestimate the likelihood of calamity. This is because they rely not on data, but on how easy it is to recall an example. And bad things are more memorable. The media amplify this distortion. Famines, earthquakes and beheadings all make gripping headlines; “40m Planes Landed Safely Last Year” does not.
This pessimism also has political consequences. Voters who think things were better in the past are more likely to demand that governments turn back the clock. A whopping 81% of Trump’s supporters think life has grown worse in the past 50 years. Among Britons who voted to leave the European Union, 61% believe that most children will be worse off than their parents. Those who voted against Brexit tend to believe the opposite.
So, which is it?
Mr. Norberg unleashes a tornado of evidence that life is, in fact, getting better. He describes how his great-great-great-great grandfather survived the Swedish famines of 150 years ago. Sweden in those days was poorer than Sub-Saharan Africa is today. “Why are some people poor?” is the wrong question, argues Mr. Norberg. Poverty is the starting point for all societies. What is astonishing is how fast it has receded.
In 1820, 94% of humanity subsisted on less than $2 a day in modern money. That fell to 37% in 1990 and less than 10% in 2015.
Not only have people grown much more prosperous; they also enjoy better health than even rich folk did in the past. This is due partly to galloping progress in medical science. When the swine flu pandemic threatened to become catastrophic in 2009, scientists sequenced the genome of the virus within a day and were producing a vaccine in less than six months.
The spread of basic technology, allowing for clean water and indoor plumbing, may have helped even more. Louis XIV’s palace was the pinnacle of 18th-century grandeur. Nonetheless, without flush toilets, it stank. “The passageways, corridors and courtyards are filled with urine and faecal matter,” wrote a contemporary observer. Now 68% of the world’s population have modern sanitation—a luxury denied to the Sun King—up from 24% in 1980.
Also, and despite the bloody headlines, the world is far safer than it used to be. The homicide rate in hunter-gatherer societies was about 500 times what it is in Europe today. Globally, wars are smaller and less frequent than they were a generation ago. The only type of violence that is growing more common is terrorism, and people wildly overestimate how much of it there is. The average European is ten times more likely to die by falling down stairs than to be killed by a terrorist. Evidence that the past was more brutal than the present can be gleaned not only from data but also from cultural clues. For example, children’s nursery rhymes are 11 times more violent than television programs aired before 9 pm in Britain, one study found.
So, what better book to celebrate a new year? Whether you are looking for something to restore your hope or something that will reassure that no, the world is not going to the dogs, this is the perfect gift for you and your loved ones.
Now, back to your champagne before it gets any warmer! Cheers, my friends, and may 2017 bring us nothing but prosperity and joy!
Long time supporter of this blog, Sean White, has been unable to post his comment here, so he asked me to post it for him. Here is what he wanted to say:
Have to say pick up on this my friend in the article, and you are right on many an account, for instance: In respect of poverty… $2 day is this in “real terms?” In which case $2 was a fair amount back in 1820.
And yes, not surprised Trump supporters have that view of the world, and not surprised most people in general are unaware of the improvements on a “world wide” scale.
However in respect of Brexit it is a fact unfortunately, if things carry on as they are now… most young people here in UK won’t be as well off as their parents were. Now that’s not some imagined point, but a statistical fact. We are being priced out of being able to buy a home… the number of people with their own homes has fallen drastically, and it is only going to get worse amongst the young. Unless this is corrected that is…
Nevertheless this is certainly not a reason to vote leave. Surprised at the correlation arrived at here, due to the fact that it was mainly older people who voted for Brexit, but it is the younger people who are suffering the severe effects of the increasing disparity in UK society.
As well, unfortunately and perhaps ‘because’ we are getting too comfortable in some respects… democracy is declining on the whole, around the world. This is largely down to one man President Putin, and his regime, which is “actively” attempting to undermine ‘all’ democracies. The funding of Right Wing groups for instance, and RT & Sputnik News, which are insidious in their threat to our society, blatant propaganda machines:
Fox News is ‘no’ better: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7V9ljFypRr8
Sexism and stupidity on Fox News. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GWuE3KSgnOw
And to be honest I do feel Wikileaks has been compromised due to their involvement in leaking Russian obtained emails from the Democratic camp, which gave the election to Trump. Emails because of RT and Fox News propaganda Hillary still lost the election, although Hillary had already been cleared by “3” departments after an investigation prior to this.
A Presidential candidate to hung for a crime they never committed, and having been cleared beforehand… is there ever a greater sign to the threat to the World’s leading democracy?
I do feel in this respect at least… we are being complacent.
Having said all that, absolutely I think mankind is capable of resolving “any” problem when we work together, but that is what we must seek to do.
This is a good newspaper, which will also encourage ourselves to feel better and see the world in a more optimistic light, and add a sense of ‘balance’ to what read in the media: “Positive News.”
The article below speaks of the improvements seen in 2016, which we should take heart from, but in equal measure:
Interesting perspective and information Nicholas. Yes, it has been one of the best years for many, so let’s raise our glass of champagne and cheer on in this new year with hope and optimism. That’s what I choose. Happy New Year again. 🙂
It’s all about choices. May 2017 bring us nothing but joy 🙂
Amen to that! 🙂
Well, Nicholas, that article is quite the reality check.
But you know, I suppose expectations play a big part in how we perceive the past and the future. I was tellingn to my sister some time back that if I went back to my teen self living in the 1980s, she would never believe what 2016 looks like. That’s because, although the 1980s were tough years even if my 15-year-ol.d self didn’t realise it, the genearl feeling of those years allowed me to grow thinking that hard work will bring you where you want to be, that your future really is in your hands. I would have expected that time would have make that journey easier, whereas the economic crises first and the general feeling of terror and fear today have make it harder (and young people today know it better than anyone).
What actual life conditions were in the 1980s aren’t really important, it’s the feeling and the hopes and will to plan for the future that makes all the difference. Maybe it’s because I’m a 1980s girl, but I do think that it’s harder to look at the future now than it was then, and this is why we feel our lives are worse.
Great point. It’s not what happens; it’s our attitude that shapes how we feel. Thanks for the reminder!
It does depend on where one sources one’s ‘facts’ doesn’t it? 😀 … Happy New Year, to you and yours. 😀
Lies, bloody lies, and statistics, as the old man put it! Thank you, to you too 🙂
He did have a way with words. 😀
I am more of an optimist and I think most people are. So with that in mind, all the best for 2017, Nicholas 😀
May it bring nothing but joy 🙂
Happy New Year to you as well, Nicholas. May it be a joyful and successful one! 🙂
Thank you so much, Carol 🙂
I’m taking it one minute at a time and trying not to let the past drag me down or the future scare the bejeebers out of me. I stay saner that way.
Words to live by! 🙂
I don’t have (nor have I researched) evidence that life is generally better these days, but it makes complete sense. I’ve been saying for years – to anyone prepared to listen – that we live like kings compared to our ancestors. As you’ve indicated, the world’s troubles seem magnified simply by the fact that the media focus on them. Perhaps we should spend a little more time being grateful for what we have, and we might just feel better about ourselves, our fellow earthlings and life in general.
Great post, Nicholas. And a Happy New Year to you and your family.
Thank you, Graeme! Couldn’t agree more. Focusing on the positive would do wonders for our health – psychological and physical, not to mention the good it’d do the world. May 2017 bring you nothing but joy 🙂
Thanks for the good news, Nicholas. We could all use more of it. 🙂 — Suzanne
There’s plenty of reason for optimism among all the negativity. May 2017 bring you nothing but joy, Suzanne, and many thanks for all your support in 2016 🙂
Great reminder that a historical perspective almost always gives us reason to hope, or to at least appreciate that our “lousy” would have been someone else’s “fantastic” not so long ago. What a lucky thing, really, to be spoiled by our progress!
It sure is, Joy! May 2017 bring you nothing but joy 🙂
To you, too! 🙂
Nothing like a balanced opinion of the world’s troubles – lol, yay to a bit of optimism. Lovely post, Happy New Year (for yesterday) to you and your family 😀
Thank you so much, Catherine! May 2017 bring you nothing but joy 🙂
Say, is it okay if I contact you for some feedback on Endgame?
Yes – you can have my feedback on Endgame – I loved it as you know 🙂
You’re too kind! I’ll email you 🙂
I think the reason for optimism is that it cannot possibly be as bad as it looks! The gulf between is open to all sorts of possibilities. Best New Year Nicholas to you and yours!
Thank you, Philippa! May 2017 bring you nothing but joy 🙂
Another great read! All the best to you, your wonderful family and your awesome readers!
Thank you so much, MM! May 2017 bring you nothing but joy 🙂
As the Oracle says – there will be good things in 2017 and there will be some bad things in 2017. Make what you will of it. Happy New Year, Nicholas to you and your lovely family.
You gotta love the Oracle 😀
Thank you, Leslie! May 2017 bring you nothing but joy 🙂
Thank you so much Nicholas.
As I get older, I think on the whole I’d rather be a disappointed optimist than a permanently smug and vindicated pessimist… It’s a half full/half empty dichotomy, the future when you get down to it. Norberg is quite right – we’re literally miles better off, even than our parents these days, but the divide between the dirt-poor and the materially rich has never been wider it seems.
That’s what I wish for the world in 2017 – that the poverty gap continues to fall and the lot of those less fortunate improves wherever there is violence or mayhem at work. For myself – I’ve got myself fully in charge of my destiny now, so I’ll no one else to blame if I don’t make a real go of this New Year. I think I’m ready to at last try and sustain a positive outlook and that starts with my own blogs – off to get them ready for business right now! 😀
Happy |New Year to you and yours Nick – hope it’s fabulous and exciting! 😉
May 2017 bring you nothing but joy, Jan 🙂
Bad things are memorable because can kill us (as a general rule). Instead, Besides, it takes a conscious effort to examine facts with equanimity. And in this hectic age it’s way too often easier to react than to think.
In any case, Happy New Year to everyone =)
Thank you, Peter! May 2017 bring you nothing but joy 🙂
Great piece, Nicholas. Best wishes & Happy New Year, everybody! May 2017 bring new hope, comfort and peace to the world 🙂
Not to forget health 🙂
Nice to read something positive, after returning from a rain-soaked, mud-filled walk with Ollie. Grey skies over Beetley, and the prospect of belt-tightening in the year to come. Despite my moans and groans on the blogs, I am not actually as pessimistic as I may appear to be. I like to always think of Dickens’ character, Mister Micawber, and his famous line, ” Something will turn up.”
Best wishes to you three in Athens, Nicholas.
Thank you, Pete. May it bring nothing but joy 🙂
Here’s to a better year in 2017. Happy New Year, Nicholas. 🙂
May it bring nothing but joy, Tess 🙂
<3 😀 Thank you and the same back to you.
Humans are pretty negative and get swayed by fear rather easily. That’s why I’m just hoping to make it to 2018. Yeah, it’s pessimistic and dour. I woke up to my social media feeds filled with mocking of Mariah Carey, political fights, insults, Trump promising a news conference, mocking of people saying goodbye to 2016, and several incoherent drunk posts. Hard to think 2017 will be different or better when that’s the starting point. So I’m just hoping to get projects done, keep writing into the future, and survive. Really basic.
Keep the bar low. That’s the secret to happiness.
True. A little sad too.
You say sad, I say genius.