Pick up your phone when you wake up, and it feels as if we’re living in terrible times.
On social media, everyone from the US president down is shouting at everyone else.
Venezuela and the UK are in political meltdown.
Scroll through the daily horrors, from Yemen’s civil war to child migrants kept in cages, and then shoo your kids to school so they can end up on the right side of the inequality.
Yet we may remember this era as a happy parenthesis: the good times before everything degenerated.
Scholars such as Steven Pinker of Harvard and the late Swedish statistician Hans Rosling have long argued that the average human has never had it so good.
Things are terrible, except when compared with all of history.
- Only one person in 10 lived in extreme poverty in 2015 (meaning they consumed less than $1.90 a day, adjusted for local prices), down from 36 per cent in 1990, says the World Bank.
- The average child born in 2016 could expect to live for 72 years. That’s a rise of 5.5 years since 2000, while the average African has gained 10.3 years, largely because of improved child survival and more access to treatments for HIV, says the World Health Organization.
- Fewer than 90,000 people died in organized conflicts involving state or non-state actors in 2017, reports the Uppsala Conflict Data Group. That’s down from the recent peak in 2014, and far below the 1946-1990 period as a proportion of the world’s population. In short, Donald Trump hasn’t upset global peace. Admittedly, today’s 68.5 million forcibly displaced people (many of them living in dreadful conditions) are an all-time record, but that’s partly because wars are becoming less deadly: refugees escape.
- Global inequality has fallen, as Asian countries close the gap with the west. But many western countries have also rebounded from the financial crisis. The US’s median household income hit $61,372 in 2017, about its level of 2007, and has kept rising since. If the country’s 10-year economic expansion lasts beyond July, it will become the longest in US history.
- Even as democracy has retreated worldwide since 2005 (according to the Freedom House watchdog), growing numbers are becoming freer to live fulfilled lives. Women, gay people and the disabled are benefiting from the belated recognition that there are no second-class humans. Just since 2013, many western countries have legalised gay marriage; India last year unbanned gay sex; while “antidiscrimination laws are gaining traction worldwide”, says the US Council on Foreign Relations. There’s still an immense way to go – Brunei this week brought in stoning to death for gay sex – but worldwide, this is probably the best time ever to be gay, female or disabled.
- The worst of climate change has yet to bite.
If things feel awful, it’s partly because of the way we now consume news.
Before rolling television news, mass atrocities such as the Holocaust, the Ukrainian famine, China’s Great Leap Forward and even Rwanda’s genocide happened almost in secret.
Today we see individual atrocities on our smartphones: New Zealand’s mosque shootings, American cops killing black people or a bomb hitting a Syrian house.
This is horrendous, but it also prompts action to stop the atrocities: the Trump administration was embarrassed into dropping its policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the Mexican border.
We’re still working out how to live with social media. It has put us in intimate contact with racist sociopaths who issue death and rape threats.
But it’s worth remembering that the internet produces far more virtual than real violence.
Indeed, the kinds of people who 25 years ago were out attacking old ladies are now indoors trolling.
So these are relatively good times. But they probably won’t last. The eurozone looks on the brink of recession, and the bond market thinks the US is heading that way.
This month, Brexit will probably either happen or get delayed, whereupon the UK could get stuck long term in angry US-style partisanship.
Then there’s war. The US, China, India, Russia and Brazil now all have nationalist leaders.
The “my country first” era may turn out as peaceful as the previous multilateral one, but that’s a high bar.
North Korea has probably built intercontinental nuclear missiles, while the US and Russia suspended their Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in February.
Pinker says people are always worried about future threats that never materialise. But when it comes to the big threat, climate change, even his optimism falters.
In his latest book Enlightenment Now, he concedes: “The effort needed to prevent climate change is immense, and we have no guarantee that the necessary transformations in technology and politics will be in place soon enough to slow down global warming before it causes extensive harm.”
Humanity may be like the video-game player who fights his way past many levels of dragons but then finally gets taken out.