We are assaulted by such brutality and injustice on our daily news feeds that many of us simply tune out. Others despair about the kind of world our children will inherit. There’s no doubt that this world is a “vale of tears” but what if I were to tell you that in the context of human history things are getting much, much better? In fact the progress that humanity has made in a relatively short space of time has been remarkable. Over the course of a single generation tolerance for minorities has become the norm in much of the world, violent crime has retreated, hundreds of millions have been lifted from poverty and even war is losing its edge. To quote Harvard Professor Steve Pinker “today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species existence”. The really great news for us is that here in Australia we are experiencing the very best of it.
I present 15 mostly magnificent and occasionally surprising reasons to be cheerful.
1) No one expects a Spanish inquisition. It officially ended in 1834.
2) Small pox has been eradicated, polio is now as rare as hens teeth and malaria is on the way out. AIDS remains an enormous global problem but the rate of infection is gradually slowing.
3) Thankfully no one has used a nuke since 1945.
4) We no longer believe its a good idea to remove aboriginal children from their families. This was occurring as late as the 1970s but is now viewed as so “on the nose” that the Australian government issued a public apology for it.
5) Chocolate manufacturers everywhere have learned the benefits of embedding salted caramel chunks in their product. Oh my.
6) On line streaming could render TV ads a thing of the past. Yay!
7) Despite the news cycle leading with what bleeds on a daily basis, violent crime is in fact declining. Thanks to shows like The Wire we tend to think of the USA as a massive crime ridden ghetto but over the past two decades rates of violent crime have dropped off dramatically. The US murder rate was actually lower in 2012 than it was in 1960. Overall rates of violent crime (including murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault) have almost halved since 1990. Dont believe me? Its all here on Wikipedia where someone has kindly condensed the findings of the Bureau of Justice Statistics for us.
The trend is similarly rosey in Australia. The homicide rate peaked in 1988 at 2.4 per 100,000 head of population. It currently sits at an historically low rate of 1.1. In other words it is less than half what it was 27 years ago.
8) Marriage is often portrayed as a dead duck but despite all the break ups we see around us, the divorce rate is actually declining steadily. According to the ABS the crude divorce rate (number of divorces per 1,000 people) was 2.1 in 2013 compared with 2.7 in 1980. That’s a 20% drop demonstrating that some people are willing to work through their problems. Meanwhile in the USA the crude divorce rate tumbled from 4.7 in 1990 to 3.6 in 2007.
9) In December 2005 a group of Lebanese youths assaulted a team of life guards on Cronulla beach. Yes it was a low act and yes ethnic gangs had been causing a public nuisance on the beach in the weeks prior. The (over) reaction was the Cronulla riots.
Ten years later in December 2015 a lone gunman, Man Haron Monis, took 18 people hostage at the Lindt Cafe in Martin Place. Two innocent lives were lost and three people were injured as a result of the drama. The public’s reaction was #illridewithyou, a coming together across all faiths and thousands of people visiting Martin Place to lay floral tributes to the victims. I’m sure you’ll agree that this was a vast improvement on race riots. Well played Australia.
10) One of the siege victims Tory Johnson was an openly gay man. Nobody gave a shit. The nation’s heart went out unreservedly to Tory’s family and long term partner Thomas Zinn. If the incident had occurred 40 years ago Tory’s sexuality would have most likely been swept under the rug.
I am not trying to argue that homosexuals don’t still face prejudices and exclusions in society but acceptance is far greater now than it ever has been. According to a recent poll by the Crosby Textor group, 72% of Australians support same sex marriage. In the USA Barrack Obama became the first President to publicly declare support for gay marriage and it is legal in 36 states. Polling consistently shows that over 50% of Americans support same sex unions. In the UK the figure is up around 68%.
Contrast this with the treatment dished out to Alan Turing, a man who changed to the course of World War 2 and laid the foundations of modern computer science. In 1952 Turing was convicted of gross indecency due to his homosexual relationship with a younger man and given a choice of imprisonment or chemical castration. He chose the latter and suicided two years later. Thankfully this seems unimaginable now but it happened in our parent’s life time.
11) Whilst I have frequently bemoaned the mindlessness of social media, there is so much good stuff. I am thrilled on a daily basis to the see The I Fucking Love Science (IFLS) FB posts getting far more shares and commentary than Hollywood gossip pages.
12) On the science front great things are happening. In 2014 a paraplegic man regained some movement in his lower body when stem cells from his nose were planted into his severed spinal cord. Awesome! Solar cells reached record levels of efficiency. A double amputee in Colorado was fitted with two prosthetic arms which he controlled via his thoughts. Scientists had developed software which interpreted the electrical impulses from the man’s brain and translated them into instructions for the artificial limbs. Far out! Then there was the comet landing…
13) Feminism is still headbutting a glass ceiling. However in Australia much as changed since the late 1960s and early 70s. Prior to 1966 married women were barred from work in the public service. Equal pay for equal work was not enshrined in law until 1972. Maternity leave and the single mothers pension only came into being in 1973. The Sex Discrimination Act was passed as late as 1984. There is still a long way to go but that’s alot of change for one generation.
14) According to the World Bank there are currently around 1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty. (Defined as living on under US 1.25 a day). That’s appalling. As bad as that figure is, it’s a drastic improvement on the situation in 1980. 700 million people have been lifted out of dire poverty since that time. Unsurprisingly the most progress has happened in China and India but the UN is optimistic about Africa too. The Yale Global website declares that “We are in the midst of the fastest period of poverty reduction the world has ever seen.”
15) This week we’re trying to make sense of the Paris shootings and the massacre of over 2,000 in Northern Nigeria by Islamic extremists. In 2014 we again collectively face palmed about the deteriorating situation in the Middle East? War is good for absolutely nothing and it is everywhere. What if I told you that war was actually becoming less deadly? Its a counter intuitive claim but the numbers bear it out.
An estimated 80 m people were wiped out in World War 2, representing an incredible 3% of the global population. Can you imagine? The 20th century also gave us gems like the Stalinist Russia – 20 m citizens dead. Not to be outdone Mao wiped out 60 m Chinese. Absolutely atrocious things have happened since but nothing of the same scale. In Rwanda, Congo, Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan and the Middle East millions have been brutally sacrificed. Nevertheless as this graph shows war deaths as a portion of the population are in steep decline.
I am not trying to blow utopia up yo’ ass – actually scratch that Australia is kind of a utopia. Terrible, despicable things still happening on a daily basis all over the world but great things are too. The difference is that thanks to global communications we hear more about the bad and I believe generally people give more of a crap about the human suffering that we see. So I am not going to be one of those who despairs about their children’s future. I think the following generation will build upon these changes and make the world generally better.