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Is there anyone alive today who did not hear the words, “You don’t know how good you have it,” from one or both parents during childhood? I seriously doubt it. I heard it so often growing up that I swore I would never say it to my own kids. I failed. The fact of the matter is they didn’t know how good they had it. And to be honest, I didn’t either.
Is the world today awash in problems and injustice? Yes! Is the U.S. in particular, awash in problems and injustice? Yes! Are there more, bigger, more complex, thornier problems than even before in human history? Yes!
My contention is, that’s good news!
In fact, it’s downright bizarre to me that only 6% of the U.S. population thinks the world is getting better. Seriously? Think! Of course we have lots of problems today, but they are due to the unanticipated, unintended consequences of the amazingly dramatic advances in standards of living that have alleviated or eliminated the problems of the past.
Are the problems we’re dealing with now real? Yes! Are they tough, horrifying, heart-wrenching, unfair, unethical, immoral and just-plain-wrong? Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes and Yes. So what? Let’s look at a few facts about the relentless, positive progress in our world, courtesy of Our World In Data
First, world population:
- 1800 – 0.9 Billion
- 1900 – 1.7 Billion
- 1960 – 3.0 Billion
- 1980 – 4.4 Billion
- 2015 – 7.4 Billion
That’s an increase by a factor of more than 7. Are 7 times more people alive because the overall average standard of living has been going down? I don’t think so. How about the % of world population living in extreme poverty?
That’s about as direct a measurement of improvement in living standards as you can get. From virtually all human beings living in extreme poverty to less than 10% in just 2 centuries. For perspective, humans have been around for something like 2,000 centuries. So that’s virtually everybody in extreme poverty for 1,998 centuries, and now only 10%.
How about the % of world population that is illiterate?
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That’s from 88% illiterate to 88% literate. …along with the immense value of literacy.
How about global child mortality?
That’s 43% – almost half – of children dying before their 5th birthday to only 4%.
How about freedom – the % of global population living in democracy:
That’s less than 1% of people living in a free, democratic society to 53%. Amazing progress!
These statistics tell the story of a remarkable, inexorable and MASSIVE increase in quality of life. Let’s take a look at some numbers that put a totally different spin on this supposed problem of having so many problems. Is all the stuff we can buy to make our lives easier and better getting more or less expensive? Inflation and different currencies and exchange rates around the world can make answering this question quite difficult. So forget about how many dollars it takes to buy something. Look at cost in terms of how many hours you need to work to buy whatever it is you want.
Light, for example. Every time the sun goes down, we’re switching on the lights. What does that actually cost in terms of hours worked? In 1994, Yale economist William Nordhaus answered the question. He calculated how much light could be purchased for 60 hours of work. Here’s what you could buy:
- 88 minutes of light from your oil-burning lantern in 1750 BC
- 10 hours from your tallow candle in 1800
- 16 hours from your gas-burning streetlight in 1810
- 72 hours from one of Edison’s early incandescent bulbs in 1880
- 1,200 days – over 3 years – from a fluorescent bulb in 1950
- 51 years from a modern compact fluorescent bulb
How about some other modern conveniences?
And these prices do not reflect the dramatic improvements in quality. In ‘59, the “big screen” TV was 21 inches. Are you old enough to remember complaining about too much “snow” in the picture? Today, not only is the fuzzy “snow” effect gone, you can see every pimple on an actor’s face as it marches across the 6 foot wide screen.
How about travel? To cross the U.S. by horse takes 70-80 days depending on the weather. Or you could hop on a jet and do so in less than 5 hours for less than $200. And for the record… I gripe and moan A LOT about my discomfort in those teeny-tiny airplane seats. It’s a bit embarrassing to contemplate the pain in my seat that would be caused by sitting on a jostling horse all day, every day for 2 1/2 months…
Forgive me for bringing some mathematics into the mix, but it’s a really good way to think about what happens when a problem gets solved. Think about a circle. A line through its center, the diameter, represents all the problems that have been solved by your society. The area inside the circle represents your standard of living. Around the circumference is where all of the unsolved problems facing your society are lurking, (Take a look at the show notes for this episode at IntentionallyVicarious.com to see an example of this and where I’m going with the idea…)
OK, here comes the math. Let’s say that the diameter of your circle is 10. Again that means your society has become aware of and solved 10 big problems. The area, your standard of living, is π r2, which works out to about 79. Around the circumference, which is π times that diameter, is roughly 30, meaning your society is aware of 30 big, ugly problems.
Now… Your society functions pretty well, so it goes about solving every one of them. The diameter of your circle is now 40 – the 10 problems that were already solved plus the 30 you just knocked down. Your standard of living, therefore, jumps up to 1,275! But uh-oh, you can now see 125 new problems around the circumference you didn’t know about before.
Your society attacks those, and solves every one. Your socienty has now successfully solved 165 big problems, which rockets your standard of living up to 21,382. But here’s another uh-oh… You are now aware of yet another 450 new problems.
I think you get where I’m going with this. It’s one of those glass half-empty or half-full things. Your society has solved 165 of the earth’s biggest problems, and all you see and hear on the news and social media is how you – you greedy, selfish SOB – have screwed the needy by “creating” 450 ugly problems and inequalities while only solving 165.
NO!!!!! Wrong perspective!
So what that you’re now aware of 450 new, ugly problems and inequalities? The vastly more important point is you did in fact solve 165 old, ugly problems and inequalities and ratched up your standard of living from 79 to over 12,000. That’s cause for celebration …and more work, more effort, more achievement. Dare I say more fun?
Run through the cycle again and your living standard will be nearly 300,000. Are you going to gripe and moan about how society is sooooo much worse because you now have 1,900 ugly issues instead of only the 450 you had before? Go ahead and whine if you want to, but stay out of my life.
The fact that I, you or anyone can identify an ever-growing number of examples of pain, suffering, injustice and horror is good news. It means that all of us have collectively solved a boat-load of old problems and made life on earth better – MUCH, MUCH BETTER – than it was before. The more problems we solve, the more – and uglier – problems we can identify. Get over it!
The instant any one of us as an individual, or all of us as a culture, a country, a species; stops identifying the huge and growing number of agonizing problems that cry to solved, is the instant we are doomed.
Recognizing – KNOWING – about the pain, suffering and inequality of outcome that exists; and about how much MORE needs to be done, means that we have the opportunity to get better – MUCH BETTER – all the time.
So again… As we solve more and more problems, the more we will increase the world’s standard of living, AND the more terrible and agonizing problems we will identify. Lets get over it! And let’s get busy – stay busy – and continue our 2,000 century long habit of improving everybody’s quality of life.