27 September 2023

2020 vision: Why the best time in human history is now

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Chris Taylor* says evolution has programmed us to be pessimists, but the evidence suggests that 2020 is literally the best time we could possibly be alive.

Are you a performative pessimist, a Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse Stan?

Do you loudly claim that war will soon end us all, despite both violence in general and battle deaths per year being in long-term decline since 1946?

Like Thanos in Infinity War, do you believe in a coming global overpopulation-based famine that has been predicted ever since English economist Thomas Malthus thought it up in the 1790s — despite there being fewer famine deaths in the past decade than at any time in recorded history?

Do you see a coming age of extreme global poverty when the data tells us it is literally declining every second?

If so, rest assured you’re not alone; imagining the worst is our natural state of being.

We are descended from the more anxious-than-average primates who overreacted and saw danger around every corner — because in the wild, in small tribes, overreacting and seeing danger around any corner is more likely to keep you alive so you can pass your genes on.

But this approach doesn’t serve us well in the modern world.

For example, we’re perpetually likely to overestimate the chance of being killed by animals such as sharks, and to underestimate the world’s top killer, heart disease.

I’m not trying to claim that everything is awesome.

It clearly isn’t, and my natural inclination is towards pessimism, too.

But I’m also a historian and a fan of actual data.

And the older I get, the more widely I read, the harder it gets to avoid the conclusion that in the long run, almost everything keeps getting better.

Check out Steven Pinker’s study of our insanely aggressive past, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell on the heartwarming ways humans pull together in the face of all kinds of disasters, and the late great Hans Rosling’s Factfulness.

In fact, the data suggests that right here, right now in 2020 is literally the best time we could possibly be alive, with the greatest opportunities available to the greatest number, and the lowest threat of death, the climate notwithstanding.

This is not, of course, uniformly true for every group.

But on average, overall, the proposition holds.

If you disagree, tell me when in the past you would want to escape to in a time machine.

The 1950s?

That decade of H-bombs and McCarthyism and the Korean War and institutionalised racism, sexism, and homophobia at almost all levels of society?

In the course of reporting a book on Star Wars, I came across a lot of people nostalgic for the day it came out, 25 May 1977.

But to modern eyes, the news for that one relatively quiet, relatively peaceful day is an absolute nightmare.

Terrorists took 160 kids hostage in the Netherlands.

The economy was in the toilet and the Dow dipped below 1,000.

The US President warned that Social Security may run out of money within a decade.

The US Army was literally burning its surplus of Agent Orange in the Pacific.

There was a deadly cargo plane explosion at Oakland airport in California, because planes didn’t only crash or get hijacked more frequently, they also sometimes just blew up.

I can almost hear the chorus of shouts from superstitious readers: It can always get worse!

Indeed, it can.

Hope is what we desperately need to win the war on climate change.

It’s in short supply when the horrific Australian fires dominate the headlines, and when we’re still waiting for carbon emissions to peak.

Luckily, there’s plenty of positive news on this front; a thousand tiny victories that add up.

Petrol vehicle sales have likely peaked.

China decided against winding down its electric vehicle subsidies; its electric bus fleet alone displaces more demand for oil than Tesla.

New carbon sequestering concepts crop up every day, from powders to pebbles to repurposed AC units.

Simple changes in agriculture could swallow humanity’s entire CO2 output by themselves.

What we don’t need is the performative pessimism of people like Jonathan Franzen, who wrote a New Yorker essay last year that basically encouraged readers to stop bothering to fight climate change because the world was already doomed.

Franzen was widely criticised by climate scientists who are trying to scream at us that while it’s worse than many people think, it’s also not as bad as many people think.

As even David Wallace-Wells, author of the pessimistic but fact-based The Uninhabitable Earth, puts it: We will always have the ability to make our next decade better or worse than the last one.

“There’s a thing I call naive cynicism,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her excellent letter to a young climate activist earlier this year, “when people strike a pose of sophistication without actually knowing what they’re talking about.”

“I see it a lot with the ill-informed about climate, when they say it’s all over and we lost.”

“That’s not what the scientists say, and it’s an excuse to give up instead of trying.”

Solnit continues: “Naive cynicism is the offspring of amnesia.”

“Amnesia says, ‘the way things are now is inevitable, change is impossible, change for the better is beyond our power’.”

“Memory says, not so fast: ordinary people massed together have changed the world again and again.”

Memory also reminds us just how truly awful the past was, and why that change was so desperately necessary that people fought for it.

If there’s one thing the twenty-first century needs, it’s more memory of the bad old days — and fewer amnesiacs spreading performative pessimism all over social media.

* Chris Taylor is an author and editor. He tweets at @FutureBoy.

This article first appeared at mashable.com.

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