It has been a depressing week. Refugee children from South America continue to suffer, the Israeli-Hamas conflict is far from over, even though they are experiencing a temporary ceasefire, the Ebola virus is spreading across many African countries, tensions are rising as the radical Sunni threaten the Kurdish region, Robin Williams tragically committed suicide, Lauren Bacall died as well, and protests and riots erupted in Ferguson, Missouri after the unarmed Michael Brown was shot by the police, and then the militarized police force moved on protestors with armored vehicles, assault rifles, and tear gas. And that’s just what I can think of off the top of my head. Like I said, a very depressing week.
One might wonder if there is even any hope left for the human race. This week I asked myself that question. It would seem, if one were listening to the news, that everything is spiraling out of control, and we are on a fast trip downward toward annihilation. But is everything really getting worse? Or is this just the perception we have from an ever-increasing saturation of instant news coverage via cable news, Twitter, and Facebook? Although I am thankful for social media for its ability to provide a platform for the average person to report what they see, rather than relying on our somewhat (understatement) biased news sources, are we letting our access to hastily reported news prejudice us against our own futures? Perhaps.
Let’s look at history to get some perspective. According to longevity expert, Sharon Basaraba, “From the 1500s to around the year 1800, life expectancy throughout Europe hovered between the ages of 30 and 40” (Basaraba). Today our life expectancy has more than doubled since that time. Obviously, advances in medical care and hygiene make our world a better, safer place. We have vaccines, regulated hospitals, and most developed countries enjoy clean water. We also see improvements in food and environmental protections. Prior to the 1950s, corporations could dump toxic waste without fear of penalties, poisoning fish and water sources, as well as the surrounding agriculture. Since then food inspection and labeling has advanced, and even twenty years ago, people didn’t take the idea of avoiding GMOs and eating organic seriously, but today it is widely accepted. Okay, but what about all the violence and terrorism in the world?
According to a 2011 Huffington Post article, statistics show violence is down worldwide, despite global conflicts. “The rate of genocide deaths per world population was 1,400 times higher in 1942 than in 2008.
“There were fewer than 20 democracies in 1946. Now there are close to 100. Meanwhile, the number of authoritarian countries has dropped from a high of almost 90 in 1976 to about 25 now. Rape in the United States is down 80 percent since 1973. Lynchings, which used to occur at a rate of 150 a year, have disappeared.
“Discrimination against blacks and gays is down, as is capital punishment, the spanking of children, and child abuse” (Seth Borenstein). But despite the data, most people I know believe violence is at an all-time high. Why? Because we hear about it, see it in graphic detail on the evening news and on our Twitter feed.
And what about civil rights? Although there are human rights violations daily all over the planet, more countries now have civil rights laws than ever before. Minorities and women in our country enjoy much more freedom and less prejudice than in the early 20th century although there is obviously a long way to go. Accommodations for the disabled have come very far. We’re seeing the right to marry for homosexuals granted in more and more states all the time. Working conditions are better thanks to unions and the 40-hour work week, there are no more sweat shops, at least in most developed countries, and there are child labor laws to protect the young. There are fewer injuries on the job and education is more available than 100 years ago, although rising costs of college are beginning to turn the trend back the other way. But weren’t people just happier in the past?
Not necessarily. Some people argue that we are in a recession, and people tend to be less happy in economic down-cycles. However, other research shows that people today are more likely to follow their dreams and opt for an emotionally fulfilling career over money, as long as they are somewhat secure. Perhaps because not many jobs today are secure, there is actually more perceived freedom to follow your dreams. Another reason people may be happier is because they are healthier or because they have more freedom to be themselves. Shana Lebowitz reports that a study in 2013 by The National Institute on Aging found that people are indeed happier than the same people were when they were younger, probably because people tend to get happier as they age. The study also found that people born after the Baby Boomers are happier than the Baby Boomers themselves (Lebowitz). As an English teacher, I read a lot of old books, and people do just seem nicer, more sensitive now, than portrayals of people hundreds of years ago. I have noticed that children seem less respectful; however, children also have gained more freedom and autonomy, which would explain a greater freedom to express themselves, especially in negative ways.
So are we truly spiraling the drain? Or is it just our perception?
I guess I am trying to say that although things seem horrible—and they are sometimes, as bad as it is, we do seem to be learning something. We are progressing even though we don’t hear about that on the evening news. All it takes is a little research to put things into perspective. I know we all expected to be driving hover cars and colonizing the moon, while reading about eradicated disease and something called war in the history books, but change is slow and we can’t see something grow while we are staring at it. So chin up—there is hope for the human race after all.—Christina Knowles
Basaraba, Sharon. “Longevity Throughout History: How has human life expectancy changed over time?” April 21, 2013. Available: http://longevity.about.com/od/longevitystatsandnumbers/a/Longevity-Throughout-History.htm Accessed: August 15, 2014.
Borenstein, Seth. Huffington Post. “World Becoming Less Violent: Despite Global Conflict, Statistics Show Violence In Steady Decline” October, 22, 2011. Available: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/22/world-less-violent-stats_n_1026723.html Accessed: August 15, 2014.
Hoegen, Monika. “Statistics and the quality of life: Measuring progress – a world beyond GDP.” Edited by Thomas Wollnik. Available: http://www.oecd.org/site/progresskorea/globalproject/44227733.pdf Accessed: August 15, 2014.
Tabarrok, Alex. “Long Term Trends in Homicide Rates” June 1, 2011.Available: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2011/06/long-term-trend-in-homicide-rates.html#sthash.JQAecZHp.dpufhttp://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2011/06/long-term-trend-in-homicide-rates.html Accessed: August 15, 2014.