Life at № 42
Source: The Best News You Don’t Know, Kristof for the NYT, 22/09/16
“As world leaders gather for the United Nations General Assembly this week, all the evidence suggests that we are at an inflection point for the ages. The number of people living in extreme poverty ($1.90 per person per day) has tumbled by half in two decades, and the number of small children dying has dropped by a similar proportion — that’s six million lives a year saved by vaccines, breast-feeding promotion, pneumonia medicine and diarrhea treatments!
Historians may conclude that the most important thing going on in the world in the early 21st century was a stunning decline in human suffering.
O.K., you’re thinking that I’ve finally cracked up after spending too much time in desperate places. So a few data points:
■ As recently as 1981, when I was finishing college, 44 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank. Now the share is believed to be less than 10 percent and falling. “This is the best story in the world today,” says Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank.
■ For the entire history of the human species until the 1960’s, a majority of adults were illiterate. Now 85 percent of adults worldwide are literate and the share is rising.
■ Although inequality has risen in America, the global trend is more encouraging: Internationally, inequality is on the decline because of gains by the poor in places like China and India.
Cynics scoff that if more children’s lives are saved, they will just grow up to have more babies and cause new famines and cycles of poverty. Not so! In fact, when parents are assured that their children will survive, they choose to have fewer of them. As girls are educated and contraception becomes available, birthrates tumble — just as they did in the West. Indian women now average just 2.4 births, Indonesian women 2.5, and Mexican women just 2.2.”
I’m not sure what happens to the sense of perspective of the human being in the developed world, but it’s not good. I would literally not be able to list the amount of people I know who live lives of extraordinary comfort, convenience, safety and good health who simply cannot stop complaining. In a certain sector of the expat population in Southern Spain it was endemic (I sometimes see it in France too):
“Everything in this country is a disaster. In the summer it’s too hot, in the winter it rains!”
“The real estate agent told us we were going to have 300 days of sunshine per year, not 310, not 290, we were tricked!”
“Can you believe I walked into a shop the other day and the attendant didn’t speak English? Outrageous.”
“Everything back home worked so well. Builders were never late in finishing their work. Problems with bills, a phone line or the internet? They simply didn’t exist at all. There were no con-men or thieves either.”
Ah, the fantasy of the glories of yesteryear and “home”. When I listen to things like that I wonder what magical countries these people come from. Or if I spent my youth on another planet. Born in the late 70’s, my childhood was dominated by the Reagan/Thatcher years. In Spain those were the transition years (following the death of General Franco) and in Brazil those were still full-blown military regime years. As in closed off from the world, no foreign imports, no elections, astronomic inflation. France had Mitterrand from 81 to 95. That covers the 5 countries of my life.
It was a strange time in what had been, for the most part, an exceptional century. The advances in human and workers rights had been extraordinary. The creation of French Social Security, the NHS, Kennedy’s equal pay for women act, the civil rights movement, Kinsey. Cooperation between EU countries after centuries of war. Stonewall. Amazing.
And suddenly it was as if the developed world thought enough was enough. And an era of ego-centrism was born. The devil child of Thatcher and Reagan.
Everything changed. Television went from creating shows like All in the Family in the US or Love Thy Neighbour in the UK straight to Dallas, Dynasty and Wall Street (and “celebrities” like Trump himself.) And suddenly society was obsessed by having and buying- and it had to be the biggest and the best. And better than everyone else’s. I contend that the background of extraordinary luxury people were exposed to regularly in the 80’s (remember Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous?) is what set the stage for the dissatisfaction we see from the public at large today (ie Brexit/Trump/UKIP). They don’t miss the times when they drove a Jag, spent their holidays on a yacht or got huge bonuses at the end of the year. That never happened. They miss the time when they thought that was a possibility for them and people like them- even though it may never have been.
Life is verifiably better now than it was 30 years ago.
People who 30 years ago would have never gone near an aeroplane can now visit Thailand or Malaysia or Belize. We can speak to people on the other side of the world, while seeing them, for free. We don’t need to use wite-out or liquid paper anymore! We don’t have to fiddle with television antennas. We have mobile phones. We smoke less! We’re learning to eat healthier foods. Smallpox was eradicated. Polio is virtually eradicated. We’re on the way with Malaria. People have access to birth control in Brazil! And people can jump up and down pointing at rising inequality in the developed world, the fact of the matter is I challenge any of them to show how we’re worse off today.