The world today can be described as “the best we’ve ever had” and “the worst we’ve ever had” in equal measure. Notice that I used the world describe — there are, of course, objective facts that might reliably tip the scales in one direction or another. What Oliver Burkeman talks about are the so-called “New Optimists”, who tend to tip the scales in the “best we’ve ever had” end due to objective facts proving that, indeed, the world has become a much better place to live compared to, say, 200 years ago.
Our view of the world, though, is usually not shaped by facts — at least not in their raw form. It’s shaped by the stories we tell ourselves. For each “New Optimist” like Hans Rosling, Johan Norberg, Max Roser or Nicholas Christof, there are probably as many “New Pessimists”, telling a completely different story using the same facts — or choosing to use different ones to support their worldview. For each rural African family that increase their quality of life by investing in a bicycle to deliver crops to the market, there are probably as many urban American families that decrease their quality of life by investing in fast food and always-on entertainment.
If people in your small American town are far less economically secure than they were in living memory, or if you’re a young British person facing the prospect that you might never own a home, it’s not particularly consoling to be told that more and more Chinese people are entering the middle classes.
Having that in mind, I decided to put concrete facts and figures aside (scandalous, I know) and simply provide my own story — not on the question “Is the world better than ever?”, but instead on “How can we make the world better than ever?”. Instead of dealing with the past and its relation to the present, I prefer to deal with the present and its relation to the future.
Extreme poverty, life expectancy, child mortality, debilitating diseases, violence, economic opportunity, access to basic healthcare, education, electricity, food and sanitation — all of these are reliable indicators on the progress of societies and humankind. And, indeed, we have incredible success stories across the board (citation taken from the Oliver Burkeman article):
(…) in 1900, worldwide life expectancy was a paltry 31, thanks both to early adult death and rampant child mortality. Today, by contrast, it’s 71 — and those extra decades involve far less suffering, too.
Take another look at the problems above — they have indeed been plaguing us for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Looking back, we have undoubtedly gotten better at solving OLD problems. And we have done this by fighting them for decades on end, juggling between scientific progress, societal changes and violent conflicts.
However, there are a number of problems (pun intended) with this:
- Our success rate in solving old problems does not guarantee a similar success rate in solving NEW problems — and by new problems I mean both problems perceived as new by humans (climate change) and problems that are actually new to humans (artificial intelligence).
- Having a better world is neither a neat upward line from antiquity to present times, nor a fixed point in time and an “end of history” — it’s a constantly moving target jittering in all directions.
- On a long enough timeline, we can probably solve anything — the problem is that the timeline(s) are rapidly shrinking, especially when it comes to new problems.
- The ways and methods we have used to solve old problems (eradicating smallpox) might be completely different than the ones needed to solve new problems (eradicating depression and anxiety disorders).
- Nowadays, we are inevitably measuring up our success against a bigger POTENTIAL for solving problems (“Hey, look what humanity can do given what we’ve accomplished already”).
- The more problems we solve, the bigger and more complex the problems we solve get — until we go all (multi)planetary and start dealing with “global existential risks” and “wicked problems”, which even the great ancient philosophers and thinkers didn’t dare touch.
Having all of this in mind, how can we indeed make sure that the odds are in our favour — that we don’t simply describe the world as “Best world ever!” compared to old times, but actively invest in our capacity to constantly make it better as we move forward?
For some, the answer is already pretty clear — we simply keep doing what we know works best (citation taken from the Oliver Burkeman article):
(…) though this is a claim only sometimes made explicit in the work of the New Optimists — that whatever we’ve been doing these past decades, it’s clearly working, and so the political and economic arrangements that have brought us here are the ones we ought to stick with.
It is enough to look at the world of business to cast doubt at this claim. The biggest buzzword of the last two decades has been innovation — the ability to solve problems in new ways. Yet innovation is much more than that — it is also the ability to prevent problems, to continuously improve even when you lack problems and to go beyond imminent problems in order to imagine and create a new future.
Consider Apple (a risky example, I know — but still…) In the late 90s it had to solve old problems in new ways — streamline the product line, reclaim the trust of their customer base, invest in better design and aesthetics. It also had to learn how to turn innovation into a constant, continuous process — to move forward despite the level of challenges present. Finally, in order to leapfrog to a whole different company, it had to go beyond the “now” and imagine the future — first with the iPod and then with the iPhone.
Similarly, the progress of the world depends not simply on our ability to solve old problems (for which we can tap ourselves on the backs as much as we like), but ultimately on our ability to imagine a new future and get there.
- A future without smallpox vs. a future with disease prevention as early as possible.
- A future without extreme poverty vs. a future with a much fairer distribution of wealth.
- A future without lack of literacy vs. a future with high-order creative skills as the norm.
In order to do that, we also need a much broader distribution of our problem-solving “potential” among the global population. The world as a whole will get better at solving problems if as many of us as possible get better at solving problems together — small and big. How much better can we do if we have a 100 Elon Musks or Stephen Hawkings or Malala Yousafzais, not one? How much better can we do if we raise creative problem solvers in our homes and schools, not obedient and dissatisfied factory workers? How much better can we do if solving the biggest problems of mankind is not confined to small elites, but spread out to an increasing number of individuals and communities willing and able to make a difference?
I’d say — a LOT better.
Yes, Elon Musk himself has said that “Life has to be about more than just solving problems”. But the second part of that quote is:
You need to wake up and be excited about the future.
How about waking up, being excited about the future and being able to make some of it happen instead of watching Elon Musk and others like him making it happen?
I’d say — a LOT better.
Now comes a summary of all of the above in one question and one answer.
Q: How can we make the world really better than ever?
A: By making as many people as possible better at solving old and new problems together, while encouraging them to imagine the future.
And before you ask — yes, this includes solving both first-world problems and third-world problems, and possibly imagining a future which is much better than “not very evenly distributed”.
Stop arguing whether this is the best world we’ve ever had.
Start making a better one instead.