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Preconceived reality How our limited perception of the world can lead us astray

A pessimistic notion of the current state of the world dominates the perception of many people, everywhere. The media is partly to blame since it highlights, naturally, the extraordinary. And usually the extraordinary encompasses events that impact people’s lives negatively. Irma is an example that comes to mind, of course. It’s not to say that this focus on the negative is necessarily a bad thing. I was able to evacuate from Hurricane Irma almost a week early because of the alarming news. Even if, at the end of the day, the clamor was exaggerated, I would have been thankful for the warnings anyway. 

But what if I told you I can prove, using data and a simple history lesson, that the world has never seen better days? Maybe not in regard to the climate (due to climate change), but everything else is likely better than it ever was. 

A common hurdle preventing this realization is nostalgia. Nostalgia is a curious thing. Sometimes we feel nostalgic for things we’ve never experienced ourselves. This pervades our experience of the world and, in a way, contaminates our present understanding of it. It’s unrealistic to wish for a specific reality to be brought back since all the variables that allowed that reality to exist can’t exist in the same way again, but the desire to relive it persists. The circumstances that resulted in the blossoming of a particular scenario in the microcosm of our lives or the macrocosm of our society can’t be replicated. Not really. 

“Nothing can be again as it once was; Everything passes away, always; Life comes in waves — an eternal come and go; Everything you see is not the same as what you saw a second ago,” a famous Brazilian song reminds us. 

By replacing nostalgia with data that science and history provide, we can see whether our world is really in as calamitous a state as many people, especially profiteer politicians, like to claim. 

Let’s begin with a story written by Rodrigo da Silva, editor of the Brazilian political website Spotniks. His article is so intricately written that I feel that I can’t be as clear as him. Instead, I have decided to simply translate it into English. Take it away, Rodrigo: 

“Nathan Rothschild was the richest man in the world in 1836, when he was struck by a boil in the lower part of his back. Prior to this small incident, the German banker was in good health at the age of 59 of a life devoted exclusively to building the greatest wealth of his time. Nathan was able to afford the treatment of the best doctors on the planet. It did not help. In a short time, the pus bacteria in his boil took hold of his bloodstream, spreading rapidly through his body. The heir of one of the most iconic dynasties of the nineteenth century would die of septicemia caused by staphylococcus. The Rothschilds could have all the things of their time at their disposal, but no fortune in the world would be enough to give them a simple antibiotic, found in any pharmacy today. 

It is possible to state without fear that the average citizen today in the United States lives incomparably better than Nathan Rothschild, John Rockefeller or J.P. Morgan did back in the 1800s, despite not being as rich as they were. But we almost never realize it. On the contrary, some people would confidently bet all their chips that the world is a more miserable place, less healthy and more unequal than ever. And the reason is simple: we forget that poverty has been an almost natural state of humanity for thousands of years, and we take for granted the things we have today compared to a few mere decades ago. It’s as if we have an almost irresistible propensity to be pessimistic. 

You probably know this, but maybe you’ve never stopped to think about it: wealth is something that needs to be created, produced. And judging by the countless centuries of economic stagnation, we can say that this is not an easy task. Since the Industrial Revolution, however, the world has seen an unbelievable leap of wealth. In Gregory King’s census of the British population in 1688, over 1 million workers lived on a meager £4 a year and 1.3 million peasants with only £2 a year, which is safe to say that at least half of the British population lived in the most sordid misery. 

As late as 1820, around 80 percent of humanity lived on less than a dollar a day. In England, where the Industrial Revolution exploded, the average population income, which remained stagnant for long centuries, began to grow around 1800, and by 1850, the average income was 50 percent higher than its level a century earlier, despite the population having tripled. 

Nowadays, the number of people who survive on less than a dollar a day has fallen to 17 percent around the planet. In this time span, as never before witnessed, the world population multiplied more than 6 times, but the average life expectancy more than doubled. Moreover, the average income increased more than 9 times. 

Usually, we attribute to the market economy the blame for the creation and spread of poverty – something present in the placid pessimistic illusion we carry about the world. But we could not be more wrong. The massification of wealth is a creation of the market society. 

However, In a world without an institutional pattern — with countries that sometimes are radically opposed in their appreciation of free trade, private property, and respect for contracts, all of which are propellers of prosperity — the gap between rich and poor will be inevitable (hopefully, for a few more decades until all countries catch up). Inequality between countries is a consequence of differentiated rates of growth in the past. Countries are poor because they have grown little or have not grown for a long period of time. And there is no secret — countries that feed market-friendly institutions tend to get rich, while countries that reject them tend to stay where they are. Botswana, Singapore, Hong Kong and Chile bet on this model and witnessed the greatest economic growth of the last century. Sweden, Switzerland and the United States did the same in the previous century. 

However, even among the poorest countries, evolution is evident. If the rich have become richer in recent times, the poor have jumped even higher. The poor in the developing world have increased their consumption twice as fast as the world as a whole in the last two decades of the twentieth century. The Chinese are 10 times richer than they were 50 years ago, and they live 28 years longer than when they tried to survive the worst years of the Mao Tse-tung government. In that same period, Nigerians became 2 times richer and added 9 years more to life expectancy. Although the world population has doubled in this period (in other words: there has been a greater population growth in the last 50 years than in the last two million years), the percentage of people living in absolute poverty fell more than half – more than in the previous 500 years. And that, definitely, is no small thing.” 

If you’re interested in knowing more about this, there is a good-humored and very informative TED Talk video that tackles this same perception problem called, “How not to be ignorant about the world,” by Hans and Ola Rosling. 

There’s still a lot left to do. So many people still struggle to survive with less than $1 a day and live under conditions so harsh that we can’t even begin to understand them. The point of this article is not to drown ourselves in an ocean of positivity. But if we highlight the positive, people might realize that, in fact, progress is happening and good is actually winning. Our daily endeavors aren’t in vain. This mindset shift might accelerate progress, at least at the microcosmic level. After all, negativity and the hatred it propels only spark more negativity and hatred. Only something diametrically opposed to violence and hatred can successfully nullify them, i.e. peace and love.

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