If you’re depressed by the state of the world, let me toss out an idea: In the long arc of human history, 2019 has been the best year ever.
The bad things that you fret about are true. But it’s also true that since modern humans emerged about 200,000 years ago, 2019 was probably the year in which
- children were least likely to die,
- adults were least likely to be illiterate and
- people were least likely to suffer excruciating and disfiguring diseases.
This is of small comfort to those of us with chronic pain, but at least someone somewhere is having a better life – and that is a genuine “good thing”, even if it isn’t affecting us directly.
I don’t believe my “misery loves company”; I don’t want to know that other people are suffering and miserable.
It cheers me up at least a little to know that even as I wallow in the depths of depression, other people living with me on this planet are happy and living good lives.
In fact, it helps me because it makes me feel optimistic about the future: if other people’s situations are improving perhaps it’s only a matter of time before my own situation improves as well.
Every single day in recent years, another 325,000 people got their first access to electricity. Each day, more than 200,000 got piped water for the first time. And some 650,000 went online for the first time, every single day.
I fear that the news media and the humanitarian world focus so relentlessly on the bad news that we leave the public believing that every trend is going in the wrong direction.
Just like the relentlessly misguided focus on limiting prescription opioid medication as a “solution” for the crisis of overdoses from multiple street drugs.
As recently as 1981, 42 percent of the planet’s population endured “extreme poverty,” defined by the United Nations as living on less than about $2 a day. That portion has plunged to less than 10 percent of the world’s population now.
Every day for a decade, newspapers could have carried the headline “Another 170,000 Moved Out of Extreme Poverty Yesterday.”
Or if one uses a higher threshold, the headline could have been: “The Number of People Living on More Than $10 a Day Increased by 245,000 Yesterday.”
A half century ago, a majority of the world’s people had always been illiterate; now we are approaching 90 percent adult literacy.
You may feel uncomfortable reading this. It can seem tasteless, misleading or counterproductive to hail progress when there is still so much wrong with the world. I get that.
But I worry that deep pessimism about the state of the world is paralyzing rather than empowering; excessive pessimism can leave people feeling not just hopeless but also helpless.
Indeed, reading the news usually does make me feel worse: not only are my problems looming over me, but the whole world is “going to he** in a handbasket”. This makes me feel there’s little point in rising out of my own misery because I’ll only encounter new miseries to bring me down.
“Three things are true at the same time,” he added.
“The world is much better,
the world is awful,
the world can be much better.”
It’s this last one to concerns me, when so many patients suffering from intractable pain are being denied pain relief. Just a simple acknowledgment of the truth that prescribed opioids aren’t a problem for the vast majority of us would go a long way.
Of course, then it would still take a long time to unravel all the ridiculous ineffective policies and rules and laws and regulations that focus on this palliative medication.
I also take heart from the passion so many — especially young people — show to make the world a better place.
So I promise to tear my hair out every other day, but let’s interrupt our gloom for a nanosecond to note what historians may eventually see as the most important trend in the world in the early 21st century: our progress toward elimination of hideous diseases, illiteracy and the most extreme poverty.
Author: Nicholas Kristof has been a columnist for The Times since 2001. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, for his coverage of China and of the genocide in Darfur. You can sign up for his free, twice-weekly email newsletter and follow him on Instagram. His next book will be published in January. @NickKristof • Facebook