Jan 14, 2020

Neither complacency nor despair

Between complacency and despair, there is an intermediate terrain where both sanity and social responsibility lie. Those of us who are painfully attuned to the world’s urgent problems and needless suffering sometimes veer onto the side of despair. To get a grip, consider:

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.

Perhaps the greatest calamity for anyone is to lose a child. That used to be common: Historically, almost half of all humans died in childhood. As recently as 1950, 27 percent of all children still died by age 15. Now that figure has dropped to about 4 percent….

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”….

It can seem tasteless, misleading or counterproductive to hail progress when there is still so much wrong with the world. I get that. In addition, the numbers are subject to debate and the 2019 figures are based on extrapolation. 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.

Extracted from an end-of-the-year piece by Nicholas Kristof.

To explore the roots of apocalyptic anxiety in American politics, see Betsy Hartmann’s book (just out in paperback), The America Syndrome: War, Apocalypse, and Our Call to Greatness.