Another year gone, another reset of the calendar, which means it is time to take stock of where we’ve been and where we’re going.
The usual changeover rituals are too limited in one way or another. “Top 10” lists usually consider only the best or worst of the 12 months just gone by. New-year’s-resolution exercises consider only the personal failings we hope to correct in the coming 12 months. We need to occasionally step back and take a longer and more expansive view.
So, here are two different takes on where the world might be headed. Take your pick.
The pessimistic view:
“2019 may well go down as the most disrupted year in global politics since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent implosion of the former Soviet Union.
“However, the likelihood is that 2020 will be worse, and bloodier.
“Conditions that spawned global unrest on every continent in 2019 are unlikely to recede. Rather, they are likely to worsen in the face of a slowing global economy and little sign of causes of disaffection being addressed.
“In a word, the world is in a mess, made more threatening by the retreat of the Trump administration from America’s traditional role as a stabilizing force.” — theconversation.com
The optimistic view:
“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. 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.” — Nicolas Kristof, The New York Times
If you choose to dwell on the negative view, the article gives you plenty of material to obsess about: trade conflicts, technology wars, fears of globalization, income inequality, the pervasive corruption of tyrannical governments, violent protests, the growth of megacities and resultant urban ills like poverty, gang conflict and drug trafficking.
The list of horrors would not be complete without “unrest over climate change” and the perception that government is “indifferent to climate concerns.”
If you want to focus on the positive, Kristof asks you to forget your gloom for a nanosecond and “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.”
The two views are not mutually exclusive, of course. You can acknowledge all the bad things in the world but still understand that things are getting much better overall. And it is possible to overemphasize one view or the other.
If we are too optimistic, we risk the sin of indifference, overlooking obvious problems that need immediate attention. If we are too pessimistic, we don’t recognize solutions that will provide even more good results if we keep applying them.
But our default — the baseline premise from which we choose to operate — matters.
We like to think we are neutral, looking at every situation with detachment until all the evidence is in. But mostly we’re not. We start either from the assumption that the best will happen unless the evidence shows us otherwise or the assumption that the facts must prove to us that we’re not in for the worst.
What you see depends on where you stand. No one can decide that for you.