The Greatest Threat to the World?

There seems to be no shortage of candidates for greatest threat to the world (by which we usually mean humanity specifically) — climate change, world war, nuclear weapons, a pandemic, an asteroid, or maybe even a combination of these factors. As it turns out, however, where you live determines what you consider to be most dangerous to the rest of the world.

That is the conclusion of a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, which asked 48,643 respondents in 44 countries what is the greatest danger to the global community (note, this took place before the breakout of Ebola but after events like the Syrian Civil War and the showdown between the West and Russia over Ukraine).

As Mic.com reports:

In the United States and Europe, income inequality came out on top. In the Middle East, religious and ethnic was considered the biggest threat. While Asia listed pollution and the environment, Latin America cited nuclear weapons, and Africa chose AIDS and other diseases.

Unsurprisingly, the concerns fell largely within geographic and regional boundaries. The United States and Europe are home to some of the largest and most advanced economies in the world, so it’s somewhat expected — if ironic — that they’re worried about income inequality. Asia is home to 17 out of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, and, as of 2012, sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 70% of the world’s AIDS cases.

In other words, all of us appear to have an exceptionally narrow view of the world: We see the biggest threats to our region as the biggest threats to everyone else, too.

Here is a visual representation of that data, also courtesy of Mic.com:

Moreover, the perception that religious and ethnic hatred poses the greatest threat to the world has seen the most growth over the past seven years, no doubt due to numerous high-profile sectarian conflicts across the planet.

Courtesy of The Atlantic is a color-coded map of the world that better shows how these great threats are geographically and culturally spread out:

A few other observations of the data from The Atlantic piece:

  • Other than Japan, the countries that saw nuclear weapons as their biggest danger included Russia (29 percent), Ukraine (36 percent), Brazil (28 percent), and Turkey (34 percent).
  •  The U.K.’s greatest concern was religious and ethnic hatred (39 percent), putting it in the same group as India (25 percent), Israel (30 percent), the Palestinian territories (40 percent), Lebanon (58 percent), and Malaysia (32 percent).
  • People in France were equally divided on what they consider the biggest threat, with 32 percent saying inequality and the same percentage saying religious and ethnic hatred.
  • Likewise in Mexico, nuclear weapons and pollution were tied as most menacing, at 26 percent.

It is also important to point out that in many cases, no single fear was dominant: in the U.S. for example, inequality edged over religious and ethnic hatred and nuclear weapons by only a few points. And in almost every region, anywhere from a fifth to a quarter of respondents expressed fear towards nuclear weapons (which I feel can be taken to mean war among states where the use of nukes is most likely). The survey observed that in many places, “there is no clear consensus” as to what constitutes the greatest danger to humanity, as this graph of all countries shows:

These results are very telling: as the earlier excerpt noted, you can learn a lot about a country’s circumstances based on what its people fear the most. Reading backwards from the results, it makes sense that what nations find the most threatening is what they have been most imperiled by presently or historically.

It is also interesting to note how societies, like individuals, view the world through their own experiential prism: because we are obviously most impacted and familiar with what immediately effects us, it makes sense that we would project those experiences beyond our vicinity. Just as our own individual beliefs — be they religious, political, social, etc. — are colored by personal life experiences, so too do entire nations often apply their most familiar concerns and struggles to the world at large.

Of course, this varies by country as well as by the respondents who represent said country; in many cases, participants are more likely come from higher educational and socioeconomic backgrounds, and thus reflect their class views rather than that of their wider society. (Admittedly, I am not sure if that applies to this particular Pew survey, as the respondents were interviewed by phone or face-to-face, with no indication as to their background.)

For my part, I personally put the most weight behind climate change, especially as it can exacerbate a lot of existing issues over the long-term (clashes among ethnic/religious groups over strained resources, refugees fleeing crop failures and placing strain upon host countries, etc.). What are your thoughts and opinions regarding the world’s greatest threat?

An Ottoman Map of North America

As long-time readers know, I love maps, especially the vintage kind. There is something aesthetically pleasing about them, especially when the reflect an interesting snapshot of what their makers (and thus society at large) knew about the world at the time.

Courtesy of Slate is an interesting map that shows our part of the world from a perspective that is rarely given much acknowledgement: the once mighty Ottoman Empire, formerly at the center of global affairs, with dominance over major swathes of three continents.

'The Country of the English People' ('İngliz Cumhurunun Ülkesi'), an 1803 map of the U.S. by the Ottoman Empire. Various Native American tribes are also identified

“The Country of the English People” (‘İngliz Cumhurunun Ülkesi’), which depicts the United States in 1803. Neighboring Native American nations and tribes are also identified. Click to view a large, zoomable version.

As the Slate article points out, the Arabic-inspired script used for Turkish at the time works particularly well on maps, because it allows cartographers to label wide regions by elongating the lines connecting individual letters. I can definitely concur, especially given the artistry and aesthetic beauty of Arabic and Islamic calligraphy.

At the time this map was drawn, the Ottoman Empire was already well on its way to becoming the “sick man of Europe“, shrinking precipitously in territory and influence since its peak during the late 16th century. It was declining just as the U.S. was beginning to rise, though the Eternal State would endure for over another century before expiring after six centuries of existence.

Slate offers some more interesting historical background:

This appears to be the first Ottoman map of the United States, but Ottoman maps of North America have a much longer history. The first were the 16th-century nautical charts of the famous Ottoman cartographer Piri Reis. Some of the last, drawn before the new Turkish Republic switched to Latin script in 1928, show air routes spanning the continental U.S.

American relations with the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century were either commercial or missionary. American missionaries to the empire first tried to win Christian converts. But after meeting with little success, they turned to creating schools to spread the much more popular American gospel of English fluency and engineering excellence.

At times, the mercantile and missionary impulses came into conflict, such as when Greek Christians rebelled against the Ottoman sultan. Many Americans felt their government had a moral duty to stand with co-religionists against a Muslim despot. The U.S. government, however, felt a more pressing duty to stand with its merchants and sea captains, who’d been doing brisk business with the sultan. Supposedly, it was in recognition of U.S. support of the establishment that the empire later sided with the Union during America’s own civil war.

In addition to its scholarly significance, for sheer aesthetic reasons, I would love to have a map like this my room or study.

Congolese Gynecologist Wins Sakharov Prize

According to NPR, Dr. Denis Mukwege, a gynecological surgeon from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has won the European Union’s prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, in recognition of his work treating thousands of rape victims in his country.

I admit to having never heard of this amazing man prior to seeing this reported in Wikipedia’s news page today. Of course, that is not surprising given the humility that is often characteristic of these unsung heroes (not to mention the woeful lack of attention to the causes they serve).

As The New York Times reports:

Dr. Mukwege is known for his work in one of the most traumatized places in the world. In the hills above Bukavu, where for years there was little electricity or anesthetic, Dr. Mukwege has performed surgery on countless women, some a few steps away from death, who have reached his hospital.

At the same time, he has campaigned relentlessly to shine a spotlight on the plight of Congolese women, even after an assassination attempt two years ago.

“It’s not a women question; it’s a humanity question, and men have to take responsibility to end it,” Dr. Mukwege said in an interview last year. “It’s not an Africa problem. In Bosnia, Syria, Liberia, Colombia, you have the same thing.”

A winner of over a dozen other humanitarian awards, and long considered a potential candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, the 69-year-old Dr. Mukwege has dedicated his entire life to delivering these desperately needed services. The third of nine children, he pursued medicine in a desire to heal the many people that his minister father would pray for, working at first in a local rural hospital.

During his time there, he witnessed many women endure painful and often fatal complications from childbirth, due largely to the lack of qualified specialists. This inspired him to pursue the study of gynecology in France, which would come to be applied for another purpose: treating the horrific consequences of gang-rape that has been rampant in many parts of war-torn Congo for decades.

Dr. Mukwege founded Panzi Hospital in his native town of Bukavu in 1999, just one year after the start of the Second Congo War, Africa’s deadliest conflict, and one in which the incidence of gang rape was systemic. Located near the heart of the conflict zone, the hospital was strained by increased demand for both general medical services and gynecological surgery; Dr. Mukwege remains the facility’s only gynecologist, and one of only two doctors in all of eastern Congo specializing in reconstructive surgery.

Over the past 16 years, the hospital has treated over 30,000 women, many of them repeat visitors; many patients arrive right after being gang-raped, “sometimes naked, usually bleeding and leaking urine and faeces from torn vaginas” according to Dr. Mukwege’s own horrific testimony. Due to the still-high demand for his service, he often performs up to 10 surgeries a day during his 18-hour shifts (though the war ended in 2003, lingering and related conflicts continue).

His diligent and desperately needed work would be more than enough, but he has also used his firsthand experience to bring attention to this crisis and call for an end to the rampant rape that persists, often to dehumanize victims and traumatize families. According to the BBC, he saw the award as an opportunity to show rape survivors that “they are not alone”.

That in itself is a valuable aim, but hopefully this prize will also bring attention to Panzi Hospital’s need for donations: initially built for 120 beds, it as now squeezed in 350, out of which more than half are devoted to survivors of sexual violence. With an average of 410 patients per month, the hospital is currently running at maximum capacity and lacks staff, supplies, and resources.

While Dr. Mukwege’s $63,600 prize money will go a long way, we should consider donating to the Panzi Foundation and the good work it has done to help restore thousands of lives — and hopefully many more that are needed until this scourge of violence  and terror is finally done with.

The doctor collects his well-deserved prize.

 

 

On Good Weather and the Good Life

I am taking a brief break from my usual (as of late) posts on economics, politics, and global affairs, to share a fairly unexpected life-affirming experience.

The other morning, I awoke gorgeously temperate weather, that rare perfect combination of cool breezes, clear skies, and bright sun. It was the perfect way to start a workday, especially as I had slept poorly the night before, and had to look forward to a grinding commute on the way to my increasingly busy job.

It reminded me of how important it is to be mindful of even the smallest pleasantries in our daily lives. Of all the things that help mitigate my anxiety and depression, I find that it is often the most seemingly mundane that help –comforts that I take for granted but am extremely fortunate to enjoy — companionship (on and offline), a warm bed, relaxing music, hot tea, good books, well enough mental and physical health.

This is hardly a new revelation, for either myself or most of those reading (heck, the Ancient Greeks, among others, made similar observations). But it is nonetheless easy to lose sight of without conscious effort, especially during the over-stimulating hustle and bustle of modern life. I need to make a habit of pausing whatever is bringing me down at the moment, whenever possible, and just think of the bigger picture.

I hope everyone reading this is having a fantastic day.

Graph: The U.S. Leads the Way in Low-Wage Work and Pay

As has sadly been the case all too often these days, one of the latest reports from the Economic Policy Institute, an American think-tank, is grim: low-wage workers (the 10th percentile of wage earners) have seen their real pay decline by five percent over the 1979-2013 period, despite concurrent productivity gains of 64.9 percent.

Consequently, American low-wage workers fare the worst in the developed world: according to the OECD, as of 2012, they earned just 46.7 percent of what a median worker worker does, far below the OECD average of 59.9 percent; to catch up to that average, U.S. low wage workers would need a 28 percent raise in their wages.

The graph below highlights this issue rather starkly:

Note that over a quarter of America’s labor force — 25.3 percent to be exact — is low wage, which is defined as earning less than two-thirds of the median wage. On this metric, too, the United States ranks the highest among the 26 countries surveyed, and far higher than the OECD average of 16.3 percent.

Thus, the U.S. has the largest number of low-paid workers in the developed world, and they in turn are the lowest paid in the developed world. And while several countries, such as the U.K., Ireland, and Canada, come close, most of them at the very least have more developed social safety nets to offset the shortfall among low-wage workers (universal healthcare alone is a major mitigating factor, given that medical bills account for many cases of bankruptcies among the American poor).

Setting aside the considerable amount of misery that comes with low paying and often menial labor, the broader impact on the long-term prosperity of the nation cannot be understated: with one out of four workers (and their dependents) having so little income, consumer demand — the lifeblood of the economy — stagnates. Fewer people are able to afford an education or vocational training, leading to a lot of untapped and desperately needed potential.

All this despite the nation’s economic elites — its executives, shareholders, and investors — broadly doing better than ever. Is it really so untenable for companies to spare some of their record, post-recession profits to improve the plight of their beleaguered workers — i.e. the consumers and patrons they all so badly need?

 

In any case, this is a point I have made too many times before, so instead of retreading it once more, I will leave you with this illuminating report by  Elise Gould (also from EPI) on Why America’s Workers Need Faster Wage Growth—And What We Can Do About It. As always, feel free to share your thoughts and feedback.

Chart: World’s Biggest Economies, Past and Present

With well over one billion denizens each, China and India make up a huge proportion of the world’s population and, subsequently, its economic potential. But if you think they are large now, consider that for much human history, the area constituting these modern nation states made up an overwhelming percentage of the human race and its economic activity.

Indeed, for many centuries, China alone accounted for one out of every three humans on Earth (with what is now India estimated to have concurrently accounted for another third). Considering that most readers of this blog (as far as I have gleaned) have, like me, been steeped in a Eurocentric telling of world history, it may be strange to imagine that the bulk of human activity and experience was concentrated in these two regions.

A recent chart from The Economist drives this point home by showing the relative sizes of these two behemoths (among other contenders) over the last two thousand years.

Note that Italy and Turkey were, during their peaks, the centers of the Roman and Ottoman empires, respectively. Also, I imagine the U.K.’s proportion would be larger if the colonial empire beyond its modern borders were to be factored in (indeed, all of India and then some would technically be included). Britain’s proportion is pretty impressive given its small geographic and demographic size relative to other rivals — a testament to the speed and intensity of the Industrial Revolution.

Similarly, America’s rapid rise between the late 19th century and turn of the 20th century reflects its own mastery of industry (albeit at great human and environmental cost, like much economic growth at that time). The fact that the U.S. and Soviet Union dominated the post-World War II global economic testifies as much to the sheer devastation wrought on the rest of the world (especially the former great powers) as to their rise as superpowers (Russia’s proportion is particularly impressive given the horrific scale of human and material loss).

But now, it appears China and India will once again reclaim the mantle of being the world’s major centers of economic activity — which is to be expected, given their sheer size and, in the latter’s case, continuing fast population growth. By some measures, China has already overtaken the U.S., although this is disputed.

Still, it seems inevitable that these two giants — which together make up almost 40 percent of the world’s population of 7.1 billion — will take center-stage in the global economy, perhaps even following in America’s footsteps as cultural and ideological powers (thus far a position that the U.S. is likely to enjoy continued dominance for years to come, whatever its relative economic status).

Of course, with other sizable countries like Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, Turkey, Mexico, and more also rising to relative prominence, the world may become more multipolar than anything. Interesting times ahead. What do you think?

Hero Highlight: Kailash Stayarthi

As many readers know, the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize rightly went to Malala Yousafzai, who at 17 is the youngest Nobel laureate in history, for her courageous advocacy of women’s rights to education and equal opportunity (both in her native Pakistan and across the world). For this she was subject to a high-profile assassination attempt that nearly claimed her life and forced her and her father (the equally courageous Ziauddin Yousafzai) to flee to the U.K.,from where they nonetheless continue to fight for various human rights causes).

Although an already (justifiably) global figure by the time of her widely anticipated award, Malala’s co-recipient was unfortunately lesser known outside humanitarian circles and his native India: children’s rights activist Kailash Satyarthi (the Prize Committee was explicit about the symbolic message of selecting a Pakistani Muslim and Indian Hindu to share the prize). Such a pairing is well-warranted, for together with Malala, he has helped bring attention to, and advance the cause of, helping one of the world’s most vulnerable demographics.

Satyarthi has been a leading figure in fighting child slavery and labor exploitation for nearly three decades, beginning with his founding of Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save Childhood Movement) in 1980, which campaigns to free children from bondage and promote their education. It has so far freed over 80,000 children from servitude, also helping to successfully re-integrate, rehabilitate, and educate them.

Since that time, his storied career in human rights has spanned numerous other movements and groups — he has served as secretary general for for the Bonded Labor Liberation Front; has been involved with the Global March Against Child Labor and its international advocacy body, the International Center on Child Labor and Education (ICCLE); founded Goodweave, the first voluntary monitoring and certification system for rugs manufactured without the use of child-labor in South Asia; and co-founded the Global Campaign for Education, for which he served as president of from its inception in 1999 to 2011.

A clearly energetic and dedicated figure, a recent article in The Guardian highlights just how active Satyarthi is on this front, going so far as to involve himself directly in the risky operations on the ground:

He would show the scars from the interventions that had gone really badly, like the time a group of men from the Great Roman Circus – who were employing trafficked teenagers from Nepal as dancing girls – attacked him with iron rods and cricket bats.

And we would discuss the industries and the places that were proving harder to rid of the “scourge of child labour”– his phrase – than others.

With Kailash’s guidance and contacts, I pursued stories on Indian children making footballs for sale in Australia; girls sold into bonded labour schemes in textile mills; boys from poor families trafficked thousands of kilometres to work in tiny, collapse-prone ‘rat-hole’ coal mines; girls from itinerant families forced by economic circumstance into mining mica, the mineral that goes into makeup to make it shiny.

From direct intervention, to constantly shining a spotlight on this often ignored issue, Satyarthi is as unrelenting as Malala in ensuring that the fight for human rights continues onward, unabated. Quoting a telling part of The Guardian piece:

But always there was more with Kailash: more stories the media could cover to highlight the problem; more that the government could do to enforce the legislation parliament had passed to outlaw child labour and mandate education; more police could do to stamp out the corruption that meant officers looked the other way; more that multinational companies in the developing world could do to ensure they weren’t making their money from the bent backs of children.

Like Malala, he places a considerable emphasis on education as a means to uplift the plight of children and, subsequently, improve the condition of millions of people worldwide for years to come:

Children in schools will change the world.

Girls born to a literate mother are 50% more likely to survive until the age of five.

Boys who have the chance at a genuine education and a working life beyond don’t become radical fundamentalists.

Universal education will transform developing nations such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, places where the practice of keeping children (especially girls) from school – to work, to be married, to raise siblings – stubbornly persists.

Across those three countries, an estimated 22 million primary-school aged children are not in school. But, overwhelmingly, the obstacles that keep them from class are solvable.

Malala was stopped from going to school by the vile fanaticism of the Pakistani Taliban. But for every girl stopped by fundamentalism, there are 10 in her part of the world who are not at school for much more prosaic reasons.

They don’t go because the school is too far away, because it is not safe to walk there, because there is no segregation of boys and girls, no modesty wall, or working toilets.

They stop going because the teacher turns up only to mark the roll and get paid, or because there are no books or pencils.

They stay at home because they have to care for younger siblings, because they have been married off as children, or because they are made to go to work.

In the wake of his Nobel win, Satyarthi promised to “join hands” with his fellow laureate. But the Indian man rescuing children from slavery and the Pakistani teenage girl encouraging them into school are already working hand in hand.

With an estimated 168 million children still living in bondage, deprived of an education and decent standard of living, their work is as relevant as ever. But with the number of such victims declining by a considerable 78 million since 2000, it is clear that the work of such tireless advocates is having an incredible impact. Let us hope that the spotlight of this year’s Nobel Prize does a bit more to advance this worthy cause.

Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai (Source: India Today).

Altruism: It’s In Our DNA

Although, like most people, I have my cynical and misanthropic moments, I broadly consider myself to be an optimist with regards to human nature and our species’ capacity to improve itself and the world (arguably, I would be a poor humanist if I did not believe in the positive potential of humanity). The ability to practice concern for the welfare of others, without any want of reward or gain, represents one of the key virtues that will lead to a better world.

Much of my confidence stems from my own broadly beneficial experience with my fellow humans: I am fortunate to have experienced and witnessed so much kindness, compassion, and understanding. While my intimate study and exposure to the worst of humanity, past and present, has no doubt tempered my faith, I remain committed to the idea that humans are not in any sense fundamentally evil or violent, as many would believe.

Indeed, whatever moral and cognitive failings seem innate to our species seems offset by an inherent, evolutionary capacity to transcend such faults. Aside from ample anecdotal evidence of humans (as well as other primates) demonstrating selfless behavior, there is a large and growing body of research proving that selflessness and conscientiousness is a fundamental aspect of being human.

One of the most recent studies to explore the origins of human altruism was conducted by a team from the University of Zurich in Switzerland, which examined groups of primates — including humans — and how they each develop concepts of selflessness and cooperation. As reported in IFScience:

The researchers designed a test in which a food treat was placed on a sliding board. The individual moving the board can bring the treat within reach of others within the group, but will not be able to get the food themselves.

The experiment was carried out in 24 groups across 15 species of primates, including 3 groups of human children who were 5-7 years old. The food selection was tailored for each group, in order to test whether or not the primate would willingly give up a desired treat. The researchers found that species who most often utilized the “it takes a village” style of cooperative breeding were also more likely to help someone else get a treat, even though they didn’t get one themselves.

“Humans and callitrichid monkeys acted highly altruistically and almost always produced the treats for the other group members. Chimpanzees, one of our closest relatives, however, only did so sporadically,” Burkart explained in a press release.

The researchers also examined possible relationships between giving a treat to a friend and other cooperative behaviors, such as group hunting and complex social bonds, as well as relative brain size. Cooperative breeding was the only trait that showed a strong linear correlation and was the best metric for predicting altruistic behavior.

“Spontaneous, altruistic behavior is exclusively found among species where the young are not only cared for by the mother, but also other group members such as siblings, fathers, grandmothers, aunts and uncles,” Burkart continued.

However, cooperative breeding is likely one of many factors that could have influenced the evolution of altruism among humans. Over the evolutionary history of our ancestors, living in cooperative groups may have benefited greatly from high cognitive abilities, especially regarding things like language skills.

Burkart concluded: “When our hominin ancestors began to raise their offspring cooperatively, they laid the foundation for both our altruism and our exceptional cognition.”

In other words, being altruistic comes as natural to us as any other trait we consider to be quintessentially human (language, higher thinking, etc). Not only is it a virtue in itself, but it serves a pivotal role to our survival and flourishing. Working in tandem with the other characteristics of higher sentience, altruism helped grow and solidify social bonds, which in turn facilitates the cooperation and organization that is so vital to an otherwise defenseless and vulnerable species.

In fact, without our high cognitive capacity — our ability to share and develop new ideas, to invent, to coordinate and work together — we would not have survived against the harsh elements and the many physically superior predators that inhabited it. In the aggregate, every individual act of welfare and assistance to others helps create a stronger and more robust society that can better survive and prosper.

Shortly after the IFLS piece, NPR also published an article on the subject of altruism and its roots in human biology. It was inspired by the case of Angela Stimpson, a 42-year-old woman who donated a kidney to a complete stranger without any credit or reward. She cited a sense of purpose as her motivation, echoing many other altruists who claim to derive meaning from being kind and doing good deeds.

So what is the psychological basis of this position?  That is what Abigail Marsh of Georgetown University,a leading researcher on altruism, set out to discover:

Marsh wanted to know more about this type of extraordinary altruism, so she decided to study the brains of people who had donated a kidney to a stranger. Of the 39 people who took part in the study, 19 of them, including Angela Stimpson, were kidney donors.

Marsh took structural images to measure the size of different parts of their brains and then asked the participants to run through a series of computer tests while their brains were being scanned using functional MRI. In one test, they were asked to look at pictures of different facial expressions, including happiness, fear, anger, sadness and surprise.

Most of the tests didn’t find any differences between the brains of the altruistic donors and the people who had not been donors. Except, Marsh says, for a significant difference in a part of the brain called the amygdala, an almond-shaped cluster of nerves that is important in processing emotion.

These findings are the polar opposite to research Marsh conducted on a group of psychopaths. Using the same tests as with the altruists, Marsh found that psychopaths have significantly smaller, less active amygdalas. More evidence that the amygdala may be the brain’s emotional compass, super-sensitive in altruists and blunted in psychopaths, who seem unresponsive to someone else’s distress or fear.

The amygdala is part of the brain’s limbic system, the area that primarily houses our emotional life, and that plays a large role in forming memories and making decisions. Neither the study nor articles delves into the causality of the relationship between amygdala size and altruism: is it a large amygdala that leads one to become more selfless? Or does engaging in enough altruistic act over time cause the amygdala to grow larger? There is still much to learn about this area of the body.

But one thing is for certain: for all the negative behaviors and habits we associate with human nature, we must not overlook or understate just how intimately tied our humanity is with acts of kindness and compassion. From our biology to our neurology, humans, for the most part, have an instinct to be kind whenever and however possible. The key is to build upon these foundations, cultivate them in others, and figure out how to correct any naturalistic imbalances that may undermine. A difficult and long-term goal, but certainly a worthy and ultimately human one.

The Tribulations of Empathy

It would seem intuitive that empathy is an inherently positive quality: what could be wrong with being able to deeply feel or think what other someone else is experiencing? Most acts of compassion and altruism are predicated on being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and subsequently seeking to better their circumstances; without a fundamental understanding of one’s circumstances and  needs, it is arguably harder to rouse yourself into acting for their benefit.

But an article in The Guardian by Oliver Burkeman challenges the importance of empathy in ethical decision-making, going so far as to suggest that it may even be a handicap:

The problem is that empathy – the attempt to feel or think how someone else is feeling or thinking – isn’t a reliable way of doing good. For one thing, we find it easier to empathise with better-looking people, and with those of the same race, so the more we rely on empathy as a guide to action, the more we’re vulnerable to such biases. We also get entangled in the “identifiable victim effect”: empathy makes us care more about, say, the single missing child than the thousands who might be harmed by a government policy, never mind the as-yet-unborn victims of future global warming. Bloom quotes the economist Thomas Schelling: “Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped… Let it be reported that without a sales tax the [hospitals] of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths – not many will drop a tear.” A surfeit of empathy may hurt the empathetic, too: it’s been linked to burnout and depression, neither of which make people better at helping others.

This touches on two interesting problems related to misplaced and/or excessive empathy.

One is psychic numbing, whereby individuals or even entire societies give little to know attention to threats that are far-off, geographically distant, and of low probability — even though they are otherwise of massive consequences. A familiar example would be how more people seem mourn or focus upon a high-profile tragedy involving one or a few individuals, whereas genocides, famines, or calamities like climate change attract far less attention, much less action.

There are many interesting reasons why this discrepancy exists, among the most prominent being that we can better empathize with one or a few individuals than we can with faceless (and often foreign) millions — the old adage of one death being a tragedy and a million being a mere statistic. Our cognitive capacity is limited and can only connect with so many people before it fails to really impact us; similarly, we can only look so far ahead, and things like climate change are on a scale of complexity that is difficult to grasp on a strictly visceral level.

The second issue touched on in this except is compassion fatigue, also known as secondary traumatic stress, in which individuals or societies demonstrate reduced compassion over a period of time. Unsurprisingly, this problem is most often observed among those who work with, live, or are exposed most to those that suffer: first responders, nurses, psychologists, aid workers, and the like. Over time, one can become more cynical, depressed, prone to sleeplessness, unfocused, or demonstrate other signs of hardheartedness and negativity.

On a collective level, this can be very problematic: it has been argued that the over-saturation of media with de-contextualized images and stories of tragedy and suffering has led to a more misanthropic and withdrawn society. Again, the familiar example is how fairly tolerant we seem to be of large-scale problems, ranging from growing poverty in the U.S. to the massive catastrophes immiserating millions abroad. After a certain point, we grow weary from it all and would much rather ignore it. We are busy and troubled enough without having to empathize with so much pain and suffering.

In light of these points, what would the alternative be? If empathy is insufficient on its own, how best do we go about making constructive and ethical decisions?

It’s hard to accept that we might sometimes get a clearer picture of the world by resisting the urge to step into someone else’s shoes. Yet depersonalising things is often the best way to make decisions. That’s why job interviews can be more meritocratic – and less prone to sexism or racism – when they don’t include a free-wheeling “getting to know you” section, relying instead on structured tests. Tyler Cowen, the blogger and economist, recommends soliciting feedback not by asking “what do you think?” – the personalised version – but “what do most people think?”

Instead of empathy, Bloom concludes, we need compassion: a cooler, more rational, “more distanced love, kindness and concern for others”. A relative of his undergoing cancer treatment doesn’t like medical staff who overflow with empathy: “He gets the most from doctors who are calm when he is anxious, confident when he is uncertain.” As the Saturday Night Live writer Jack Handey wrote, before you criticise someone, walk a mile in their shoes: that way, you’ll be a mile away, and you’ll have their shoes. But if you want to help them, staying planted in your own shoes may be preferable. Sure, I could feel your pain. But wouldn’t you rather I did something about it?

In short, it would appear that, as with many things, the best course of action is a balanced one — we try our best to really feel for the suffering of others while keeping just enough of a distance to have a clear head on how to determine the best course of action. It seems sensible, and I can personally relate with both extremes: owing to my own bouts of depression and compassion fatigue, I find myself at times to be either too distant or too empathetic, and in either state I feel off. It is only when I have struck that delicate golden mean between empathy and dispassion that I feel hopeful in making a decision. But such an arrangement can be difficult to maintain without conscious effort, and one can only be so emotional or so distant before breaking down.

But that is just my experience and observation. What about you all?

The Joys of the Ordinary

The key to happiness — to a life that is not only comfortable, but fulfilling — is one of those loaded concepts that elicits a wide variety of answers and musings. But one consensus that seems to emerge among people of all ages and experiences is the notion that we must appreciate the simple pleasures of everyday life — the little gifts that we take for granted yet would be much more miserable without.

The New York Times published a piece some time ago that explored this notion, citing some interesting research which, among other things, showed that the older one got, the more joy was derived from ordinary experiences. It seems that with time and experience, one learns to appreciate anything that our often difficult lives have to offer.

This is especially salient in a time of socioeconomic crisis, when people of all ages and backgrounds — but especially the younger and less wealthier — are finding their optimism and enthusiasm tested. Declining political and economic fortunes, combined with an uncertain future, would make happiness seem more elusive than ever, especially when compared to the more prosperous circumstances in which many older Americans came of age.

Amid the subsequently rising rates of depression, anxiety, stress, and sleeplessness, perhaps the age-old lesson of counting one’s blessings (in either the secular or religious sense) is as apt as ever. As the Times article noted, even in the best of times, let alone nowadays, the average person simply lacks the resources to enjoy an extraordinary life full of untold luxury, adventure, and other fulfilling activities — but nor should they require such approaches to be happy.

…plenty of people won’t have the money to go to faraway places or pay to jump out of airplanes. Low-cost extraordinary experiences may well be nearby, but there ought to be much comfort in the evidence that everyday things that cost little or nothing can deliver the same amount of joy. A garden. The elaborate meal that emerges from it and the spare time to invent the recipes. A return to a neglected musical instrument. All-you-can-consume subscriptions to Netflix and Spotify, with watchlists and playlists that stretch on for years.

This is not to say that we should give up on aiming for better lives; it goes without saying that, traveling the world, seeking a well-paying profession, and pursuing other life-affirming endeavors are still great goals (at least for some people). Nor should we simply accept the systemic sociopolitical and economic issues that have made it harder for most of us to reach our highest potential. But regardless of one’s circumstances, now and in the future, it seems sensible to make the most of what we can while we can, even if it is only in the process of realizing higher aspirations.

Speaking for myself, I can definitely attest to the value of this attitude. For as long as I can remember, I have suffered from regular bouts of depression and anxiety; it has only been in recent years, as I approach my thirties, that I have mitigated these conditions by, among other things, deriving as much value from ordinary experiences as possible. Reading my books, listening to my favorite songs, tending to my garden, enjoying a hot cup of tea, sleeping in my warm bed — these are the little things in which I look forward to day-by-day.

These are the seemingly mundane activities and indulgences that are easy to take for granted, but are luxuries to so many other humans. While I nonetheless have aspirations for greater things — not least of which is traveling the world — in the meantime I am content enjoying the everyday pleasures that come with my good fortune to be alive and healthy.