The Hermit Life of Modern China

The challenges of modernity — in terms of alienation, empty consumerism, and over-stimulation — are becoming a universal problem (which, in fairness, is in some sense a good thing, since it means more parts of the world are industrializing and being lifted out of poverty and deprivation). Few nations are struggling with these issues more than China, which has been thrown into modernity at remarkable speed, thrusting hundreds of millions of citizens into the bittersweet life of material abundance.

An eleven-minute documentary, Summoning the Recluse, by Beijing-based filmmaker Ellen Xu, follows several young, middle-class Chinese who are embracing  meditation, spiritual quests and monastic asceticism in an effort to find peace and meaning in a difficult and more complex world. They are tapping into a millennia of rich spiritual, philosophical, and lifestyle traditions — such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism — that have long sought to address these issues. Their relevance today speaks volumes about the inherent struggle of the human condition.

I can’t embed the video here, so click here to view it. I felt more peaceful just watching it. Plus, I’m reminded of how much amazing Chinese philosophy and thought I need to brush up on.

Credit: Aeon

Still Life: Vase with Pink Roses

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Still Life: Vase with Pink Roses by Vincent van Gogh. It was painted in 1890 while Van Gogh was preparing to leave the asylum in Saint-Rémy for the quiet town of Auvers-sur-Oise.

As his departure neared, he became increasingly optimistic about his future, as reflected in his choice of subject and colors: Van Gogh had a love for flowers of all kinds, and tended to paint them in his brighter moments. Vivid colors similarly reflected a more positive mood. Continue reading

The Rapid and Massive Decline of Global Poverty

While too many people still struggle with deprivation and abject poverty worldwide, it is crucial to acknowledge just how far humanity has come in this regard. Over  at OurWorldInData.org, Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser have put together an extensive, data-rich report on world poverty, and the results are outstanding to behold: in less than 200 years, our species has halved the rate of overall poverty while reducing the most extreme forms of it to a fourth of what it once was.

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Poverty has declined not only proportionally, but in absolute numbers: in 1820, the world’s population was just under 1.1 billion, of which more than 1 billion lived in extreme poverty — defined by the World Bank as living on less than $1.90 a day.

As of 2015, there were more than 7.3 billion people on Earth, of which 705 million live in extreme poverty. In other words, despite a seven-fold growth in population, there are fewer poor people now than two centuries ago, when the world was much smaller.world-population-in-extreme-poverty-absolute

The rate of decline in poverty began to accelerate as we approached the 21st century. From 1990 onward, the number of people living in extreme poverty declined by 47 million annually — or 130,000 a day. It is sobering to imagine that as of my writing of this post, tens of thousands of people have climbed out of poverty since the previous morning. (I know it is not evenly distributed day to day, but you get the idea.)

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Granted, progress in poverty reduction remains highly uneven: while Asia is no longer home to the most abjectly poor people, Africa has taken its place with the largest number and percentage of people in extreme poverty, at 383 million (although this is far fewer than the over 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty in Asia and the Pacific in 1990). And the Asia-Pacific region is still close behind with 327 million people struggling with dire poverty.

Here’s the breakdown along national lines:

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Nevertheless, most of the countries still struggling with high rates of poverty have still seen some progress over the years, even if it has been slow and at times sporadic. The gains may be tenuous, but they’re still there, and there are more than enough encouraging examples of previously poor nations making incredible strides over the last several decades (South Korea, Singapore, Ghana, etc.).

Indeed, if we assume that the current rate of poverty decline continues, the number of extremely poor people will decline by more than half by 2030.

 

What a time to be alive, no?

If you’re interested in learning more about the above data, including methodology, data quality, and the definition of terms, click here.

Video: The Rise of Megacities and the Era of “Connectography”

Humanity’s rapid and unprecedented rate of urbanization and connectivity is leading to the emergence of a truly globalized society. Goods and services, social relations, cultural products, ideas and values, and people themselves are transcending political and geographic boundaries like never before.

Needless to say, this trend is impacting every facet of human life, portending a future in which existing national borders — the kind we’re accustomed to seeing in every map of the world — fail to capture a new pan-human community. Indeed, the nation-state as we take for granted today may not exist at all.

Granted, such claims come with plenty of caveats. The world still far from abandoning the forces of nationalism, religious extremism, ethnic chauvinism, and basic parochialism, to say nothing of the technical challenges that remains; arguably, such sentiments have only grown stronger in some parts of the world in recent years.

In any case, there is no denying that whatever challenges or reversals lie ahead, the world is not what it once was, and today’s concept of a nation-state dominated international order is longer adequate for capturing the reality of our global society. Parag Khanna brings this to light with an interesting new TED Talk that explores the emergence of megacities and the subsequent erosion of geographic and political barriers — a dramatic shift he refers to as “connectography”. Check out the twenty minute video below, or read the transcript here. Continue reading

The Limitations of Human Knowledge — And Why That’s Not So Bad

While I am optimistic of humanity’s capacity to broaden its understanding of the universe — from cures to various diseases to the fundamental laws that underpin time and space — I accept and expect that there may always be limits to how much we can learn or solve. In a new book, What We Cannot Know, British mathematician and Oxford professor Marcus du Sautoy explores the limits of our species’ insatiable curiosity, as reviewed by The Economist: Continue reading

The Ugandan Model of Hosting Refugees

According to a recent report by the London-based NGO Amnesty International, just ten countries host more than half the world’s 21 million refugees, nearly all of them poor or developing countries:

  1. Jordan (2.7 million)
  2. Turkey (2.5 million)
  3. Pakistan (1.6 million)
  4. Lebanon (1.5 million)
  5. Iran (979,400)
  6. Ethiopia (736,100)
  7. Kenya (553,900)
  8. Uganda (477,200)
  9. Democratic Republic of Congo (383,100)
  10. Chad (369,500)

These nations disproportionately host refugees due to mere proximity: those escaping persecution, conflict, or socioeconomic instability will immediately flee to the nearest and most accessible safe havens; most cannot afford to simply catch a flight to a far away country (which might in any case turn them away).  Continue reading

Why a Basic Income Won’t Lead to Mass Idleness — And Why Less Work Might Not Be Such a Bad Thing Anyway

Work has historically been seen as having a stabilizing effect on both individual’s life and society as a whole. Too much idleness means lots of important things aren’t getting done; widespread boredom and laziness will settle in, causing people becoming self-indulgent, hedonistic, or even immoral. It is little wonder that most people cannot conceive of any other order to our society or economy — what would a world with less work look like? Won’t giving everyone money only guarantee mass departure from the workforce?

Joel Dodge of Quartz takes to task this common counterargument to the universal basic income (UBI), pointing to research showing no ill effects on work ethic and societal productivity: Continue reading

The World’s Most Emotional Countries

While there is no shortage of international data on things like GDP, military expenditure, and employment, it is only recently that the more intangible aspects of a society, as life satisfaction and happiness, have been subject to similar collection and analysis. Obviously, the inherent subjectivity of such factors make them difficult to quantify, but polling a representative sample of a given population can still offer a good enough picture of how the average person of a given society feels about their lot in life.

Gallup is contributing to this effort by gathering data on, of all things, “how often residents feel positive or negative emotions on a day-to-day basis”. The Global Emotions Report is a survey of almost 153,000 people conducted across 148 countries, asking questions such as how often a person laughs or smile, and how often they are angry. Continue reading

How Hobbies Bring Meaning to Our Lives

One of the ways I cope with the vagaries of life, from mundane, day-to-day stressors to major events and tragedies, is to focus on one of several life projects that I have cultivated over the years: reading, gardening, aquaculture, and, of course, blogging. These and other activities give me something to look forward to each morning, and serve as a form of therapy, allowing me to suspend all other worries and focus on something as simple yet gratifying as completing a chapter in my favorite book, or watching my plants bear fruit.

Over at QuartzAlex Preston explores the philosophy of hobbies and why they are integral to personal identity and quality of life. Continue reading

The Best Way to Save a Life

The wisest question is not  “What is the greatest good?” but rather: What is the greatest good where the next dollar could have the greatest impact?”

The amount of suffering in the world is so vast in its scale and severity that it can be overwhelming to take it all in, let alone know where to start in alleviating it. We are but lone individuals amid a world of billions, many of whose wealthiest denizens seem utterly indifferent to the plight of the masses. It is easy, if not understandable, to feel cynical and despairing.

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic tackles the concept of “effective altruism” — helping the world in the most efficient, sustainable, and consequential way possible. He cites a large breadth of wisdom on the matter, summing up a general guide to better giving thusly:

The simplest way to explain effective altruism and its discontents is to begin with three pillars of the movement: (1) You can make a truly enormous difference in the world if you live in a rich country; (2) you can “do good better” by thinking scientifically rather than sentimentally; and (3) you can do good even better by trying to find the greatest need for the next marginal dollar.

In other words, if you are at least a middle-class person in a wealthy country, and rely on science, reason, and evidence to guide your donations, you can do a lot more substantive good than you may think. Continue reading