Ending Global Hunger

Even while the number of overweight and obese people is continuing to grow worldwide, the age-long scourges of chronic hunger and malnourishment remain pressing humanitarian problems. Close to 800 million people — or one in nine humans on Earth — are undernourished and thus highly susceptible to disease and infirmity. The majority of them live in developing countries, especially in rural areas, which tend lack infrastructure, are neglected by government, and especially vulnerable to natural disasters (including climate change).

Ending Rural Hunger is a project launched this year by the Brookings Institution’s Global Economy and Development division. Combining the expertise of over 120 specialists with the latest technology, it seeks to offer the world’s first comprehensive tool for monitoring the U.N. second Sustainable Development Goal (SDG): “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture”.

To that end, the project website offers a treasure trove of interactive and multifaceted tools that cover everything from the raw numbers of hungry people by country, to which governments are making the most progress (or failing to), and which developed countries are doing more to help. By looking at every side of the equation — the impact of both domestic and international policies, environmental and economic factors, the effectiveness of certain types of aid and policy — ERH is a great resource for those of us looking to see what more can be done to help the world’s most vulnerable people in a time of plenty. I definitely recommend you check it out.  Continue reading

Reflections on a Global Community

For most of human history, the average person rarely knew, let alone cared, about what happened beyond his or her little community of mostly interrelated people. Now, something can happen halfway across the world, to strangers of a completely foreign culture and society, and we feel emotionally and politically invested. We mourn, express solidarity, debate, and otherwise get involved in matters that by all accounts should not concern us.

It is easy to take for granted that we live in a global community, in which our social, economic, and even personal lives are impacted by the fate of total strangers thousands of miles away. But this is actually a radically new development in our species’s history, after millennia of living in small tribes, bands, and city-states. (Indeed, civilizations only emerged three to four thousand years ago, whereas modern humans have existed for at least a quarter of a million years.)

Doubtless, we are far from forming a truly cohesive and universal identity — too many things still separates us and undermine our ability to empathize, including our biology (e.g., our minds evolved to prioritize genetic kin — those who look and seem more similar — and can develop only a limited number of deep social connections).

But given the novelty of this globalized world, I am confident that with time, such limitations can be transcended. Just as the city or country — now totally common and accepted social units — was once an alien concept for thousands of years, so too can something as crazy as a global community, in the psychological if not political sense, be a reality.

The World’s Improving Economic Prospects

Positive news about the trajectory of the world is hard to find these days. From climate change to inequality to the rise of political authoritarianism, it seems that humanity is backsliding in just about every area of progress — what a way to kick off the 21st century and all its alleged promises.

Our World In Data is a web-based initiative that provides infographics about changing trends in a wide variety of subjects, from living standards to economics. Operating out of the Institute of New Economic Thinking at Oxford University, it is a reliable source for those wishing to document how humanity has changed over the course of decades, centuries, or millennia.

Fortunately, the data collected by OWID clearly show that for all the grim circumstances our species faces, we have broadly made vast improvements in socioeconomic prosperity, especially by historical standards. Compare GDP per capita — which serves as a rough, if imperfect, approximation of average living standards — in year one C.E. to 2008.

GDP per capita in 1 C.E. (Our World In Data / Institute of New Economic Thinking)

GDP per capita in 2008 (Our World In Data / Institute of New Economic Thinking)

You don’t have to go too far back to see how much progress there has been. Even over the last two centuries, there has been a marked and unprecedented improvement in the economic circumstances of most humans.

Our World In Data / Institute of New Economic Thinking

Moreover, while much of the world remains very poor (albeit far less so than two centuries ago), it is largely these impoverished nations that are leading the way in economic growth and development, thereby progressively lifting more of their people from poverty.

Our World In Data / Institute of New Economic Thinking

To be sure, none of this means that we should be complacent: these advancements are both tenuous and far short of what is needed to ensure a better life for all (indeed, the website concludes with this warning as well). However, it is still important to recognize how much we have achieved: incomes are growing across the world, poverty is rapidly declining, and the world’s poorest nations to continue to chalk up the highest rate of growth.

Granted, much of this progress is being felt unevenly; a lot of fast-growing countries are seeing their newfound wealth concentrated in relatively few hands, or invested inefficiently, if at all. Plenty of developed nations are lagging behind, too, with stagnating incomes and growing inequality. But all these challenges and shortcomings aside, we should be encouraged by how far we have come, and recognize the incredible potential for improvement of the human condition.

To see more data about the changes in socioeconomic development, click here. As always, please feel free to share your thoughts.

My Serendipitous Garden

I decided at the last minute to pop into Home Depot to get some plants for the garden. It just so happens the distributor had just arrived with a fresh batch, which the delivery men were kind enough to assist me with. We struck up a nice conversation and I left with gratitude to their thoughtfulness and my lucky timing.

As if that were not enough, as I was on the way out, one of the guys calls me back and starts giving me all these plants that they were going to take back for composting (since they were on the shelf so long, despite being otherwise health). Needless to say, I was left touched and grateful.

Now I have an even bigger and more fun project to look forward to. Most importantly, this casual display of kindness really put me in a good mood

World Food Day

Today is World Food Day, which commemorates the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. It also seeks to bring attention to global hunger and malnutrition, both of which have thankfully been markedly reduced over the years, but which remain intractable problems in a large part of the world.

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), one of America’s most effective environmental charities, offers a helpful reminder that, even with the world’s population sent to grow by another 2 billion in the coming decades, there are viable solutions in sight — if we can muster the political and public will to take action.  Continue reading

The First Resistor to Colonialism in the New World

Hatuey was a native Taíno chief from the island of Hispaniola (modern Haiti and Dominican Republic) who became the first major fighter against colonialism in the Western Hemisphere. He led a group of natives to resist the invading Spaniards in the early 16th century. After his island was conquered, he set out to Cuba with a group of 400 people to warn the indigenous people of the coming invasion; the following speech was attributed to him:

Here [a basket of gold and jewels] is the God the Spaniards worship. For these they fight and kill; for these they persecute us and that is why we have to throw them into the sea…They tell us, these tyrants, that they adore a God of peace and equality, and yet they usurp our land and make us their slaves. They speak to us of an immortal soul and of their eternal rewards and punishments, and yet they rob our belongings, seduce our women, violate our daughters. Incapable of matching us in valor, these cowards cover themselves with iron that our weapons cannot break…

Hatuey’s message was not heeded, and few joined him to fight, partly because warfare was an alien concept among Caribbean natives (as Columbus himself had observed). The chief thus resorted to guerrilla tactics with a handful of his men. At first managing to confine the Spaniards at their fort at Baracoa, the colonials redoubled their efforts and eventually captured him.

In 1512, Hatuey was tied to a stake and burned alive at Yara. Before he was burned, a priest asked him if he would accept Jesus and go to heaven, after which the following exchange was recorded:

[Hatuey], thinking a little, asked the religious man if Spaniards went to heaven. The religious man answered yes…The chief then said without further thought that he did not want to go there, but to hell, so as not to be where [the Spaniards were], and where he would not see such cruel people.

Though it is disputed precisely what Hatuey said in these two anecdotes, his status as one of the first major resistors of colonialism remains undisputed. He is celebrated by some Cubans as their first national hero, and is often regarded as such throughout the Caribbean.

Read more about him here.

Continue reading

The Countries Most at Risk of Genocide

The Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, a think tank connected to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, has created a tool called the Early Warning Project that aims to forecast the risk of state-sanctioned mass killings around the world. The following map displays the countries with the greatest probability of succumbing to genocide.

Courtesy of Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide / United States Holocaust Memorial Museum / Washington Post

Most of the countries at risk of government-sponsored murder are in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. The ten most troubling hot spots identified by the center are as follows: Continue reading

The Value of Imitation

Originality is overrated. Yes, novel ideas have often accounted for tremendous advancements in human knowledge and conditions; but as Kat McGowan of Aeon writes, the ability to copy one another, and make incremental improvements along the way, has been much more consequential.

The history of technology shows that advances happen largely through tinkering, when somebody recreates a good thing with a minor upgrade that makes it slightly better. These humble improvements accrue over generations, so that the Bronze Age straight pin becomes a toga fastener becomes a safety pin. Money begins as seashells, evolves into metal coins, diversifies as paper, and eventually becomes virtual as bitcoins and abstruse financial derivatives. In this way, technologies arise that no one person could possibly invent on his own. When Isaac Newton talked about standing on the shoulders of giants, he should have said that we are dwarves, standing atop a vast heap of dwarves.

Researchers dub this iterative process ‘cumulative cultural evolution’: just as organisms evolve via repeated small changes in genes that provide a survival advantage, each human generation makes small modifications to the technology and traditions it inherits. This idea is most clearly articulated by the anthropologist Robert Boyd, of the Santa Fe Institute and Arizona State University, and the biologist and mathematical modeller Peter Richerson, of the University of California Davis. ‘When lots of imitation is mixed with a little bit of individual learning, populations can adapt in ways that outreach the abilities of any individual genius,’ they write in their book Not By Genes Alone(2005).

Lots of copying means that many minds get their chance at the problem; imitation ‘makes the contents of brains available to everyone’, writes the developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello in the Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (1999). Tomasello, who is co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, calls the combination of imitation and innovation the ‘cultural ratchet’. It is like a mechanical ratchet that permits motion in only one direction – such as winding a watch, or walking through a turnstile. Good ideas push the ratchet forward one notch. Faithful imitation keeps the ratchet from slipping backward, protecting ideas from being forgotten or lost and keeping knowledge alive for the next round of improvement.

It turns out that creating something new is the easy part. What’s difficult – and what’s really important – is maintaining what we already know through copying. Luckily, we are very good at it.

In essence, human achievement at both the micro and macro level have been the result of multiple parties, often spanning generations and culture, having their go at an existing idea, invention, or concept. Progress is less about coming up with something immediately unique and earth-shattering, and more about looking around at what we know and how best to improve upon it.

Aside from giving clever and well-meaning imitators their due credit, the lesson here is that progress is a collective and collaborative effort, involving lots of contributors willing to do the humble and thankless work of tweaking what we already have, so that over time, with the help of other tinkerers, the world reaps the benefits.

This might be too much of a romantic take on what many would consider mere copying, but I think it reflects the inherent pragmatism of the human species: whether in art, science, or philosophy, go with what already seems to work and see where that gets you. Give it time, and who knows where that will get us.

Turkish Couple Spends Wedding Feeding Refugees

Speaking of moral exemplars (in reference to my previous post), CBC has reported that a newly couple in Turkey has used their wedding banquet, and all the money given to them for the occasion, to personally feed over 4,000 Syrian refugees. The groom’s father pitched the idea, which the couple and their guests more than happy to make it happen.

You can see a video in the hyperlink above, or catch some of it from Al Jazeera’s video below.

What a way to kick of a loving union.

Germany, The World’s Moral Leader

The Economist observes how the refugee crisis has highlighted the German nation’s exemplary moral leadership, starting with this poignant statistic:

Whereas most nations struggle to accept even a handful of refugees, the Germans seem broadly enthusiastic about the idea, owing in part to their history. Continue reading