Stephen Jay Gould was an influential American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and science historian whose contributions to science and culture earned him recognition as a “Living Legend“. Like many scientists, he often weighed in on matters of ethics, philosophy, and the human condition, of which the following observation is, to my mind at least, his most powerful:
It pretty much goes without saying that 2016 has been a rough year for a lot of people and for a multitude reasons, none of which need to be rehashed here. Suffice it to say, I am all the more grateful to have had a largely great year, due in no small part to the support and companionship of loved ones and the good fortune of my life circumstances.
And contrary to popular belief, there was more to 2016 than celebrity deaths and political decay. As Swedish writer and historian Johan Norberg reminds us, the past year has seen plenty of amazing progress in areas as wide ranging as conservation, public healthy, and conflict resolution. Here are just ten examples: Continue reading
To better grasp just how much human conditions have improved only over the past two hundred years, consider the following summation, which imagines humanity as just a hundred people.
Imagine if you were surrounded by abject poverty and misery, but only years later find most people lifted out of deprivation and living comfortable lives; imagine nearly half of all the kids around you dying before their fifth birthday, but over the span of just a couple of years, such tragedies are virtually unheard of.
When you consider that these conditions were the norm for most of our 200,000 year history, and that only in the last two centuries — a relatively small blip in the timescale — have they reversed so rapidly, it is astounding how so many of us fail to realize how incredibly far our species has come.
Learn more about human progress from the source of this infographic.
It goes without saying that 2016 has been a rough year for a lot of folks. People can be forgiven for thinking that the world is going to hell in one way or another, but as economist Max Roser of Our World in Data points out in Vox.com, there has never been a time more worth celebrating in terms of moral progress. From poverty to literacy, the world is improving in so many areas, even if there is still quite a way to go. Continue reading
The Economist recently featured a new book that aims to present a more nuanced and encouraging picture of the history of Islam and its innumerable, if now often understated, intellectual and cultural achievements. Chase Robinson’s Islamic Civilisation in Thirty Lives: The First 1,000 Years encapsulates Islamic history through the perspectives and experiences of thirty figures, who represent a cross section of Muslim society. Continue reading
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.
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
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.
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.
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.)
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:
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?
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