In the past, everything was worse.
For roughly 99% of the world’s history, 99% of humanity was poor, hungry, dirty, afraid, stupid, sick, and ugly.
But in the last 200 years, all of that has changed. In just a fraction of the time that our species has clocked on this planet, billions of us are suddenly rich, well nourished, clean, safe, smart, healthy, and occasionally even beautiful.
Where 94% of the world’s population still lived in extreme poverty in 1820, by 1981 that percentage had dropped to 44%, and now, just a few decades later, it is under 10%.
In the country where I live, the Netherlands, a homeless person receiving public assistance today has more to spend than the average Dutch person in 1950, and four times more than people in Holland’s glorious Golden Age, when the country still ruled the seven seas.
Historians estimate that the average annual income in Italy around the year 1300 was roughly $ 1,600. Some 600 years later –after Columbus, Galileo, Newton, the scientific revolution, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, the invention of gunpowder, printing, and the steam engine –it was … still $ 1,600.
Six hundred years of civilization, and the average Italian was pretty much where he’d always been.
It was not until about 1880, right around the time Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, Thomas Edison patented his lightbulb, Carl Benz was tinkering with his first car, and Josephine Cochrane was ruminating on what may just be the most brilliant idea ever –the dishwasher –that our Italian peasant got swept up in the march of progress.
And what a wild ride it has been. The past two centuries have seen explosive growth both in population and prosperity worldwide. Per capita income is now ten times what it was in 1850. The average Italian is 15 times as wealthy as in 1880. And the global economy? It is now 250 times what it was before the Industrial Revolution – when nearly everyone, everywhere was still poor, hungry, dirty, afraid, stupid, sick, and ugly.
These days, there are more people suffering from obesity worldwide than from hunger.
Since 1980, the price of 1 watt of solar energy has plummeted 99% – and that’s not a typo.
If we’re lucky, 3D printers and solar panels may yet turn Karl Marx’s ideal (all means of production controlled by the masses) into a reality, all without requiring a bloody revolution.
Also in terms of health – maybe the greatest promise of the Land of Plenty – modern progress has trumped the wildest imaginings of our ancestors. Whereas wealthy countries have to content themselves with the weekly addition of another weekend to the average lifetime, Africa is gaining four days a week. Worldwide, life expectancy grew from 64 years in 1990 to 70 in 2012 – more than double what it was in 1900.
50 years ago, one in five children died before reaching their fifth birthday. Today? One in 20. In 1836, the richest man in the world, one Nathan Meyer Rothschild, died due to a simple lack of antibiotics. In recent decades, dirt-cheap vaccines against measles, tetanus, whooping cough, diphtheria, and polio have saved more lives each year than world peace would have saved in the 20th century.
In 1962, 41% of kids didn’t go to school, as opposed to under 10% today. In most countries, the average IQ has gone up another three to five points every ten years, thanks chiefly to improved nutrition and education. Maybe this also explains how we’ve become so much more civilized, with the past decade rating as the most peaceful in all of world history. According to the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, the number of war casualties per year has plummeted 90% since 1946. The incidence of murder, robbery , and other forms of criminality is decreasing, too.
Welcome, in other words, to the Land of Plenty.
In 1989, the American philosopher Francis Fukuyama already noted that we had arrived in an era where life has been reduced to “economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer.”
But the real crisis of our times, of my generation, is not that we don’t have it good, or even that we might be worse off later on. No, the real crisis is that we can’t come up with anything better.
Optimism and pessimism have become synonymous with consumer confidence or the lack thereof. Radical ideas about a different world have become almost literally unthinkable. The expectations of what we as a society can achieve have been dramatically eroded, leaving us with the cold, hard truth that without utopia, all that remains is a technocracy. Politics has been watered down to problem management. Voters swing back and forth not because the parties are so different, but because it’s barely possible to tell them apart, and what now separates right from left is a percentage point or two on the income tax scale.
Freedom may be our highest ideal, but ours has become an empty freedom. Our fear of moralizing in any form has made morality a taboo in the public debate.
If a political party or a religious sect had even a fraction of the influence that the advertising industry has on us and our children, we’d be up in arms. But because it’s the market, we remain “neutral.” The ad industry encourages us to spend money we don’t have on junk we don’t need in order to impress people we can’t stand.
The only thing left for government to do is patch up life in the present. If you’re not you’re not following the blueprint of a docile , content citizen, the powers that be are happy to whip you into shape. Their tools of choice? Control, surveillance, and repression. Meanwhile, the welfare state has increasingly shifted its focus from the causes of our discontent to the symptoms. We go to a doctor when we’re sick, a therapist when we’re sad, a dietitian when we’re overweight, prison when we’re convicted, and a job coach when we’re out of work. All these services cost vast sums of money, but with little to show for it.
The Pampered Generation
It is not – I can’t emphasize this enough – that we don’t have it good. Far from it. If anything , kids today are struggling under the burden of too much pampering.
The younger generation considers itself smarter, more responsible, and more attractive than ever.
It’s a generation in which every kid has been told. “You can be anything you want. You’re special.” We’ve been brought up on a steady diet of narcissism, but as soon as we’re released into the great big world of unlimited opportunity, more and more of us crash and burn.
The world, it turns out, is cold and harsh, rife with competition and unemployment. It’s not a Disneyland where you can wish upon a star and see all your dreams come true, but a rat race in which you have no one but yourself to blame if you don’t make the grade.
Not surprisingly, that narcissism conceals an ocean of uncertainty.
Depression has even become the biggest health problem among teens and will be the number one cause of illness worldwide by 2030.
We’re popping antidepressants like never before. Time and again, we blame collective problems like unemployment, dissatisfaction, and depression on the individual. If success is a choice, then so is failure. Lost your job? You should have worked harder. Sick? You must not be leading a healthy lifestyle. Unhappy? Take a pill.
The traditional dividing line between right and left holds little meaning anymore. All we care about is “resolving problems,” as though politics could be outsourced to management consultants.
Lest there be any misunderstanding: It is capitalism that opened the gates to the Land of Plenty, but capitalism alone cannot sustain it. Progress has become synonymous with economic prosperity, but the 21st century will challenge us to find other ways of boosting our quality of life. And while young people in the West have largely come of age in an era of apolitical technocracy, we will have to return to politics again to find a new utopia.
True progress begins with something no knowledge economy can produce: wisdom about what it means to live well. We have to do what great thinkers like John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, and John Maynard Keynes were already advocating 100 years ago: to “value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful.”
We have to direct our minds to the future. To stop consuming our own discontent through polls and the relentlessly bad-news media. To consider alternatives and form new collectives. To transcend this confining zeitgeist and recognize our shared idealism. Maybe then we’ll also be able to again look beyond ourselves and out at the world. There we’ll see that good old progress is still marching along on its merry way. We’ll see that we live in a marvelous age, a time of diminishing hunger and war and of surging prosperity and life expectancies.
But we’ll also see just how much there still is left for us –the richest 10%, 5%, or 1% –to do.
The time has come to imagine new utopias, to build them up from solid foundations and to begin cautiously experimenting. After all, history is not determined by machines, apps, and algorithms, nor is it predicted by trendwatchers. It is steered by humanity and its ideas.
Without all those wide-eyed dreamers down through the ages, we would all still be poor, hungry, dirty, afraid, stupid, sick, and ugly. Without utopia , we are lost. Not that the present is bad; on the contrary. However, it is bleak, if we have no hope of anything better. “Man needs, for his happiness, not only the enjoyment of this or that, but hope and enterprise and change ,” the British philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote. Elsewhere he continued, “It is not a finished Utopia that we ought to desire, but a world where imagination and hope are alive and active.”
To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization. Bertrand Russell (1872– 1970)
Rutger Bregman, from his book ‘Utopia for Realists’