So cruel! But still a great time to be alive

New dawn? For English fans, football may not be coming home (yet). But there’s plenty to celebrate.

Is this a day to count our blessings? Agony of course. Tears, buckets of them. Yet England will be back. And the bigger picture is arguably brighter than it has been for more than a century.

First, football.

The commentators this morning agree. It is a wonderful thing that England are at that level again, perhaps for the first time since 1970. And, for many, it feels like we could get back here again over the next few years. So let's enjoy, and believe in the process.

Second, the bigger picture. Civilisation is around 6,000 years old. But it is during the last 100 years that progress really took off. From electricity to refrigeration, air travel and the internet, technology has created a world unrecognisable to anyone alive in 1921.

A world in which the average person lives a longer and healthier life. More people than ever have been lifted out of poverty, more mothers survive childbirth – and violent deaths have fallen decade on decade.

Humanity is also better educated and enjoys more freedom and rights than ever before. Over half the world’s population lives in a democracy and literacy has reached historic levels. Societies still struggle with inequality and injustice, but women and minorities have won more representation and legal protection than at any other point in history.

The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated millions of lives and is not over yet. But unlike previous pandemics, society did not collapse and medical science found a vaccine in record-breaking time. Faced with a catastrophe, humanity is better prepared to respond.

And there are signs that the world is finally taking on the challenge of climate change. For years, scientists have warned that we are moving too slowly or going in the wrong direction. But green energy is now cheaper than coal, a tipping point that suggests the move away from fossil fuels is speeding up.

Writer Matt Haig says: “The most intense times often lead to the most growth.” And as the World Bank predicts the strongest economic recovery in 80 years, many are seeing the pandemic and climate change as opportunities to radically rebuild society.

In our lifetime, gene-editing and biotechnology will revolutionise medicine. Current research includes the world’s first bionic eye and a way to reprogram our cells to extend life far beyond its natural limit.

In the 20th Century, the washing machine and other labour-saving devices freed millions from the drudgery of domestic labour. This century, artificial intelligence is expected to do the same for the world of work and make our lives safer and more efficient.

Futurists Tony Seba and James Arbib say all this change takes us to the cusp of a new “Age of Freedom”, where we will have replaced scarcity with abundance. A world where we will have to “rethink” what it means to be human. No longer defined by our physical strength or mental ability, we will spend more time with friends and family in search of happiness.

There may even be time for more football.

So, is this a good day to count our blessings?

Monday blues

Some say no, things have never been worse. If we delude ourselves, we will stop trying to solve our problems. We have no right to be happy when climate change is causing wildfires and flooding, over a billion people still live in authoritarian regimes and thousands die every day from preventable diseases. As usual, optimists put too much trust in technology and ignore the risks.

Others say yes, we’ve never had it so good. The news is full of depressing stories, but the bigger picture shows that society is steadily getting better. Pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy that makes us feel overwhelmed and less likely to act. Instead, we need to follow the advice of England manager Gareth Southgate: a positive attitude creates opportunities and makes success more likely.

You Decide

  1. If you could live in any time period, which would it be?
  2. Does winning at sport make a country a better place?

Activities

  1. On a piece of paper, finish the sentence “The secret to happiness is…” Mingle with the rest of the class, sharing your secret in pairs and comparing your ideas.
  2. Divide into four groups for the four years mentioned in the Q&A. Research these periods in more detail and present an argument to the rest of the class that your year was not the worst time to be alive. Vote to decide which year wins.

Some People Say...

“It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.”

Tom Stoppard (1937 - ), British playwright

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that life expectancy has increased significantly in recent decades. For most of history, it was around 30 years. Life was “nasty, brutish and short”, in the words of philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Now people from low, middle and high-income countries are living to 60 and beyond, in what the United Nations calls “one of the most significant social transformations of the 21st Century”.
What do we not know?
One area of debate is when the worst time to be alive was. In 1918, a battle-scarred world was hit by a flu pandemic that killed at least 50 million people. Meanwhile, 1520 was a dark year in the Americas, when Europeans brought smallpox to societies with no immunity. If you were alive in 1347, you had a poor chance of surviving the next few years of the Black Death. In 536, a volcanic eruption plunged the world into darkness and famine, followed five years later by the first outbreak of bubonic plague.

Word Watch

Refrigeration
The African-American inventor Frederick McKinley Jones created the first portable refrigerator. It was used to transport drugs and blood during World War Two.
Poverty
Extreme poverty has halved in the last 20 years.
Violent deaths
Steven Pinker argues we have entered a “Long Peace” with fewer murders and less deadly wars, though his argument has been described as “wishful thinking”.
Women
Before the late 19th Century, married women had no right to their own earnings and could not attend university.
Previous pandemics
The Plague of Justinian devastated the remains of the Roman Empire while the Black Death in the 14th Century brought an end to feudalism in Europe.
Better prepared
Bill Gates says “global cooperation” brought the pandemic “under control” and this should make us more hopeful about solving climate change.
Green energy
In less than a decade, the cost of large-scale solar power has fallen by over 85% and onshore wind has fallen by almost 56%.
Bionic eye
Neuroengineers in Spain are working on a camera that transmits electronic signals directly into the brain’s visual cortex.
Extend life
In the United States, scientists have managed to extend the life of worms by 500%.
Artificial intelligence
Cambridge-1, the UK’s most powerful computer, will use AI to hunt for vaccines and medical breakthroughs. Other major advances include driverless cars and language learning.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.