Two compelling cases for optimism

It’s very interesting chatting about the future with people on the road.  There’s such a continuum of views from dire & dismal to bright.  I’m still surprised to find that the optimists’ camp can be a lonely position.

We are always captivated by tales to woe and violence because we have to be – a blasé approach to this is not a great way to stay alive.  Hey, that tiger looks like he needs someone to pet him — I’m sure he’s friendly   But I think that there is a lot more positive trends that are not obviously until looked at critically, objectively and from a distance.  This is where my two of my favorite TED talks come in.


Stephen Pinker’s talk is very interesting.  He notes that the idea of modernity having brought us terrible violence is simply not true when looked at historically.

We are living in the most peaceful time of our species’ existence.

It’s a fascinating talk and well worth a watch.  Having seen so many reminders of the two world wars while in Europe it’s interesting that Pinker notes the death toll from violence in the 20th Century is very high at 100 million people.  Yet, if the prehistorical human death rate from violence was applied to the population at the time it would have been 2 billion people killed.

There has been a lot of press more broadly on crime rather than just violence.  The Economist ran a cover about The Surprising Decline in Crime recently.  It’s complex but a significant driver has been risk/reward.  It’s harder to make off with big loot and a lot easier to get caught.


Another amazing TED is by Peter Diamandis.  He wrote an stellar book with Stephen Kotler of the same name.  Again, he frames the concept within the evolutionary pressure to be attuned to bad news in the familiar guise of if it bleeds; it leads.

One of my favourite take-aways are that, as Diamandis notes,  is that scarcity is contextual and technology is a resource liberating element.  Aluminum at 8% of the earth’s mass used to be the most precious metal in the world until electrolysis, an energy intensive tech, came along and made aluminum so cheap it’s not throw-away.  There are a host of other amazing examples out there, but this is clearly an analogy to the doomsday scenarios about wars and carnage for clean water. The lit review on new energy technologies covered in the book, particularly 3rd and 4th generation nuclear, is eye-opening.  

My other favourite aspect is simply dematerialization.  The entire reaches of human knowledge have vanished into a smartphone.  Also (somewhat at least) vanishing are alarm clocks, flashlights, video cameras, calenders, wrist watches, dictionaries, music players….  Granted it’s not perfect, but the march towards less stuff benefits poorer people the most. There will always be better stand-alone gadgets,  but those living on a phone function can get the job done in at least a basic capacity.  It’s a leapfrogging technology which is very much good news.

Anyway, I do very little justice to either talk, but if you have a grand total of 35 minutes free that will cover both.  I find such media inspiring.  It’s uplifting to glimpse what may be possible in a (better) future.  Certainly progress is no invitation to sit back passively and does not mean ignoring the pressing issues of the day, like political dysfunction, climate change and inequality, but it adds some additional nuance to the debate.

There also has been a rise of individual action.  there seem to be many more people single-handedly bettering the world than in the past.  When I was in Edinburgh I saw the Elephant House cafe where Britain’s (formerly) richest woman, J.K. Rowling, wrote the first Harry Potter.  Why she is no longer holding that position was that she gave away $160 Million to charity in 2012 alone and is thus no longer a billionaire.  People like her — let alone Bill Gates ($28.3 billion) and Warren Buffet ($8.3 billion) do amazing things to make the global community a better place.

It’s still very nuanced.  The political area is perhaps the most challenging environment to navigate.  Many things here are totally inconstant with any sort of optimistic outlook. I had no idea that Ethiopia had gone through it’s own brutal repression in the 1970’s.  It was much like the that of Chile, Argentina or Cambodia in timeframe, horrific methods and scope.  They just opened a museum in 2010, right in Meskel Square in downtown Addis.  It’s a tough one to visit.  It’s called the Red Terror Martyrs Museum.  As an aide, I’m always puzzled by left/right red/black distinction at the political fringes.  It’s less of a continuum than a horseshoe that loops around to dark territory regardless of the prevailing ideology.  Addis’ museum is much like Chile’s Human Rights Museum: open, free and honest.  That may be the only take-away — keeping the past in clear sight is perhaps the only way to hedge against repeating itself.  Pinker would likely conculde that such events are both fewer and more memorable: two positive developments. It puts the Egyptian coup in context — hopefully al-Sisi and his military colleagues have a working familiarity the ways that the past generations’ military coups’ have been disastrous.


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