Sun | Dec 16, 2018

Daniel Thwaites | The best of times

Published:Sunday | October 1, 2017 | 12:00 AM

It is one thing to read that there are seven and a half billion human beings alive now, but that's an abstraction: It really comes home when one sees the multitudes. Famously, if you draw a circle around India, China, and the countries of SE Asia, more people live within that circle than outside it. In terms of world geography, the circle isn't that big. Certainly, while perambulating through South East Asia, one can't help noticing that there are LOTS of people.

It's all a little disturbing for me. Coming from Jamaica, the first thing I wonder about when I see large numbers is where all the water will come from for them to bathe. As is well known, we Jamaicans, at least regarding our persons, are the cleanest people in the world, and don't find it odd at all to bathe - thoroughly - thrice daily.

But if we're talking about the many billions, from whence cometh all the water that will be needed? Not to mention the other concern: since they must use the toilet, where does all that ... stuff ... go? It's staggering to contemplate.

Anyway, perhaps the most common (and mundane) thought I had over there was, "How do people eat that?" while grimacing in some local market and struggling to contain myself. Ever heard of 'balut'? That's when they bury a fertilised duck's egg, allow it to become half-developed, then boil it a very little bit and eat it, crunching away at bones and feathers and beak. My inner dictator decreed that it ought to be banned worldwide immediately. But exploring that is for another time.

Another somewhat more elevated thought, but lower down on the rung of priorities after bathing and food concerns was brought on by a more social concern: "How are we doing?" By that I meant the really, really royal "we"... "we" as in the species.




Now I'm fairly pessimistic, attuned to noticing the suffering, disease and death staining this post-Edenic world. I therefore took note of the vast slums and the choking exhaust from cities crawling with traffic. All the same, there's no denying the obvious: humanity is doing damn well!

Johan Norberg, who has studied this carefully, says the following:

"Despite what we hear on the news and from many authorities, the great story of our era is that we are witnessing the greatest improvement in global living standards ever to take place. Poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, child labour and infant mortality are falling faster than at any other time in human history. ... A child born today is more likely to reach retirement age than his forebears were to live to their 50th birthday."

Other thoughtful people have been weighing in to temper the pessimists. Bill Gates is another proselytiser for the sunny outlook: "It has never been better - more peaceful, prosperous, safe, or just."

They're right. In every meaningful material metric, mankind is flourishing. We eat more and generally eat better. We dress better. We have better access to resources like clean water, electricity, and sanitation. The percentage of the world population living in extreme poverty has been plummeting, and it is now below 10 per cent.

Remember that historically, most people have lived in absolute poverty. It is, for want of a better term, our 'natural' condition. Nowadays, the global technocrats see it as an achievable goal that absolute poverty could be eliminated within a decade or so.

Two hundred years ago, only 12 per cent of the global population was literate; today only 14 per cent is illiterate. Too high for sure! But that's a big change.




There are so many ways of looking at this remarkable progress. In 1924, US President Warren Harding's son died from an infected toe-blister after playing lawn tennis at the White House. I learned this particular fact while reading a fascinating comparison of a lower-middle-class contemporary Americans' life as compared to the life of billionaire John D. Rockefeller a century ago, in which the billionaire's quality of life seems to get the worse of the comparative analysis. In fact, it is by no means clear that a sane person would choose to live 100 years ago, even with Rockefeller's wealth.

Consider this: Back when Queen Victoria was the most powerful monarch on earth, she happened to love her husband, Prince Albert. The love was an oddity, and certainly not a requirement for a successful aristocratic breeding contract.

After 20 years of marriage and nine children, Albert lay dying at age 42 of typhoid fever, which killed one in five people who got it. Albert slipped away into forever, leaving his Queen to mourn for years, and to wear black for the rest of her life. Later on, she was forced to make accommodations for the necessaries with various gallant gentlemen, of course, but Albert was never to be replaced.

But scandalous details aside, what stands out is that just 150 years ago, the most powerful people on earth were helpless if infected by the salmonella bacteria. Nowadays, we walk down to the clinic and get a few antibiotic pills and clear up the mess.

Foremost among the many questions is the mystery of why so many people are still so miserable.

But also, and more important, I think we should pay very careful attention to the conditions that have made this progress and improved living standards possible. Numerous developments owed to the spread of modernism and Western culture. Acknowledging that makes many people uncomfortable, but it doesn't make it any less true.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to