Miles Stephenson: In 2019, let's celebrate humanity

Tuesday, January 8, 2019 - 7:03pm

Scroll through the average news or social media feed and you’ll see exclamations about the end of times. Whether a claim about the incoming nuclear war, Trumpmania and the fall of democracy, or an indictment of children’s overconsumption of technology, many seem to be up in arms about the state of the world in 2019. But how bad are things truly? And how does the world today compare to the world just a few generations ago?

Surely if the world was nearing apocalyptic standards we would see an increase in negative statistics, particularly in the youth of today. As the sample of the population that would be most likely to reflect the consequences of modern societal changes, we should see an increase in violence or drug use or hateful demonstrations among today’s youth if the panic were to be believed. This, however, is the opposite of reality. Today, teens are using less drugs and alcohol than the generations that came before them, having less unprotected sex and are exercising more, reflecting an unprecedented societal consciousness about physical well-being. Despite the sensationalist media coverage, gun violence is far lower now than in 1993 (a whopping 49 percent decrease), teens are less likely to bring weapons to school, and teens are less likely to fight at school. Teens are also more proficient in writing and mathematics, more likely to wear seatbelts and less likely to experience hate comments. As the news website Vox puts it, “today’s teenagers are the best-behaved generation on record.” So where does this massive concern for the “smartphone” generation come from? Some experts point to "juvenoia," or the exaggerated fear of the effects of social change on youth, as the root cause. Michael Stevens, a popular American educator, explains this phenomenon. “Children are the future of the species, so it's reasonable to assume that nature would select for features in a species that cause adult members to prefer the way they were raised and distrust anything different. After all, parents by definition, were a reproductive success for the species; they made new members. So whatever choices and influences brought them to that point must have been good enough. Any deviation from that could be a problem.”

But perhaps these seismic crises must be viewed from a worldwide perspective, not just from the well-being of the newest generations. From this standpoint, however, nearly every positive statistic about human life has increased as well. Around the globe, life expectancy has doubled since 1800. In the next three decades, more people will receive formal education than in all of human history up to this point, and everywhere people are earning three times more than they did in 1950. World Resources Institute reports that “Worldwide, the number of people living on less than $1 per day-the international standard for extreme poverty-has dropped from 1.25 billion in 1990 to 986 million in 2004,” and even countries in states of extreme privation today have lower infant mortality rates than the most successful, safe countries in 1950. Since the dawn of humans, inequities have persisted, and it is unlikely that we will ever eradicate them from society. That said, the general standard of living has improved for the average person. Those that would have once been relegated to famine and homelessness in a past society can now enjoy experiences that would have been viewed as luxuries for most of history. As the Heritage Foundation reports, “The typical poor household, as defined by the government, has a car and air conditioning, two color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player, and a VCR.” This point is made not to belittle the woes of those struggling with poverty, but instead to show how far the definition of what it means to be “poor” in the world has improved. This revolution is largely from contributions in science and medicine from countries like the United States and from institutions dedicated to the improvement of mankind including the University of Michigan.

Even when looking at the state of the environment, a realm of news saturated with doomsday predictions, the prevalence of the six major pollutants – carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone and PM2.5 – in the atmosphere has fallen dramatically. Furthermore, carbon emissions in the United States have decreased steadily since the 1940s and the biggest trend of 2018, “The Straw Ban,” helped introduce the issue of plastic pollution in our oceans to the public imagination. This isn’t to say the environment faces no ecological issues. There’s a long road ahead for humans in their struggle to manage the health of the planet and to mitigate the effects of climate change, but I believe no solution will be met before we consider an appropriate appreciation for how technology and the Internet has helped us make things better.

The quality of life on Earth is increasing every day, and nearly every statistic available argues that there is no better time for a human to exist on our planet than this very moment. And yet, this apocalyptic thinking endures. For most of history, this kind of thinking would have been appropriate, as disease, famine, oppression and suffering plagued the majority of humans. But in 2019, I believe we need to update our outlook. I’m not advocating for blind positivity, nor the lack of appropriate criticism when corruption or the misallocation of resources occurs. Instead, as I reflect on the coming of the new year, I advocate for an appreciation of the unprecedented well-being of mankind and the role technology and medicine have played in improving life on our planet. Research and educational institutions like the University must continue to do their part in improving humanity, but it’s OK, from time to time, to stand back and marvel at the genius of the modern world.

Miles Stephenson can be reached at mvsteph@umich.edu.