The United States Congress building in Washington DC. AP Photo / Gemunu Amarasinghe)
Has the world entered a period of unusual turbulence, or does it just feel that way?
Looking at the headlines, it’s easy to conclude that something is wrong.
A protester shouts anti-government slogans at the protest site outside Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office three days after being stormed by anti-government protesters in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photo by AP / Eranga Jayawardena.
Shortage of cereals in the world.
Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Political and economic collapse in Sri Lanka.
The assassination of a former prime minister a Japan.
And, in the United States: inflation, mass shootings, a showdown on January 6 and the collapse of the right to abortion.
This feeling of chaos it can be difficult to square with long-term data showing that, on many parameters, the world as a whole is to improve.
War is rarer today, by some measures, than it has been for most of the past 50 years, and when it does occur, it is significantly less deadly.
The genocides and mass atrocities they are also becoming less common.
Life expectancy, literacy and standard of living are rising, on average, to record levels.
Also constantly decreasing:
hunger, infant mortality and extreme poverty, freeing hundreds of millions of people from what are, in absolute numbers, among the main threats facing humanity.
So why does it often seem that, despite all the data, things do they only get worse?
There are a few reasons for this apparent disparity, some more reassuring than others, not to mention an important measure:
the state of democracyso the world is not getting any better.
Subtle gains versus obvious crises
The ways the world is improving most significantly tend to be gradualdeveloping over the generations.
Hundreds of millions could live healthier and safer lives than their parents.
But those often subtle changes will lift entire societies at once, making it difficult for people to notice the change.
We tend to judge how we are doing with respect to those around us, or with respect to our recent past, not with respect to abstract landmarks or previous generations.
And many of the positive changes have to do with prevention.
nobody notices it wars that don’t happen, of family members who are not victims of disease, of children who do not die in infancy.
However, try visiting a company in crisis, for example, Hong Kong in the midst of intrusive authoritarianism, or Lebanon in economic free fall, and telling people that we live in an era of rising prosperity and elusive threats.
Chances are you will encounter surprising looks.
And thanks to the Internet, with a much greater consumption of news than before, even those who live far from crises now live in a digital world of continuous and terrible updates.
You can hear an important story, like a mass shooting or the war in Ukraine always present in our lives.
If your social media feeds and home screens show a steady stream of calamities, they can fuel an overwhelming, albeit sometimes out of place, sense of threatas if the world itself was collapsing.
When people express that they feel like the world is falling apart, they are not talking about long-term parameters such as life expectancy.
Rather, they tend to feel that humanity is defeated unrest and emergencies at a level that has never been before.
But there is an argument, albeit one that consoles only an economist, that today’s crises are rarer and less serious even than those of the recent past.
Consider the mid-1990s, a time Americans tend to remember as a time of global stability and optimism.
If today were truly a time of exceptional upheaval, then surely that world would look better in comparison.
In fact, the opposite is true.
In the mid-90s there were genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia.
Years of war in Europe in the collapse of Yugoslavia.
devastating famines in Sudan, Somalia and North Korea.
Civil wars in more than a dozen countries.
Repression and coups too numerous to mention.
Such events were, in fact, more common in the 1990s than they are today.
The previous decades have been, in many ways, even worse.
But you are unlikely to remember all the disasters that happened decades ago as vividly as you could tell, for example, a terrorist attack or a political crisis this week.
And the reduction of these crises has only reduced the problems of the world, it has not eliminated them.
Nobody wants to rejoice in a famine that is less severe than it could have been in the past, especially the families it puts at risk, and especially knowing that future conflicts or climate crises can always cause another.
However, the feeling that the world is getting worse isn’t universal.
In fact, it is mostly in the hands of residents of rich countries like the United States.
Polls after polls found that most people in low- and middle-income countries like it Kenya or Indonesia tend to express optimism about the future, both for themselves and for their companies.
These countries make up the majority of the world’s population, suggesting that optimism is, believe it or not, the prevailing global norm of mood.
These countries, after all, are the places where the long-term gains in health and well-being are greatest pronounced.
Many of these regions also experienced decades of civil strife and unrest during the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union treated them as battlefields, supporting despots and rebels.
But these same polls also tend to find that in rich countries the majority of respondents express pessimism about the future.
Much of this could be due to economic mobility, rather than global headlines.
People in low-income countries tend to believe that they will be better off financially in the future, while people in rich countries consider it unlikely.
But about pessimism Personal circumstances of one can easily become pessimistic about the world.
Polls in the United States have found that people who see little hope for personal financial progress also feel the country as a whole is deteriorating and disapprove of political leaders.
The erosion of safe jobs for the working class, as manufacturing workers flee overseas and trade unions weaken, is believed to have accelerated much of the Western populist reaction.
Unsurprisingly, from this perspective, Americans viewed the 1990s as a time of global peace and prosperity, even though it was primarily a time of peace and prosperity for Americans.
But stagnant economic fortunes aren’t the only cause for pessimism in rich countries.
Of all the metrics that show steady improvement in the world, there is one that the world really has to deal with dramatic and destabilizing erosion:
An era of democratic decline
For seven decades, the number of countries considered to be democratic has grown.
The average quality of these democracies – fairness in elections, the rule of law and the like – has also steadily improved.
However, that increase began to decline about 20 years ago.
And for five or six years, researchers have found that the number of democracies in the world has been reduced for the first time since World War II.
Existing democracies are also becoming less democratic, more polarized and more prone to political dysfunction or total collapse.
Consider the rise of strongman rule in Hungary, Philippines or Russiaattacks on courts in PolandHindu extremism in Indiafears of a power cling Brazil.
These can be particularly serious cases, but they are the forefront of a global trend.
The same is true of the United States, a country widely described by democracy observers as being in a phase of a sustained erosion.
As richer countries are more likely to be democratic, they are more likely to be affected by this trend.
This may speak to the growing pessimism in those countries.
It can also help explain why, to Americans, it may seem that the world as a whole is falling apart.
For Americans who have spent most of their lives in a secure and stable society, the transition to a seemingly never-ending political crisis is destabilizing.
It can make the world seem darker and scarier, which can also make you feel more distant events scary or more annoying.
People naturally look for role models in the world.
Experience something once, especially if that experience is traumatic, and you will start seeing it everywhere.
For Americans who have suddenly tuned in to say, internal threats of election theft or civil unrest, similar events taking place overseas will suddenly be heard. much more visceral.
This can add up.
A handful of distant crises that Americans might have dismissed as unrelated 30 years ago may, today, seem connected.
It might even seem like evidence of a global collapse.
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