Gratitude

Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love capitalism

We're a pretty ungrateful lot, generally speaking. It may be that we're evolutionarily predisposed to noticing the bad as a catalyst for seeking a more breeding-friendly environment. That works fine as an intrinsic motivator for inter-generational improvement, but our primitive monkey-brains don't seem to cope well with longer term evaluation. I think this leads us to be unduly pessimistic about the future, and dangerously ungrateful.

We live at the best possible time in human history. Up until the 1800s, the vast majority of our race lived on the equivalent of $3/day. The current world average is $30, the average for developed nations around $100. While the poorest are still at that $3 mark, famines are less frequent and less severe, and within a few generations the growth of China and India will pull several billion people out of abject poverty into the truly middle class.

In the "west" we say that we are resource-rich but time-poor. I guess this is based in the romanticized idea we have of the Middle Ages, where people died at 40 after spending their entire existence working just to survive. On $3 a day. Compared to any of our ancestors we are in fact rich by every possible metric, particularly if you look back more than 200 years. The very fact that we have the luxury to worry about how intellectually fulfilling our lives are is a testament to our prosperity.

Other than being a bit depressing, this lack of gratitude and perspective may actually be harming us and our descendants. When we look at only what is wrong with the world it's easy to think that capitalism, individualism and human progress have a lot to answer for. It's easy to think that the whole system needs to be overturned and replaced with something better. But if you look at the massive, mind-blowing progress we've made in human terms over the last 200 years, the problems we're left with seem pretty manageable. If we can raise the average human's standard of living 10 fold in two centuries without any conscious effort, imagine what we can do if we tried. 

If you're not convinced about how much better life is almost everywhere in the world, go and play with gapminder and plot anything you like over the last 200 years. Or just watch this:

It's a good thing that we see the health and welfare disparities in the world and wish to address them. But if we ignore history and throw away the system that has already done so much, we'll setting that cause back immeasurably.

Stats taken from the first chapter of the brilliant Bourgeois Dignity. You can get a free sample, including all of the first chapter, on Amazon.

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