Is this year going to be really bad?
A little historical perspective to start 2024
Greetings from Barcelona—
About a month ago I was feeling pretty overwhelmed and resolved to take a brief break from writing—thus proceeded a pretty significant outburst of creative energy and output.
I was thinking I’d take a break from writing on Substack; instead, I had no trouble publishing new editions throughout the holiday. I thought work on my book of essays might be effectively ground to a permanent halt; instead, I rededicated myself, and am now very close to being done with the first draft.
Meanwhile, ideas for new posts here have been coming fast and furious. Below I take on one of those, namely whether 2024 will be as bad as everyone says.
But first, what explains this creative burst of energy?
I think two things, neither surprising: one, my son left to visit his mom for the winter holiday. He’s a great kid and at age 13 becoming more self-sufficient every day. Still, it’s remarkable how much of my mental bandwidth is taken up just doing the mundane, day-to-day work of single parenting. I honestly cannot imagine how full-time parents of multiple young kids hope to get anything done except hold down a house and job and put some food on the table.
The second thing is that I’ve given myself a break on the renovation. It’s the one, big project I have where progress is kind of out of my control. I’m really not able to visit the property except when my son is off with other family, which is just very rare this year. So, I’m focusing on the things I can do: namely, my consulting business, my creative work, and my Spanish.
It can be really satisfying to find clarity on these kinds of things. And now, onward:
Will 2024 be terrible?
I read a piece the other day, The world should fear 2024.
“Escalation lurks on every battlefield,” according to Aris Roussinos:
When asked in 2020 to envisage the world after Covid, Michel Houellebecq proclaimed, accurately enough, that “it will be the same, just a bit worse.” It does not take a soothsayer to foresee that the same will hold true for this coming year.
Maybe so, and it’s a prediction that has lots of company.
Just today I listened to Niall Ferguson give some pretty dire predictions on Bari Weiss’ Honestly podcast. He thinks China is going to blockade Taiwan like this month, and we are going to find ourselves in a Cuban Missile Crisis-style standoff, with the U.S. playing the role of the USSR trying to run the blockade.
Meanwhile, I know a lot of people are quite distraught about the Israeli war on Gaza, where more than 24,000 people have been killed. It’s almost enough to overshadow the war in Ukraine, where 500,000 have been killed or wounded, and where it now seems Russia might be winning.
Then there’s the impending electoral disaster in the United States, where it’s not hyperbole to say the future of the Republic is at stake, and also election after election country after country with right-wing, nihilistic populists on the rise.
And finally, last year broke all heat records—it’s obvious the world will smash through the 1.5 degrees target that the United Nations set in 2018 as a line we shall not cross in the fight against global warming.
I’m cognizant of all these things.
What the trends say
And yet—I remain an optimist.
And not just about this coming year, but about the future in general.
That might seem naive, or odd, but all you have to do is look at some history. For starters, look at this chart:
You might want to click on it to get the zoomed-in version.
What this chart shows is pretty astonishing—it shows that per capita global deaths from armed conflict have remained pretty stable over the last 600+ years. In fact, since 1600 they’ve waxed and waned with something like regularity.
There was a spike around World War I and World War II, but on a per capita basis even the two world wars were no worse than the 30 Years’ War in terms of overall death.
Then, since the end of World War II, we’ve been on a clear downward trend, until very recently when we see a slight uptick in civilian casualties from conflict, although as you can see the level is still far below the historic per capita death rates.
If you are right now wondering “but wait, how can this be?—the world seems worse than ever, and almost everyone I know agrees!” may I humbly suggest that you haven’t quite grasped (or properly distanced yourself from) the psychological effects of the Internet and the global, 24-hour news cycle.
We live in a world in which every worst thing that happens on any given day is captured, reported on, broadcast, and published to EVERYONE.
Actually: it’s the worst things in the world cross-referenced with the things most likely to make us outraged or upset.
The result is that everyone is frazzled. And often unable to recognize the good.
What is the good?
Progress in one generation
Just before Christmas, I was in Spanish class. We were learning the subjunctive—a special verb conjugation for our hopes, dreams, and wishes for the future. Most of the time if you are saying what you wish for, hope for, or expect to happen, you need to conjugate the verb in the subjunctive.
Thus, we were talking about how we hope the world will be in the future.
Oh man, was there a lot of pessimism in that room.
But I just couldn’t bring myself to join them in their professions of how bad everything was.
Today, I’m going to be the optimist in the room, I said in Spanish. That seemed to defuse some tension. Since I was a kid, there are more than a billion fewer people in poverty than there are today.
I repeated for emphasis: A BILLION. (except in Spanish you say a thousand million).
Here are the relevant numbers from Our World in Data:
When I was 11 years old, 37% percent of the world lived in extreme poverty. Now, it’s less than 10%. That is fucking amazing.
When have we been better off?
I often like to challenge people with data like this, and with other assertions: There has never been a better time in the world to be a woman. Never a better time to be gay. To be trans. To be black.
Or would you prefer to turn back the clock a generation? How about 50 years? A hundred? More? Didn’t think so.
Yet people are generally unwilling to take the wins.
We still have progress to make, they say, and I agree. But take the wins.
And don’t tell me that things are worse than ever. I think mostly they are better than ever. There is much to be grateful for and to look forward to.
Also on the Bari Weiss podcast, economist Tyler Cowen pointed out that we have achieved the mythical “soft landing.”
Remarkably, I think it was the first time I heard someone acknowledge that.
And we have! Everyone predicted a recession. Everyone said that we have never been able to tame inflation without triggering a large rise in unemployment (they were essentially going off a data point of one).
Yet here we are. Every once in a while, government actually gets itself together and does something right, Cowen observed.
Meanwhile, it is possible—even likely—that we are on the cusp of an explosion in scientific breakthroughs, mostly brought about by AI.
We are going to cure disease. We are going to discover new treatments and new medicines. We are going to solve hard problems in physics, which will allow us to continue making cheaper and more abundant clean energy. Electric vehicles are soon going to dominate the world. Information is more accessible than ever—maybe a double-edged sword, but no one can deny that cheap, free, good education is available to more people than ever.
All this explosion in innovation is going to generate economic returns, and those are going to lift even more people out of poverty in more parts of the world.
None of this is to diminish the pain of individual suffering. Suffering might come to any of us, and one day it might come for me. If it does, do what everyone has always done: find purpose, find meaning, find God if you have to.
There will still be horrible things happening every day—nevertheless, the positive trends will continue.
At least, that is my optimist’s take.
One way to undo all of this would be to throw progress under the bus. To decide to hell with it all and elect the egoist nihilists to run the world, and to become nihilists ourselves. To fail to recognize what is staring us right in the face.
How bad it could get
Of course, it is always possible we could go backward. Anyone with a little historical perspective is surely mindful of the capacity for humanity to backslide or worse, to destroy ourselves.
A few months ago, because I was in a somewhat masochistic mood, I decided to watch an old BBC movie called Threads.
I had never seen it, but I was reading about depictions of nuclear holocaust in movies, and Threads kept coming up. “I have never seen anything so horrible and bleak in my life,” said author Stephen Brotherstone.
I’d have to agree.
I watched it by myself, in chunks, unable to do it all in one sitting.
And unless you want horrible images scarred in your mind for life, I recommend you skip it, and instead suffice with this summary: a fictional but very plausible Cold War conflict involving Iran escalates into a limited “tactical” nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Russia, which shortly escalates into a full-blown global nuclear exchange.
The movie takes place in a mid-sized British city close to a NATO installation—it ends with humanity more or less kicked back to the Stone Age: subsistence farming and scraping for survival combined with stillbirths, disease, and deformities from radiation poisoning lasting for generations.
It is brutal and horrifying and holds nothing back and if you really want to see a world in which things have never been worse, I recommend watching the movie. (But again: images scarred in your mind for life.)
So, we should continue to fight for progress. But also keep our historical perspective, and be grateful, and take the wins, and let us not dwell in pessimism. It serves no one. The world is still dangerous in many places, but it has also never been safer and more prosperous.
Will 2024 be horrible? Maybe. But for most of us, probably not, and even if it seems like it is, don’t lose your perspective.
A lot of bad things have happened to us humans, and we’re still here. Doing pretty well actually. Might even start exploring the stars.