Reasons to be (more) cheerful

For some reason I found myself reading about ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’, that much reproduced woodblock print by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. The review that I was scanning suggested that the picture was one of hope. I am still not so sure, as to me the massive foaming breaker seems just about to topple onto and smash the group of fishing skiffs. Even Mount Fuji, visible in the far distance seems very small and fragile in comparison to the untamed power of the ocean. You could be forgiven for drawing the analogy with the current situation facing humanity globally; instability and uncertainty seem to be a normal part of life, the waxing and waning threat of the pandemic is here to stay and the ever present spectre of climate change present in the background. Hope, it would appear, is in short supply.

If that’s the way things feel it’s not surprising, but take a broader view, as I did when I read some of the proceedings of the digital Smithsonian Earth Optimism Summit 2020 that was held in April. Take a look at areas of progress for global human society and the environment and the gloom starts to recede a bit; I was completely unaware of some of these research statistics which have been collated by UNESCO and (an independent Swedish research foundation established to promote a fact-based worldview). Since 1970 the share of girls of primary age enrolled in school across the world has grown from 65% to 90%. Over the past three decades the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments has more than doubled to over 20%. The share of humanity living on the equivalent of less than $2 per day has fallen from around a half (in 1965)to well below 10%, whilst over the same period the proportion of adults over the age of 15 with basic literacy skills has risen from around 40% to nearly 90%. In contrast to what I had anticipated over 50% of the world’s population now live in democratic societies*, whereas at the end of World War 2 this figure was far, far lower. Over a shorter timescale 85% of people now have some access to electricity; in 1990 this figure was 72%, and of course growth in access to the internet has expanded from nil in 1980 to well over half of the global population now. With information comes power – to improve lives, to drive change and to change societies for the better in all sorts of ways. There were all sorts of other types of progress listed related to the Arts, access to justice, nuclear disarmament, food production and the environment more generally. My eyes were opened and my perspective broadened.

So yes, we are living in difficult times, but hope is not gone. The coronavirus has challenged humanity but the response has been amazing in many cases. Climate change is another challenge, probably more serious still, and there remains much to be done. But I was struck by what Olivia Remes (from the Cambridge Institute of Public Health) wrote for a summit article. She said “and if you feel that all hope is lost, take heart. It’s fine to cry and scream at the injustice of the world. But pick yourself up and move on. Recognise the things that you can control and the things that you can’t, and hope will return. After the wave passes, all of this passes, it allows you to become stronger and more resourceful. Setbacks and challenges in life can make us more resilient. They can strengthen bonds with those around you. You shift the way that you see the world and what is important to you – and unimportant things start to fall away. Your connections with others become more meaningful…” Despite everything, hope remains strong

*a moveable feast, of course!