Back to List

Health Advice
by Dr. Weiss

May 1, 2018
Are we better off now than we were a decade or century ago? Do we have cause for doom and gloom or should we be optimistic and celebratory?

“Everyone is entitled to one’s own opinion but not one’s own facts,” as Senator Daniel Monahan sagaciously stated when referencing politics in a different era.  But today, even with all the divisiveness, dissention, and distrust, a case can be made that overall we are better off now than ever before in human history according to a recent Wall Street Journal article by Steven Pinker entitled “The Enlightenment Is Working.”

Consider these improvements that compare thirty years ago to today, even considering the increase in population and complexity of society:

11% then and now 3% below the poverty line as measured by consumption

8.5 then and now 5.3 per 10,000 homicide rate

20 million tons then and now 4 million tons of spewed sulfur dioxide

34.5 tons then and now 20.6 tons of particulate pollution

23 wars raged then and now 12

3.4 per 100,000 killed in wars then and now 1.2 per 100,000

60,780 nuclear weapons then and now 10,325

45 democracies then with 2 billion people and now 103 with 4.1 billion people

46 oil spills then and now 5 in 2016

37% in extreme poverty then and now 9.6%

440 deaths from terrorism then and now 238

Life expectancy has increased markedly from about 30 years on average in the 19th century up to 81 years currently in the developed world.  Notably, Collier County has the longest life expectancy in America at 83.4 years, which has increased over the past two years.

Until the late 1700s a third of the children born in the wealthier parts of the world died before age five.  Now, less than 6% of children born in the poorest countries die before age five.  Infectious diseases including smallpox and polio are almost eradicated. 

Catastrophic famine, extreme poverty, and epidemic spread of fatal illnesses are almost non-existent except in war-torn, previously impoverished regions.  We are all interconnected with digital communication that creates transparency, subsequently encouraging the transfer of resources from the rich to the poor. 

Wealth and income inequity persist as outlined in March’s “Life in Naples,” pages 46-47. http://lifeinnaples.net/magazinewp/2018/02/22/march-2018-life-naples-magazine-flipbook/

However, the support of the severely impoverished is better now with the richer countries spending about 25% of their wealth to care for the poor, elderly, and disadvantaged children versus more than a century ago when only 1% was shared this way.

Most “poor” people today have cell phones and have internet access.  Amazon just extended Amazon Prime to citizens on Medicaid who comprise 20% of our nation and are typically close to or below the poverty line. 

We are also becoming safer.  Americans are 96% less likely to be killed in an auto accident, 88% less likely run over, 99% less likely to die in a plane crash, 59% less likely to fall to their deaths, 92% less likely to die by fire, 90% less likely to drown, 92% less likely to be asphyxiated, and 95% less likely to be killed on the job, all according to Steven Pinker’s Wall Street Journal Article. 

Richer countries are typically safer.  Poorer countries usually get safer as they get richer.  Homicides kill more people than wars.  Nationally, our homicide rates are falling but are still worse than in the rest of the world, a fact that contradicts the typical wisdom just shared that richer countries are safer.  Elsewhere, homicide is 30% less likely.

Today more than 55% of the world’s population live in democratic countries compared to two centuries ago when less than 1% of the world’s people enjoyed democracy.  Human rights have improved, laws perpetuating discrimination have diminished, and violence against women, children, and minorities continues to decline although sadly persists. 

Literacy across the world is up to 85% from two centuries ago when only 12% could read.  We are smarter than ever before because we can read, store information, and interact much more cognitively.  In fact, IQ combined with emotional intelligence perpetuates a learning environment that will further enhance progress while improving our standard of living.

Why are we making progress?  We have been in the scientific age for almost two hundred years.  Granted, the last fifty have accelerated progress, and the acceleration is quickening.  No longer is dogma or antiquated reasoning acceptable.  Rational, fact based, truth-seeking institutions in general have become successful and accepted.  Nonetheless, a wide range of veracity and beliefs can and should be challenged.

The change is not linear, but with time truth wins out.  Certain diseases have been decimated by sanitation, antibiotics, vaccines, and basic hygiene.  Food supply has become stable with scientific farming techniques including crop rotation and improved fertilizers.  Poverty, still a problem, is being attacked by social programs addressing imbedded multi-generational traditions along with education and other economic incentives to break the cycle.

Safety is being designed into buildings, cars, and society in general.  Technology is disruptive and beneficial when used to improve safety and the standard of living.  Commerce improves everyone’s standards, whereas the disruption of war has the dual negatives of burning up resources and interfering with business.

Being accurate, assessing correctly, staying open-minded, and remaining positive are all facilitating characteristics for societal progress.  On an individual basis, being optimistic may actually improve health and extend life.

Our entire planet is better now, although we still have room for improvement.  Currently, we have fewer pollutants, less spilled oil, more natural preserves, fewer cleared forests, and perhaps have peaked on our consumption of oil, coal, timber, and farmland.   

“Seeing the glass half-full, not half-empty,” is better for the world, our nation, Southwest Florida, and all of us.