News of Gloom and Doom

I am sure it happened to many of you as it often happens to me. You open a news channel or website and all you hear or read about is doom and gloom. From one place to the next, stories of murder, death, and suffering succeed each other; it sometimes sounds as if Armageddon is upon us. The same themes of violence and threats are repeated, again and again, to put anyone in a dark and anxious mood. Violence is spreading; talk about diseases like SARS or Ebola that threaten to turn into mass epidemic surface every now and then; people kill each other on ethnic and religious grounds; and people fight each other over economic rights. Politicians play up threats for political gains and media outlets repeatedly trumpet threats of an almost tribal kind, hidden in modern clothing. I have news for you: we live in one of the most secure and prosperous periods in humanity. Whether you measure it in world mortality rate, real GDP per capita, or technology penetration, we are frankly blessed to be living in such prosperous times. In saying this, I am not trying to belittle the tragedy of people today; some people continue to suffer greatly, there are still many injustices in this world, and we have serious risks of regressing to general barbarous and close-minded behaviour. However, in the grand scheme of things, such threats and tragedies have always existed, and their proportion to world population continues to decline. In fact, cardiovascular diseases and lung diseases and infections kill many more today than terrorism and ethnic violence; and outside death by natural causes, road accidents are commonly top of the list. On average, we would have had much greater trouble, economic difficulties, and greater threats to our lives to deal with if we were born a century or two ago. So how can we explain this discrepancy between the dark spirit the news can put us in and the reality of our world affairs?

The answer is likely twofold: (1) Evolutionary; and (2) The result of the combination of greater numbers and lower information barriers. I will not dwell too much on the first; suffice to say that we are biologically predisposed to pay more attention to potential threats to our existence than the good things that happen to us, which we take most of the time for granted. We always want more, and it does not take us much to get alarmed. It is a sort of genetic ‘better-be-safe-than-sorry’ attitude we have.

I would like to focus on the second of these reasons. We live in a world with many more people, and so, with many more human events and affairs than decades ago. In addition, we have the technological capability of reporting anything we want much faster than before and to many more people than before. World population was less than 2 billion at the beginning of the 20th century; it reached 3 billion around 1960; and we are more than 7 billion people in the world today. When you are 7 billion people, you can have more stories of violence than when you are 2 billion, and when you have the technology to transmit information faster, you can report more stories of violence and gloom. And so, if you have a tendency to only report stories of a violent or threatening kind, you will find more stories to report on when you are 7 billion people, even if the percentage of tragedies is on the decline. In this way, you can end up with news filled with sad stories if you wish it to be the case. One of the important roles of media outlets is to report on potential threats and to increase the general public’s awareness about injustices and violence in the world. But diverse news, reflective of the grand picture is also responsible news. The world is much bigger than what is being generally reported, and more is happening in our human affairs. Someone who is looking at the news today may get the impression that all that there is in this world revolves, at any one point in time, around a handful of stories.

The world we live in is a world where hundreds of millions of people of different religions, ethnic backgrounds, orientations, and nationalities live and cooperate peacefully with each other. It is a world of many more joys and much more comfort. It is a world enriched with technology and knowledge. There are economies of billions of people trading with each other and interacting with each other in this tremendous interactive system that is our world economy. And intercultural relationships are probably at their historical high, even in percentage terms. Next time we look at the news, let us not forget that, and let us not have few stories condition our opinion entirely. These stories of tragedies are serious and some require immediate action; what is currently happening in Syria and Iraq, for example, in terms of slaughter, savageness, and wiping out of human heritage is beyond revolting. We should continue to pay great attention to world threats, and our recent history of relative peace is no guarantee of that peace continuing. Things can turn destructive faster than we might realise and this has happened before in history. For instance, few nuclear incidents are enough to change all our peace dramatically. But, whenever we can, we should also take some time to enjoy the peace we may have been blessed with compared with our forefathers. Some of us today may not be as lucky to have such economic or political peace, even if their percentage is decreasing, and some choose to only see the negative side of things; we ought, as a matter of basic empathy, to wish for others the greater peace we might have and be grateful for peace when we have it, rather than constantly being alarmist.

In our modern times, we have a greater challenge of maintaining this bizarre duality of seeing the big picture, which is improving, and continuing to pay attention to multiplying threats and tragedies.