Author: Georgina Barrick
For the first time ever, I ended the year feeling slightly negative.
This is unusual for me as I generally don't do negativity. As the year turns, I'm normally upbeat and looking forward to the challenges and opportunities that a new year brings.
I even chuckled wryly at a meme that I saw which read:
Jan 1st: New decade going fairly well (all things considered)
Jan 2nd: Australia appears to be on fire
Jan 3rd: World War 3 announced
As we enter the 2020's, the news is so full of disaster and gloom that it's hard not to feel a bit anxious...
The global economy is at risk. Our planet is under severe strain (fires, flooding, plastic in our seas).
In South Africa, our flagging economy (hampered by a bloated public sector, struggling SOE's, loadshedding, the threat of land redistribution and a looming downgrade), youth unemployment, the effects of state capture, the dire state of our Education system and food security – the list seems endless.
No matter where you look, things appear getting worse. At face value, we're in rapid decline, leaving many feeling that we're definitely worse off than we've been before.
Or are we?
Yes, globally and locally, we face severe challenges. And, yes, these challenges need to be acknowledged so that solutions can be found. Many will require sustained change (and bravery) to overcome. We know that we have a long road ahead of us.
And yet, herein lies the paradox…
In reality, we are currently living through the greatest improvement in human living standards in history. We're better off than we've ever been – not worse.
Take a moment to think about the following:
- South Africa's GDP is 2.5 times the size it was in 1994.
- Stock markets boomed in 2019 – with the S&P500 delivering gains of 28%. In the nearly 60 years between 1960 and 2019, South African markets delivered real returns of 8% - while US markets delivered 7%.
- South African banks ranks 37th (out of 137 countries) in the World Economic Forum's Soundness of Banks index.
- Formal housing increased by 131% between 1997 and 2016 (albeit, I acknowledge, off a low base).
- Between 1999 and 2016, new HIV infection rates dropped by 60%. South Africa has the largest ARV programme in the world, which has contributed to an increase in life expectancy (61.5 years (men) and 67.7 years (women) - up from 56.5 and 61.2 years in 2010).
- According to the United Nations, an unprecedented number of people are escaping poverty, hunger and disease. In fact, the number of people globally who are living in extreme poverty fell from 18.2% to 8.6% between 2008 and 2018.
- Incidences of malaria in Africa declined by almost 60% between 2007 and 2017.
- A vaccine for Alzheimer's is almost ready for human trials.
- Thanks to efforts by conservationists, the population of wild tigers in Nepal has almost doubled in the last 9 years.
- In California, the world's smallest fox has been removed from the Endangered Species list
- In Germany, recent figures show that more than 300 000 refuges have now found jobs.
- The Humpback whale population is now around 25 000 (which is almost 93% of the population size before they were hunted to the brink of extinction).
- Dolphins are breeding in the Potomac river for the first time since the 1800's.
- In Ethiopia, 353 million trees were planted in a 12-hour period to claim a Guinness World Record.
I could go on …….
Of course, not everything is going in the right direction - but I'm a 'glass half full' kind of person.
So, how is it, with so many advances, we are fed only bad news stories?
Firstly, bad things will still happen - even as we progress globally.
Then, there's is the human phenomenon of Declinism – the belief that society/ our country/ the world is in decline, that we're 'worse off than we've ever been' and that things are unlikely to get any better (even in the face of evidence to the contrary).
Declinism brings interesting psychological factors into play, like.
- The 'Reminiscence Bump': As we age, we tend to remember our strong, vibrant youth with fondness and nostalgia, leading to a belief that the world was a better place (particularly in contrast to later life).
- The Positivity Effect: As we get older, we remember and place more emphasis on positive emotions, over negative – the 'rose-tinted glasses' effect.
- Negativity Bias: When our survival feels under threat in the present, we start to give more weight to negative events, overestimating current threats, while undervaluing opportunity and resources (which is why we perceive things to be worse than they've ever been).
- Confirmation Bias: When we only seek out facts that support our preset world view, leading us to reject anything that casts doubt on our belief and focus only on what we want the truth to be, we're guilty of confirmation bias (aka 'wishful thinking').
We have experienced declinism before.
Remember South Africa prior to the 1994 elections, when many were stockpiling food or packing for Perth. In America in the 1950's, the success of the Soviet's Sputnik space programme had Americans feeling that they were falling behind and currently in the UK, a belief that the UK was being held back by Europe, led many Britons to vote for Brexit.
The antidote to declinism is cold hard fact, truth and making space for alternative viewpoints.
This year, I'm going to work hard to seek out alternative views, look beyond the headlines and shore up my curiosity, pragmatism and hope. I'm also going to focus on being positive because as Professor Tom Lodge once said, 'One has to be optimistic about South Africa because to be pessimistic does not bear thinking about'.
May this be a year of positive growth for us all.