People mostly think that the times in which they live are more important than any other time. People have been doing this for quite some time. The first century Jewish historian Josephus bemoaned this aspect of Human nature two thousand years ago2 and since then our egos show no sign of letting us be more objective. Our egos make current events in the world around us seem more significant and cataclysmic than at any time in history. The scientist Lawrence Krauss3 states that "we are hardwired to think that everything that happens to us is significant and meaningful"4. We are, after all, at the centre of our own little universes.
“Remember that people take more interest in their own affairs than in anything else which you can name.”
Academics fall foul of this as much, and probably even more, than the layperson. For example, the sociologist Peter B. Clarke says that "the present age might well be described as an axial age" due to the scope and importance of changes in the current era6. Four sociologists from the Open University staff describe the "contemporary UK" as "a society which appears to almost everyone who lives in it to be in the throes of change"7.
I have never read a historian or social commentator say that they are living through times which are routine. Those who lived through the industrial revolution reported that Humanity was going through its most significant and disastrous change. But now, it is history. It is nothing compared to the telecommunications revolution of the present. Changes which are affecting us in our living lives seem much more important to us than the changes of the past. Once change has passed we no longer experience its importance. It becomes abstract. Changes that affect our own lives are made by our hungry egos into things that must be important for everyone. But future generations will wonder why on Earth we were all so hot under the collar: they will know that their generation lives in the most precarious and important of human times.
Downmarket media publications reflect - and exaggerate - many of the fears of society itself. News outlets have dropped most fact-checking and critical analysis steps in order to churn out news more cheaply and quicker and as a result daft and untrue stories are appearing in mainstream news8,9. There are virtually no checks or quality control mechanisms that newspapers have to adhere to, and, occasional outrages against press misbehaviour are quickly forgotten by paying customers. The purpose of it all is (1) sell more newspapers, or (2) influence public opinion. People are all too willing to believe exaggerated claims. People want their lives to be part of historical drama. The millennium bug, worldwide pandemics, moral panics and fear that society is going wrong all betray humankind's neophobic reactions to progress and change. Newspaper editors pick on this fear and concoct alarmist stories from everyday events and statistics; for example they publish alarmist articles on dangers from mobile phone masts even though there are none, and there are almost no good-news stories about children despite massively improved circumstances10. Many editors and media owners have explained the usefulness of fear-mongering and sensationalism - it certainly sells more copy than balanced news. Fears become amplified and made more real by their appearance in headlines, creating a hysteria about a topic whereas in reality things are much more mundane and acceptable11. Professional broadcaster Fraser McAlpine says "news outlets are behaving like spoof sites, and they're making spoof sites look like sensible news" and people are finding it harder to tell the difference12. Modern newspapers and news outlets are producing low quality, misleading and untrue stories because they are driven by consumers who prefer entertainment, gloom and outrage rather than serious text of reasonable reading. Always remember that after thousands of hyped-up press warnings, on midnight of the 31st of December 1999, nothing happened.13
It is very common for our egos to convince us that now, around us, are unfolding changes which are more important than those of any other time. We think that we are witness to the ultimate decline of Human society and that brooding and significant upset awaits on the horizon. It seems to be a universal, negative human apprehension that we think we have noticed this coming catastrophe even while many others carry on regardless.
“[The] media emphasizes the negative and pessimistic side of events and therefore creates perceptual crises of faith where no real crises exists.”
"Global Trends 2005" by Michael J. Mazarr11
Professional sociologists have provided us with a long history of dire warnings. Ordinary folk also perceive that their own areas of interest are going through especially tumultuous times. For example, the children's worker Johann Christoph Arnold (2014)14 says "Teaching has probably never been as difficult as it is now. [...] We live in difficult times and many people have lost their joy in life. [We witness many] gloomy statistics and dire warnings for the future of our society and its children"15.
Here are some more warnings, working backwards in time from the present. Bill Emmott in "The Fate of the West" (2017)16 says we are going through times of pessimism and disintegration of alliances. Before him, Alvin Toffler, an "influential political and cultural theorist... saw the 1980s and 1990s as a period of immense and cataclysmic change"17. A few decades earlier, the great economist Joseph A. Schumpeter18 warned at length about the collapse of capitalism as a result of its insurmountable issues:
“The present generation of economists has witnessed not only a world-wide depression of unusual severity and duration but also a subsequent period of halting and unsatisfactory recovery.”
Historian and public intellectual Gerald Heard thought the same about general humanity. He wrote:
“No one can look at civilization to-day without the liveliest concern. That is a truism - a truism so painfully obvious that we have ceased to be able to respond to it. We turn impatiently away - away to our pleasures or our preoccupations, our amusements or our causes.”
Publishing in 1918 and 1923, Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West stated that European-American culture is now due to slip into decline and, ultimately, to be replaced21. Although all such warnings do eventually come true, because no civilisation lasts forever, it seems that the concentration on current problems makes it hard to see the sources of resourceful adaption and survival, which it seems, cause consistently unpredictable resilience22 in Human cultures. One hundred years later, we're all still here.
And so back in history it continues. As long as we have written about current events, we have written that things are worse than ever. The ancient Dao De Jing is traditionally said to be authored by Lao Zi. He was convinced that civilisation itself was a mistake, which had diverted people from the Dao (true way) and people had become unethical as a result. "Laozi looked back to a Golden Age of agrarian simplicity, when people lived in small villages with no technology, no art or culture, and no war". The solution to the problems of Lao Zi's time was, he argued, to abandon the goal-directed ethos of civilisation, and therefore find The Way, and rediscover how things ought to be. Needless to say, not many sociologists have gone that far in their warnings against modern society.23
“This is the most important time in history. Now I imagine that every generation before ours would say that [...] but this time it is really true, ok, honest! Now - it really is.”
Jonathan Foley (2012)24
End-of-the-world-mania is dependent upon certain properties of human ego. We want to witness important historical times, and we want to be at the fore and center of tumultuous and attention-grabbing events. There have been thousands of end-of-the-world predictions. They have been the products of many great minds and have had many devoted believers from various religions and cults. For example in Christian England alone, during the reformation, "eighty books were published on the subject of the world's end"25. All have put a lot of time and effort in to each and every prediction, building up supporting evidence from religious texts, historical trends and numerology. What do all these predictions have in common about the end of the world? They have all been wrong. Those promoting these fears, and those subject to them, are all in the grips of their own ego!
To say that "the question of the EU's long-term survival has frequently been raised"26 is a mild way of phrasing it: Every decade has seen a series of doom-laden prophesies from academics and professionals of every calibre, declaring that the project towards institutional European integration is at the end of its life. "Many expected the dissolution of the EC in the 1970s and there was much guesswork as to who would leave first"27. In the 1980s, academics "warned about the possible disintegration of the EEC and even leading members of EC institutions openly spoke of the dismal state that Europe was in. [In] 1982, the president of the European Parliament compared the Community to a 'feeble cardiac patient whose condition is so poor that he cannot even be disturbed by a birthday party'"28. After that dismal diatribe, the pronouncements continued throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. In 2005 the veteran politician Jean-Claude Juncker said "the EU is not in crises: it is in deep crisis"29. From 2016, Brexit is said to be the latest cause of the imminent disintegration of the EU30,31 amongst other reasons31. A 2017 book The European Union in Crisis32 states that the death-tolls have been sounded so frequently that many people under-estimate the seriousness of the current crises - which is, yet again, the most serious yet33. The EU is always in crises, just like crime is always getting worse, immigrants more dastardly, the weather deteriorating and employment evaporating34.
In reality the psychological effects of the ego, placing oneself at the centre of a cataclysm where the (perceived) most important events are occurring, is the cause of the EU crises.
“By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been. People are living longer, healthier lives. Extreme poverty rates have been cut in half in the past 25 years. Child mortality is plunging. Many nations that were aid recipients are now self-sufficient.”
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (2014)35
Crime rates are falling, large scale wars have apparently ceased to occur and other forms of violence are mostly decreasing36,37. From 1990 and 2015, "more than 1 billion people escaped extreme poverty"38. Literacy has been rising for hundreds of years, and technology and medical science are making astounding strides in preventing diseases (many of which are now gone for good). We are living longer38, and healthier, lives.39. Absolutely nothing is as bad as people say. The press thrive on bad news. Our egos trick us into thinking we are living in the most important times during our own lives. We're not. Those times are yet to come. The end is yet to come. Just remember to take a leaf from the British: Keep Calm, and Drink Tea.
“Progress in human development has been impressive over the past 25 years. People now live longer, more children are in school and more people have access to basic social services. [... From 1990 to 2015] more than 1 billion people escaped extreme poverty, 2.1 billion gained access to improved sanitation and more than 2.6 billion gained access to an improved source of drinking water [and] the global under-five mortality rate was more than halved. [...] The global net loss of forested areas fell from 7.3 million hectares a year... to 3.3 million during 2010-2015. [...] Gender equality and women´s empowerment are now mainstream dimensions of any development discourse. [Taboos are slowly opening for discussion including] discriminations faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people; and female genital mutilation and cutting. Awareness of sustainability has been growing. The 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement on climate change are prime examples.”
“The 21st century has witnessed great progress in living standards, with an unprecedented number of people around the world making a "great escape" from hunger, disease and poverty [alongside] dramatic improvements in ... infant mortality rates.”
One recurring comment is made by Jeremy Paxman at the annual finales of University Challenge, a quiz show that pits two seemingly omnipotent teams of University students against each other in a test of knowledge and cognitive ability: After presenting the trophy, he proudly declares that the teams have "demonstrated yet again that all this stuff about young people not knowing things is RUBBISH!"40. Clearly, despite the internet, mass entertainment and the many other ailments of modern society, our youth are still able to excel.
Even before the modern era of explicit human rights, tolerance and enforced avoidance of prejudice, things were getting better culturally. Although political and societal failings were about to make things much worse in an era where there were too few co-operative strands holding countries together, Schumpeter wrote the following in 1942 describing the developing positiveness of much of Western culture:
“There never was so much personal freedom of mind and body for all, never so much readiness to bear with and even to finance the mortal enemies of the leading class, never so much active sympathy with real and faked sufferings, never so much readiness to accept burdens, as there is in modern capitalist society; and whatever democracy there was, outside of peasant communities, developed historically in the wake of both modern and ancient capitalism.”
Warning against the spectre of the divisive and destructive kind of nationalism that has reared up against in several Western countries in the last 2010s, Bill Emmott finds reason to sound a positive note:
“Open societies often think they are in crisis, shortly before finding their escape route from it. [...] There is ample cause for optimism. Our record, as Western countries, of confounding our own doubters and of dealing with our own demons, should give us confidence that once again this fight can be won.”
“[Today] you will read about a shocking act of violence. Somewhere in the world there will be a terrorist bombing, a senseless murder, a bloody insurrection. It's impossible to learn about these catastrophes without thinking, "What is the world coming to?". Believe it or not, the world of the past was much worse. Violence has been in decline for thousands of years, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species.”
Steven Pinker (2011), Wall Street Journal36
This decline in violence is apparent not just recently, and not just in the modern era: it occurs over a timescale of hundreds and thousands of years. Professor Steven Pinker, who is the strongest proponent of this good news (based on long-term statistical analysis), states that "from the Middle Ages to the present, at least in England, there has been a thirty-five-fold decrease in the rate of homicide"37. Pinker divides this humanitarian victory into stages: the first main decline in violence occurred as nations emerged with central governance, taking over from tribal rulerships.
“Forensic archeology - a kind of "CSI: Paleolithic" - can estimate rates of violence from the proportion of skeletons in ancient sites with bashed-in skulls, decapitations or arrowheads embedded in bones. And ethnographers can tally the causes of death in tribal peoples that have recently lived outside of state control. [...] These investigations show that, on average, about 15% of people in prestate eras died violently, compared to about 3% of the citizens of the earliest states.”
Steven Pinker (2011)36
“The second decline of violence was a civilizing process that is best documented in Europe. Historical records show that between the late Middle Ages and the 20th century, European countries saw a 10- to 50-fold decline in their rates of homicide.”
Steven Pinker (2011)36
Another improvement occurred since the enlightenment-era concentration on individual human rights, alongside the increase in good and balanced governance that is based on rules of law, not on individual power. "A growing wave of countries abolished blood sports, dueling, witchhunts, religious persecution, absolute despotism and slavery"36.
Since World War II there has been an unprecedented period of peace. Before it, for example, there were non-global wars between European countries every year. "Though it's tempting to attribute the Long Peace to nuclear deterrence, non-nuclear developed states have stopped fighting each other as well. Political scientists point instead to the growth of democracy, trade and international organizations - all of which, the statistical evidence shows, reduce the likelihood of conflict. They also credit the rising valuation of human life over national grandeur - a hard-won lesson of two world wars"36.
The news will continue to show us all the bad stuff because although no news is good news, they have to show something! This can make it hard to appreciate the statistical facts that violence and violent deaths have been declining. Because it is not very exciting and hard to turn it into a story (unlike a murder), few news outlets can adopt the "things are continually getting better" motif as opposed to the "everything is going wrong" motif. The former gives people little to get their teeth stuck into, whereas dramatic news lets people rant and rave about how, right now, during their own lives, important things are happening that must be resisted and shouted about. It's all about the ego.