There is a tendency in human nature to see the present moment as worse than the past and that things are going steadily downhill. We seem to have an instinct for overemphasizing gloom and doom while downplaying the positive.
The ancient Greeks believed they lived in the Age of Iron, and that the Ages of Gold, Silver, and Bronze were in the past, never to be recovered. If you listen to the climate doomsayers, temperatures are heading up, up, up! A few years ago, we were running out of oil and gas, now the US is entering a period of fossil fuel self-sufficiency, and may even become a net exporter of energy by the end of the current decade.
There is supposedly an old Chinese saying, “May you live in interesting times.” Given my observations, it would appear that all times are trying, if not interesting. This is why it’s essential to look at our situation with a critical eye, to see the negative, but also the positive, the threats and risks, but also the opportunities and potential rewards. It is the only antidote to gloom and doom.
Luckily, there are books that show how fortunate we are to be living in the present moment, and that things, believe it or not, appear to be getting steadily better. The Rational Optimist, by Matt Ridley, shows how civilization and human learning have progressed—though in fits and starts—throughout history, and that we are currently living longer and better than ever before. Written in 2010, he devotes a whole chapter to the current ‘pessimisms,’ notably the situation of Africa.
What we are seeing in Africa however is that it is finally entering the modern age, though not without difficulties. One sign of this growth is the progress of business and education. As but one illustration, Bombardier Aerospace is planning to open a sales office in Johannesburg, because the company sees opportunity and fabulous growth where most see gloom and doom and endless misery. A further example of African development is that IQs have been growing by leaps and bounds for the last few decades, and are finally catching up to those in the developed world. This shows that education, improved nutrition, and health care are contributing to massive human development.
In Abundance, Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler show that currently envisaged technologies and techniques will continue to make life better and longer into the foreseeable future. Of course, this depends on maintaining the current rates of discovery as well as political, economic, and social freedom. The one specter that everyone rightly fears is war and violence. After more than 10 years of the War on Terror, thousands of more people have died, and there seems to be no end in sight.
This may be the case, but as Steven Pinker argued in his masterful The Better Angels of Our Nature, the world is more peaceful and non violent now than it has ever been in history. To those who think that our ancestors lived in an idyllic past of peace and comfort, archeology, anthropology, ethnology, and history have shown that people were just as likely to die violently in the past as to die of so called natural causes. Pinker shows, with ample statistics, graphs, and other hard evidence, that the human species has been growing progressively more peaceful, tolerant, and perhaps even more intelligent.
All of these conditions represent more opportunities and lesser threats. The risks and rewards we face are increasingly non vital. In other words, our mistakes are less likely to lead to illness, physical injury, and death. Conversely, our rewards are more likely to be ‘philosophical’ and lead to self-fulfillment and self-actualization.
This is the business environment today. Yes, we have to be on the lookout for threats and risks of all kinds. But we live in an age when we have the time and wherewithal to identify and combat these with savvy risk management and contingency planning. But this kind of ‘negative’ planning can only protect us, and keep us in defensive mode. We must have an offensive mindset, looking for the opportunities for growth, investment, and development.
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