What is this that invariably happens to us as we get older? Why do we start talking about the better atmosphere, the better morals and the better humans we had when we were young? I refute this theory on two counts, the first and the most important is I hate referring my youth in past tense – I am young. My mind says so and I believe my mind more than anyone else. My ideas and ambitions have not deserted me yet, my quest for the unknown remains alive and my thirst for the new remains un-quenched. The second is I do not think the days gone by were better than today and I am convinced that tomorrow and the day after will be even better.
When you talk about ‘good old days’, what was exactly good about them? What was "good" about polio, small pox, the cold war with nuclear attack drills, the Vietnam or Indo-China war, racial segregation and gender discrimination, Indira and Rajiv’s assassination, paisley print Guru Kurtas, polyester leisure suits, disco, LP records, black and white TV, manual typewriters, exorbitantly costly calculators, and computers the size of high school gyms? I like the modernity and things are going to be better and prettier! And friends, you haven’t seen anything yet!
I never complain about the younger generation, except perhaps their choice of music! After my generation has given the world Osama Bin Laden and AlQuida, Prabhakaran and LTTE, serial-killer and cannibal Jeffery Dahmer, Waco whacko David Koresh, O.J. (Outwitting Justice) Simpson, Mumbai blast masterminds Dawood Ibrahim and the Kashmiri terrorist Masood Azhar, the younger generation can hardly do worse.
The present generation of performers in every field is outperforming their predecessors. You can compare anything from games to medicine. The current European football champions will beat even the best of yesteryear hands down if a computerized version of the game is played. The present cricket team of India is the best so far. Whether it is Sachin Tendulkar or Mark Phelps or Usain Bolt's all their records will also be broken in future. The current plastic surgeons replant fingers so routinely which about fifteen years back was a domain of a few Indian surgeons. So let us now draw some parameters and seriously compare whether we are truly better than our forefathers.
There is no doubt about the fact that global conditions are changing, but are they changing for the better, or for the worse? Surprisingly, when a survey was done on this topic not many even in the developed world felt that we are doing better! In response to a question "All things considered, do you think the world is getting better or worse, or neither getting better nor worse?" in Sweden, 10% thought that things are getting better, in the US this dropped down to 6%, and in Germany this decreased even further to 4%. In other words, not a lot of people think that the world is getting better.
That was a survey of the developed world and it is quite naturally expected that in developing countries the dissatisfaction with the present would be far more……but is it so? The survey must take into account the history of global living conditions; the history of everybody. So let us take five global parameters poverty, literacy, health, freedom, and education and objectively analyze how they have changed over the last two centuries.
Let our lifetime not be a restricting factor for evaluating the timeline but let us go back in history. The world is not static, it has been ever changing. When civilization had established its roots in India, China and Egypt, today’s developed world was nomadic and barbaric. Rich countries today were very poor in the past and were in fact a lot worse off than the poor countries of today's world. In fact, to avoid looking at the world in a static way we have to go back 200 years before the period when living conditions changed dramatically. Before the British occupation India was rich and prosperous but the systematic loot by the forces of occupation, the ruthless tax system that destroyed the agriculture and the industry and the inhuman trade restrictions that crippled the overseas business and trade left India a pauper in 1947, when finally the Union Jack came down. Today after seventy years India is the fastest growing economy once again.
Poverty, according to researchers, is living with less than $1.90 per day. In 1950, 75% of the world was living in extreme poverty; in 1981 it dropped to 44%. Latest research suggests that extreme poverty is now below 10%. You would have thought that with world population continuously rising this would lead to more extreme poverty, but the fact of the matter is that the opposite has happened. In a time of continuous population growth, our world has managed to give prosperity to more people and lift them out of extreme poverty.
Only a small number of elite were able to read and write at the beginning of the 19th century. In fact, in 1820, only 1 person in 10 was literate; in 1930 it was every 1 in 3 and now 85% of the world is literate. Yes, pockets of illiteracy are still there in the developing world, but their size is shrinking all the time. Technology, particularly in the last three decades, has changed the scenario totally but there is no doubt that a lot needs to be done.
In 1800, the living conditions of our ancestors were so bad that 43% of the world's newborns died before they turned 5. Nowadays, the child mortality rate is down to 4.3% - 100 times lower than 2 centuries ago. This is thanks to vast advancements in modern medicine, science, housing, sanitation and diets. Epidemics like plague and cholera were rampant once but are almost unheard of today. India has been Polio free for almost a decade and our neighbors too are striving for the same.
Not so long ago the sun never set on the British Empire, and if we are to believe Shashi Tharoor, the author of ‘An Era of Darkness’, a testament of the British misrule of India, that was because the plundering British could not be trusted even in daylight! Throughout the 19th century, more than a third of the world's population lived under colonial regimes and everyone else lived under autocratic rule. The first expansion of political freedom (from the late 19th up until the time of World War II) was crushed by the rise of authoritarian regimes. However, during the second half of the 20th century, the world changed dramatically; the Colonial Empires ended, and more and more countries started to turn towards democracy. Now, every second person in the world lives under democratic rule.
None of the progress that the world has seen would have been possible without an exponential explosion of education and knowledge. Education has an add on effect and not only are those once educated stay educated but they inspire and educate others. The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) is an international scientific institute that conducts research into the critical issues of global environmental, economic, technological, and social change that we face in the twenty-first century. This Institute predicts that by 2100, there will be only a very small percentage of people without formal education, and there will be more than 7 billion people with at least secondary education.
As we can now appreciate, our global living conditions are improving - slowly, but surely and the statistics of these five parameters prove it with a lot of conviction. We can most certainly look forward to a brighter future than the ‘good old days’ there is no room for doom and gloom. But then again, are we missing something? With forests disappearing, polar ice melting and rivers drying out is a much larger disaster just round the corner? How many humans, the most destructive species on earth, can this world hold? Are we thinking along these lines?
For the time being I will continue to be addicted to books and magazines as long as I have eyes to read or ears for someone to read them to me. (Maybe by my 100th. birthday, they'll finally perfect audio/video e-books!) And I never want to lose my child-like wonder for DNA and PSLVs. I would know everything about all the keys of my laptop and all the wonders of my son’s play station, and the functions of my Samsung mobile phone for I think these are the ultimate challenges yet to be conquered.