In my lifetime the human population of the world has doubled and, according to the World Bank, global Gross Domestic Product has quadrupled to over $42 trillion. There are many more of us than there were and inequity remains rife but we are, on average, much wealthier. Some of us are twice as well off as folk in the less crowded days I toddled through in the early 1960’s.
Collective wealth translates to tangible benefits. For example, we live longer than we did. Mean life expectancy is well over 75 years now in most western economies thanks to better nutrition, health care and a two-thirds drop in infant mortality. Babies survive because we have better sanitation and primary health care and mothers are well nourished. And then that health care system helps us recover from sickness and keeps us going when our bodies begin to tire.
Despite the fear mongering and the real dangers in conflict hotspots around the world, on average, we are much safer than we were. Marauders, thieves and bullies still exist and yet we can mostly walk the streets and laneways more safety than our ancestors.
Then there are the material benefits. Today in the ‘west’ we shop more, consume more and enjoy a lifestyle that would be the envy of the average 1960’s family.
I can still remember the excitement of the ‘pop man’ delivering soda to Nanny Olive’s two up two down terrace in Staffordshire, a place near the heart of the engine that drove the industrial revolution. I used to take an empty bottle of soda from the wooden crate hidden in the pantry in both hands and hand it over in gleeful anticipation of a full one in return. Tell a kid today that soda should be a once a week treat and she will swear at you — just like this little tyke from the same part of the world who took the ice bucket challenge. Classic at just 2 years old.
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Wherever you look today you can see people who are healthier and much wealthier than their predecessors.
I lived in Botswana for seven years in the early 1990’s. The country was booming on the back of diamonds with roads, housing, shops, schools and health care facilities springing up out of the Kalahari sand. The grandparents of the kids that were in my classes at the newly independent University of Botswana could not believe the changes. Just a few decades before the country was one of the poorest in Africa, frequently ravaged by drought and hunger.
The old folks complained of the excesses, the traffic and the loss of the old ways. But just about every Batswana today is healthier and wealthier than the elders in their family.
Or are they? After all health and wealth are relative.
Is a man with access to modern heart surgeons who reconfigure the plumbing of his arteries clogged by poor diet and lifestyle choices, healthier than the villager who dies from malaria after 40 years without an ache or pain?
Does the ability to buy a plasma TV that keeps me forever on the couch make me wealthier than the villager who spends much of his day walking through the bush to find food?
Does the extra longevity I gain from my modern health and wealth help me if I am so stressed that if I stop even for a moment my world will come crashing down?
The thing is we can never answer these questions.
We can speculate that happiness is found in the pleasure of gathering your own food as you are nurtured by nature. And that happiness exists in the closeness of village life with its allure of support from kin and kind, even if that village culture also brings genital mutilation, domestic violence and inter-tribal warfare.
Whilst we know that obesity, diabetes and cancer will not make us happy; we know that warmth, comfort, and food do. When pressed most of us would agree that the modern village has its benefits too.
And there is a hidden benefit. As a general rule healthier and wealthier people do live longer. So health and wealth give you more time to find and experience happiness.