The Worst of All Possible Worlds?

That the world is an evil place seems self-evident to many people. They demonstrate it by simply pointing to the latest headlines of war, crime, disaster, racism, and worsening test scores. Pundits warn us ominously that America is running higeldy pigeldy down the road to Hell.

But is this negative perception, fueled by endless news accounts of horrible things, an accurate one? Is life barely more than miserable? Let’s consider.

An article in a recent Scientific American indicated that at any given moment, 93 percent of the world’s human beings feel happy about their lives as a whole. These percentages of happiness remained constant regardless of income, education, or the place individuals happened to live. If things are as bad as everyone suggests, then how could this be? But think about your own life. Are you planning on slitting your wrists as soon as you finish reading this article? Probably not. Chances are, you’re pretty comfortable and generally content just now. Think you’re unique? Think again.

The world’s population stands at about 6.3 billion. Many think this is a bad thing and moan endlessly about the population explosion. But stop and ask a simple question: why are there so many people? Was sex really invented in the 60s? Have birth rates skyrocketed? Not at all. Birthrates are actually declining. So the question remains: why so many human beings?

Because not so many people are dying!

Human life expectancy in 1800 was 40, while the world population was only about 900 million. Infant mortality was rampant. Disease proliferated. Starvation was common. Since then, life expectancy has nearly doubled, and the population has skyrocketed as a consequence. According to CIA statistics recorded in the CIA World Factbook, less than 0.9 percent of the world population died last year. That’s less than one percent. That’s from all causes. Or to put it another way, a bit more than 99.1 percent of the human race didn’t go to their graves last year.

So let’s consider some obvious implications.

The number of people who have died this year because of crime? Less than one percent of the human race.

The number of people who have died because of natural disasters? Less than one percent.

The number of people who have died because of terrorism? Less than one percent.

The number of people who have died because of starvation? Less than one percent.

The number of people who have died because of diseases? Less than one percent.

The number of people who died as a consequence of war? Less than one percent.

Statistics like those would seem to demonstrate that the world’s not quite so awful as the nightly news would like us to believe. (Stopping to consider the last time one heard of a life insurance company going bankrupt might be another bit of evidence.)

Certainly there is suffering and evil and doubtless the headlines on today’s paper are filled with ugly information. But the real reason the news is almost always bad is because bad is unusual and newspapers and television are interested in novelty.

Consider: do the newspapers or television report on the millions and millions of people who went to work today, did their jobs, came home, kissed their spouses and children and had a quiet evening? Of course not. That would be boring. Instead, they’ll report on the single whacko who went to his job and machine-gunned all his coworkers. Now that’s interesting.

Humanity is warlike and violent, right? Then why, according to the CIA, is only two percent of the world’s gross economic production devoted to defense spending? That means that ninety-eight percent of what the world spends its money on each year is for stuff other than making guns and bombers.

For much of human history, human beings spent a lot of time concerned about having enough food to eat. Famines were common. People regularly worried about whether they’d be able to eat today. Now, the biggest health concern in the United States is obesity. We have so much food that we have to spend gobs of cash on fancy ways to lose the extra weight it puts on our bodies.

In 1804 the former Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton was shot to death in a duel with the Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr. In the twenty-first century, commentators become apoplectic when the Vice President says a bad word to a political opponent. They bemoan the loss of civility in political dialogue. I don’t know about you, but if the worst thing a politician does now is call his opponents “girly men,” we have little to complain about.

Hard as I try, I have difficulty thinking that this is the worst of all possible worlds, or that the world is getting worse and worse. Quite the opposite. Take a break from the nightly news. Go outside, notice the blue sky and green grass. Take a deep breath. Relax. Put things in perspective. Then smile.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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2 Responses to The Worst of All Possible Worlds?

  1. Don the Baptist says:

    And I sooo wanted to whine, today.

  2. Eric says:

    Well, I live in the AV and needed to enjoy the Joshua Trees instead of the green grass, but otherwise good thoughts as usual.

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