Glory in the Highest (Part Three)


The following article is from the revised and expanded edition of Pronoia is the Antidote for Paranoia: How the Whole World is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings, published by North Atlantic Books. Click here for Part One and Part Two.  

All of creation is conspiring to shower us with blessings. Life is crazily in love with us -- brazenly and innocently in love with us. The universe always gives us exactly what we need, exactly when we need it.

But wait a minute. What about all the people in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Arab world, and Oceania who don't have enough to eat and a comfortable place to sleep? How about the victims of war and epidemics, and the oppressed who live under the rule of tyrants, and the innocents whose lives are distorted by bigotry? Where's their glory in the highest? Why should they feel grateful?

To answer that in full, I need the entire book I just published as well as my next two books. But I'll begin the process by taking an inventory of the ways that life in the developing countries may be less than horrendous. In doing so, I don't mean to downplay the immensity and intensity of suffering there. We still have a long way to go before we reach the only reasonable goal, which is to create a world in which everyone alive is a healthy, free, self-actualized, spiritually enlightened millionaire dedicated to living sustainably.

Now let's see if we can dig up any decent excuses to sing "Glory in the Highest" about the way the world is evolving outside of the privileged enclaves of the West.

 

"After rising steadily since the beginning to time, the number of people in the world living in absolute poverty has fallen by nearly one-third in less than three decades."

In the developing world, too many children are suffering terribly. On the other hand, fewer and fewer are suffering terribly every year. In 2006, UNICEF (the United Nations Children's Fund) reported that the death rate among young children had declined dramatically since 1960. Back then, 184 of every 1,000 kids expired before age five. More recently, the number is 72 per 1,000.

Everyone in the developing world is living longer, too, according to a study published in 2005 by Noble Prize-winning economist Gary Becker. He reported that between 1960 and 2000, life expectancy in the poorest nations on the planet increased from 41 to 64 years.

This miraculous progress has happened in part because the world's wealth has been steadily increasing. In a blog he writes on The New York Times website, economist Steve Radelet reported that one of the most crucial shifts in human history began around 1980. The number of people living in poverty began to diminish then, and has continued to do so ever since. He waxed dramatic: "That's right: After rising steadily since the beginning of time, the number of people in the world living in absolute poverty has fallen by nearly one-third in less than three decades."

The World Bank issued a report in late 2008 that differed slightly in its details, but confirmed the general trend. It said that the number of people surviving on less than $1.25 per day had dropped by 500 million since 1981, even though the world's population increased by over two billion during that time. A United Nations' Human Development Report released in 2004 measured the progress from yet another angle, revealing that real per capita income in the developing world had more than doubled since 1975.

A further reason for the sharp reduction in child mortality has been improved medical treatments. These include immunizations against measles, rehydration therapy to combat diarrhea, vitamin A supplementation, and the widespread use of bed nets to foil mosquitoes bearing malaria.

Measles has been one of the most virulent diseases for children in Africa and Asia. But it's easily preventable through vaccination, which is why, in 2001, public health organizations launched the Measles Initiative, a campaign to provide mass vaccination. Since their work began, more than 600 million children have gotten the precious injections, and the death rate from measles has dropped 74 percent globally and 89 percent in Africa.

Of all the world's parasitic diseases, malaria is the deadliest. In second place is black fever, which takes 500,000 lives every year, mostly in India and Africa. In the 1960s, researchers identified the drug paromomyocin as an effective treatment against black fever, but pharmaceutical companies refused to make it. Why? There was little profit in the enterprise, since most victims were poor people. Forty years later, a not-for-profit drug company began doing business, and one of its first actions was to resurrect the use of paromomyocin. The Institute for One World Health has now mass-­produced the life-saver, and offers it at a low price.

There's still much work to be done to eradicate preventable disease in the developing world. But thanks to widespread vaccination, two other success stories stand out: the final defeat of smallpox in 1977, and the looming victory over polio, which is very close to completion.

Steve Radelet says that an essential factor in the war against child mortality and global poverty has been the generosity of rich nations. While acknowledging that some criticisms of foreign aid are warranted, he unequivocally asserts that "foreign assistance programs have helped saved millions of lives over the last several decades."

This largesse is a recent development in the history of international relations. The voluntary transfer of wealth from one country to another was rare and meager from the beginning of recorded history until the end of World War II. Now it is routine and abundant, and flows not only from governments but also from numerous private organizations.

 

On many of the mornings when I wake up in my soft bed, surrounded by the perks of my temperature-­controlled home and ready to enjoy another mysteriously interesting day, I am visited by the urge to murmur a prayer of gratitude like "Thank you a billion and one times, Whoever or Whatever You are that gave me this lavish riot of beauty." I am flooded with ecstatic appreciation as I taste the honey mingle with the sour flesh of the organic grapefruit, or when my lover cracks a quirky joke right before she kisses me twice, once on each eyelid, or when my daughter shows me the enigmatic new poem she wrote about how "I want to become the rust-brown manzanita tree, the gentle rash of moss spreading like love on her skin."

But what brings me even sharper pangs of personal elation, what evokes an even more exuberant longing to celebrate, are those moments when I deeply feel the triumphs that are unfolding for human beings far away from me -- triumphs like the irrevocable decline of global poverty and child mortality.

And I know many people who nurture a similar aim. Our numbers are growing. Has there ever been a time in the history of civilization when masses of people were actively cultivating a capacity for transcendental empathy? Have there ever been so many of us attuned to and concerned for the suffering of those we've never met?

In his well-researched book Blessed Unrest:?How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, Paul Hawken argues that organized political action devoted to advancing the rights of others is a relatively new phenomenon. The drive to abolish slavery was where it began. In recent decades it has grown exponentially, becoming a global crusade to improve social justice, economic conditions, human rights, and environmental health.

By Hawken's estimates, there are well over a million organizations engaged in the effort, which thrives without centralized leadership, charismatic front men, or a fixed ideology. Because of its grass-roots ubiquity, it is largely invisible to the mass media and underestimated by politicians.

Some day, maybe 500 years from now, our descendants will have installed the art and science of universal compassion as the first law of civilization. And I bet they will give honor to us, the people alive on the planet today, as the heroes who gave critical mass to their prime directive.

 

The world is steadily becoming more free, and is now the most free it has ever been.

For those who are dogmatically predisposed to thinking that the world is a hellhole and life is a bitch, no amount of contrary evidence will change their minds. The cynic who asked me the following question didn't really want an answer: "Tell me how your pronoia explains a child in Darfur starving to death after watching soldiers kill his mommy?"

While I don't claim to have the authoritative response to that accusation, I think it's worthwhile to consider the possibility that suffering is, among other things, a difficult gift we humans are given in order to prod our evolution.

On a personal level, our longing to escape our suffering is a primal force in making us smarter. On a collective level, nothing refines and ennobles us more than our passion to keep others from suffering. For every dead child in Darfur, 100 people in other places on the planet have responded with a commitment to create a world in which future Darfurs won't happen.

There is, in fact, considerable evidence that the agonies of war have aroused increasingly effective efforts to stop war.

In 2005, the Human Security Report presented detailed proof that the world has become dramatically more peaceful since the end of the Cold War. It said that the number of violent conflicts has declined by 40 percent, while acts of genocide have dropped by 80 percent. Weapons sales between countries have diminished 33 percent during the same time, and the number of refugees has fallen by 45 percent.

Meanwhile, coups d'état have decreased 60 percent since 1963, and the number of soldiers killed in battle has declined from an average of 38,000 per war in 1950 to 600 in 2002.

Shouldn't reports on these shocking developments have been at the top of the headlines for at least one news cycle? Wouldn't it make sense to declare a holiday and dance in the streets?

One of the primary causes of the plunge in violence, according to the Human Security Report, is the unprecedented upsurge of international peace activism, much of it spearheaded by the United Nations. Other factors it cites include the acceleration of democratization and the steep downswing of global poverty.

The main study was released in 2005, with updates issued in 2007 and 2008. Among the most recent findings: Deaths caused by terrorism have decreased 40 percent; support for al-Qaeda in the Arab world has diminished precipitously; and the number of wars in sub-Saharan Africa was cut in half between 1999 and 2006, while fatalities from those conflicts dropped 98 percent. More info is here.

 

The world has become dramatically more peaceful since the end of the Cold War, with steep declines in the numbers of armed conflicts, acts of genocide, weapon sales, and refugees.

Is there other evidence that the global culture of war and violence is receding? If so, it would be a cause for jubilee in the developing nations. To the degree that civilization is consumed with fighting, less energy and fewer resources are available to lift up the disadvantaged. As the richest and most powerful part of the human enterprise, the West is the dominant force in determining which way the scale leans: toward an obsession with conflict and supremacy or a focus on peace and well-being. So where do we stand?

According to evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, the human race has been growing progressively kinder and gentler since the onset of the Age of Reason in the early seventeenth century. "Today," he writes, "we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species' time on earth." In numerous ways, violence and cruelty are decreasing. You can read his full argument in his article "We're Getting Nicer Every Day."  His talk at the Ted conference is available here.

One measure of the change is the steep decline in the homicide rate. In the 14th century, for example, there were 24 murders for every 100,000 people in England. By 1960, that figure had shrunk to 0.6 per 100,000. A similar decrease occurred throughout Western Europe.

As further proof of his theorem, Pinker also cites shifts in the ways wars have been waged. The mass conflicts of the last hundred years wrought catastrophic casualties, and yet they were far less efficient killers than the tribal clashes that dominated the centuries before modern warfare. In the old days, violence was more consuming. A greater percentage of the men were soldiers, the battles were more numerous, and the death rates during combat were higher. "If the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society," says Pinker, "there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million."

A third sign of waning cruelty is the dramatic drop-off in torture. Two thousand years ago, many cultures considered torture to be a legitimate element of their system of criminal justice. To the Romans, crucifixion served as a rightful punishment and an effective deterrent. The Egyptians preferred baking wrong-doers to death in the fire of the desert sun.

Throughout the Middle Ages and as late as the 18th century, the courts of Europe relied on torture as a means of wresting revelations from the accused. The Roman Catholic Church authorized its use in 1252 and didn't officially rescind the order until 1816. If you're ever in Amsterdam, you might want to visit the Torture Museum to get a look at the actual devices used during those many centuries, like the Judas Cradle, which forced the victim to sit on a pointed, pyramid-shaped chair.

In addition to the forcible extractions of information, which were conducted covertly, European cities also staged public spectacles that featured excruciating executions. Some victims were burned alive and others were hanged, then cut up. "Softly, softly, gallows are everywhere and numerous are the executioners," wrote Erasmus of Rotterdam in the 16th century.

For hundreds of years, in numerous places on the planet, torture was routine, legal, and commonly accepted. But it's not any more. We shouldn't underestimate how miraculous a change this is. While sickening outbreaks still take place --witness the abuses that occurred at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq beginning in 2004 -- they incur widespread moral outrage when they're discovered, and there is an international system of laws in place to discourage them.

So let's see: Pinker's research suggests that over the course of the last 600 years, the murder rate has declined 97 percent. The percentage of deaths during wartime has decreased by 95 percent. We can't be sure of the exact reduction in torture, but we know it's no longer a commonplace feature of the judicial system, and few of us have attended a public hanging.

Pinker says that social scientists are having to come to a conclusion that goes against the grain of the conventional wisdom: "Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler." What is that something?

 

There are over a million organizations working to improve social justice, economic conditions, human rights, and environmental health.

By now, some readers may be recoiling in disapproval. They don't want to register evidence that contradicts their foregone conclusions about humans' cancerous presence on the planet. It's dangerous to do so, they feel, because it threatens to make us complacent and fall under the delusion that our work as freedom fighters is done. Celebrating progress is a foolish indulgence that would sap our motivation to keep agitating for even greater justice. Focusing on the good stuff tempts us to ignore the continuing bad stuff.

I understand that position. It's the stance of many devoted activists who have a ferocious devotion to the extinction of suffering. I respect their work and am rooting them on. But I'd also like to suggest that there are alternate ways to wage the war on stupidity, violence, and tyranny.

 

Activist and author Naomi Klein tells a story about the time she traveled to Australia at the request of Aboriginal elders. They wanted her to know about their struggle to prevent white people from dumping radioactive wastes on their land.

Her hosts brought her to their beloved wilderness, where they camped under the stars. They showed her "secret sources of fresh water, plants used for bush medicines, hidden eucalyptus-lined rivers where the kangaroos come to drink."

After three days, Klein grew restless. When were they going to get down to business? "Before you can fight," she was told, "you have to know what you are fighting for."

 

In the late 1990s, environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill spent two years living in a redwood tree she named "Luna." Her goal was to save it from being cut down by a logging company. She succeeded both literally and mythically. Luna was spared from death, as was a surrounding three-acre swath of trees. Hill became an inspiring symbol of artful, compassionate protest.

Later she told Benjamin Tong in the DVD The Taoist and the Activist: "So often activism is based on what we are against, what we don't like, what we don't want. And yet we manifest what we focus on. And so we are manifesting yet ever more of what we don't want, what we don't like, what we want to change. So for me, activism is about a spiritual practice as a way of life. And I realized I didn't climb the tree because I was angry at the corporations and the government; I climbed the tree because when I fell in love with the redwoods, I fell in love with the world. So it is my feeling of 'connection' that drives me, instead of my anger and feelings of being disconnected."

 

Since 1973, Freedom House has evaluated the global state of civil liberties, democratic institutions, and independent media. Its research suggests that the world is steadily becoming more free, and is now the most free it has ever been.

In 1973, Freedom House said that 29 percent of the world's countries were free, 25 percent were "partly free," and 46 percent were "not free."

By 2009, the figures were dramatically improved: 46 percent of the nations on the planet were free, 32 percent were "partly free," and 22 percent were "not free." In 36 years, the percentage of "not free" countries had dropped by over 50 percent.

Of the world's 193 countries evaluated in the most recent report, 151 were judged to be free or partly free. This group accounts for 94 percent of the world's gross domestic product. (You can find more details here and here.) Freedom House concluded that the majority of the planet's economic, technological, and military resources belong to electoral democracies.

(Some progressives have complained that Freedom House is not sufficiently strong in reporting the abuses of freedom perpetrated by the U.S. and its allies. I think there may be some merit to their arguments, and I don't mean to imply that Freedom House is the ultimate and sole authority in the assessment of global freedom. However, it's also true that the organization assailed the Bush Administration's policies on interrogation and detention during its so-called War on Terror, and has over the years given low rankings to countries the U.S. considers friendly, like Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Chile, and Guatemala.)

(There's also this: In 2009, Forbes magazine named Fareed Zakaria as one of the 25 most influential liberals in the American media. Here's his opinion about Freedom House, published in Newsweek: "While there are many sources of economic data, good political data is hard to find. Freedom House's survey is an exception. For anyone concerned with the state of freedom, or simply with the state of the world, 'Freedom in the World' is an indispensable guide.")

Richard Falk is a professor of international law at Princeton, and has served on the editorial boards of The Nation and The Progressive magazines as well as on two different United Nations human rights organizations. Writing in the magazine Foreign Policy, he said the following: "Every reliable human rights indicator suggests progress in the direction of self-determination and democratization in all parts of the world."

But then what about the observers who theorize that human rights are in alarming decline? "As with cancer and other diseases," responds Falk, "the ability to identify human rights abuses more accurately and treat their symptoms more effectively creates the illusion that the disease itself is more prevalent."

 

The United Nations organization UNESCO tracks literacy rates. Its latest news is very good. In 1950, 56 percent of the world's population could read and write. As of 2009, that figure had risen to 84 percent. The most dramatic improvement has occurred among young women. For example, not quite half of South Asian females were literate in 1990, while 75 percent are now. There were 10 million East Asian girls who couldn't read in 2000, but that had fallen to a million by 2009.

"There is a strong current of thought in the field of development economics," wrote Andrew Leonard in Salon.com, commenting on this report, "that the single most important factor in improving a variety of outcomes in the developing world -- whether it be overpopulation, economic growth, violence against women, public health -- is increasing female education levels."

 

The Maasai tribespeople of Kenya, who have no running water and homes made from cattle dung, are as happy as the richest Americans.

The Maasai people of Kenya don't have running water, toilets, or electricity, and their per capita income is $300 a year. They use cattle dung as plaster in building their homes because the scent helps repel lions, which dislike it, from venturing too close. And yet they are as happy with their lives as Forbes' magazine's "400 richest Americans" are with their -- even though the latter may live in 10,000-square-foot palaces with stained glass windows, French patio doors, limestone kitchen counter tops, spas, wine cellars, and Olympic-sized swimming pools.

This assertion comes from "Beyond Money: Toward an Economy of Well-Being," a report done by psychologists Ed Diener and Martin E. P. Seligman. On a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is "extremely dissatisfied," 4 is "neutral," and 7 means "extremely satisfied," the Maasai, the Inuit of northern Greenland, and the wealthiest Americans all scored 5.8. Paupers scratching out a livelihood in the slums of Calcutta registered a score of 4.6, while international college students and the Amish of Illinois weighed in at 4.9. Citing 150 other studies in their work, Diener and Seligman conclude that economic factors are not necessarily correlated with happiness levels, especially in the developed world.

Meanwhile, according to the World Values Survey, published in New Scientist magazine, Nigerians are the happiest people on the planet, although 60 percent of them live below the poverty line. The next four populations at the top of the list are Mexicans, Venezuelans, Salvadorans, and Puerto Ricans. On the scale of the planet's wealthiest places, they rank 63rd, 64th, 101st, and 163rd, respectively.

To be clear, Ed Diener notes in another report that on average, rich people are happier than poor people. He also says that cultural context is an important consideration in analyzing the relationship between financial well-being and happiness. A homeless man in California may have more money than a Maasai cattle-herder but be less sanguine about his fate. That's because basic necessities cost more for him and he is surrounded by people who are far better off than he is.

But Diener also declares that happiness is harder to attain for those who believe money is the most important factor in feeling good. Echoing him, the World Values Survey goes so far as to say that "the desire for material goods is actually a 'happiness suppressant,'" mirroring the Buddhist assertion that the craving for earthly riches can be the source of intense suffering.

 

In calling attention here to some of the surprisingly good news about the developing world, I of course don't mean to imply that paradise is at hand. My recognition of the underreported progress and miracles is not equivalent to an endorsement of evil-doers. And I trust that after reading these words you won't go numb to the suffering of others and stop agitating on their behalf.

Just the opposite: I hope that you will be energized by the signs of creeping benevolence and waxing intelligence. As you absorb the evidence that an aggressive strain of compassion is loose in the world, maybe you will conclude that activism actually works, and you'll be motivated to give yourself with confidence to the specific role you can play in manifesting the ultimate goal: to create a heaven on earth in which everyone alive is a healthy, free, self-actualized, spiritually enlightened millionaire dedicated to living sustainably.

 

Torture is no longer a commonplace feature of the justice system, as it was for centuries. The rate of child mortality in the developing world has dropped precipitously, while literacy is increasing steadily. Our era is the most peaceful time in recorded history.

 

SACRED ADVERTISEMENT: "Glory in the Highest Part 3" has been brought to you by Rigel 3200 Pro Night Vision Goggles and Sharon Doubiago's The Book of Seeing with One's Own Eyes.

 

Copyright © 2009 by Rob Brezsny. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

Image by  lrargerich, courtesy of Creative Commons license.