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The secret silent miracle of human progress
Written by David Gaffney, partner
7 March 2020
Stuck for something to write about this weekend, I thought back to the topics I’d covered in recent weeks: the BBC under threat; big tech Big Brother surveillance activities; a world gripped by fear of coronavirus; and another deadly winter in the Scottish mountains.
Just the kind of light-hearted fare I imagine you want to consume as the weekend gets underway.
So, I thought a touch of optimism was in order today. Perhaps not the all-out ebullience displayed by Paul Whitehouse’s “brilliant” Mancunian on The Fast Show, but definitely nearer to him in outlook than Charlie Higson’s Johnny Nice Painter, the artist for whom every landscape he surveyed eventually became “black, black, black.”
These mid-1990s cultural reference points will be lost on the majority of my younger colleagues. And if they don’t remember them, they probably won’t remember another popular topic of conversation in the 1980s and 1990s – the ever-widening hole in the ozone layer.
The damage done by humans to the shield of gas that protects us from most of the sun’s high-frequency ultraviolet rays was one of the big worries of that era. Happily, the UN’s environmental scientists now predict it will be completely healed by the 2030s, if current momentum is maintained.
So effective was the coordinated global effort to phase-out ozone-depleting chemicals in refrigerators, hairspray (another retro reference (for you at least Gaffers! -Ed)) and other consumer goods that, since the year 2000, parts of the ozone layer have recovered at a rate of one to three per cent every 10 years.
Hope springs eternal and not only from the ozone hole. Our “negativity instinct”, as Hans Rosling described it in his bestselling book Factfulness, often leads us to believe the world is going to the dogs. However, Rosling reminded us that the opposite is actually true and the general rule of thumb in life is that most things are, in fact, improving.
In the last 20 years, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has almost halved. Life expectancy has more than doubled over the past 200 years. Nearly 90% of one-year-olds now receive vaccinations against disease, compared with just 22% in 1980. More girls are going to school and staying in education than ever before. Last year, for the first time, the UK produced more electricity from low-carbon renewables and nuclear than from fossil fuels.
Reasons to be cheerful abound. Rosling summarised these improvements beautifully as “the secret silent miracle of human progress”.
Enjoy your weekend.
The day of two suns
Marshall islanders were victim to more than 50 years of nuclear testing in the South Pacific by Western powers. But – turning a dark history on its head – this programme from BBC Radio 4 tracks those islanders’ creative response to the disaster on their doorstep and tells the story of how, fighting against a wall of classified documents, they finally brought their story to global attention.
Listen on BBC Radio 4
The celebrity chief executive who brutally transformed General Electric
Under Jack Welch’s watch between 1981 and 2001, General Electric soared, but at significant human cost. Growing the company’s market cap from $12 billion to $410 billion led to Fortune magazine naming him its “manager of the century”, an accolade he liked a lot. Totally revamping the management hierarchy and cutting the workforce by a quarter led to another nickname, Neutron Jack, which he detested. Arguably the first rock star CEO, Welch’s death this week, aged 84, has prompted much reflection on the long-term impact of the momentous decisions he took and how they shaped the world around him. This analysis by the Financial Times offers a concise insight into a man who, whether you liked him or not, embodied the rise of a bold, unrelenting – and totally unforgiving – corporate America.
Read in the Financial Times
Coronavirus can trigger a new industrial revolution
Coronavirus is everywhere. In a physical sense, of course, but also in the media and our work lives. There is good reason to catastrophise but in keeping with the theme of the day there is also cause for optimism, as described eloquently here by Ed Conway. He argues that our most modern of economic phenomena – globalisation – is actually underpinned by outdated behaviours, including office-based work, intercontinental travel, and an overreliance on carbon-heavy IT systems, all of which are now threatened. The hope is that the looming economic shock could help the fight against climate breakdown and usher in a new industrial age.
Read in The Times
The town where everyone saw UFOs
For many small Finnish towns, the rapid industrialisation of the 1960s and early 1970s meant that people could no longer support their families by farming and were forced to move to cities in search of jobs. Some towns lost nearly half their populations. A whole way of life disappeared in the matter of a few years, and those who lived through it remember it as a painful, uncertain time. It’s little wonder the UFO sightings came to be seen as embodying a fear of the future and the unknown. This photo-essay brings that sentiment to life.
Read on The Guardian
I like podcasts, but I do find it hard to keep up. It’s not always easy to know what to listen to, or how to find the time, because there is just so much choice and some of them last for hours. Listening to Ida Schuster, the oldest podcaster in the world, would appear to be a canny investment of time. A retired actress, the 101-year-old Schuster’s memories reach all the way back to her early childhood in the Gorbals in Glasgow where, as the youngest of nine children, she was bullied and spoiled in almost equal measure.
Listen on Old School
Sorry needn’t be the hardest word
Over the last 35 years, the government of New Zealand has been trying to make amends to the Māori for past injustices. Although in many ways imperfect and inadequate, the reparations – which usually take the form of a cheque, some land, and an apology – are a prime example of how countries with non-indigenous populations can reconcile with their past. In this Planet Money episode, Mavis Mullins, a Maori business owner, explains her experience as one of the key negotiators for her tribe.
Listen on NPR