Sunday, 1 January 2017

2017: Another year of human progress beckons. Let's celebrate!

Another year crawls coughing and spluttering from the ashes of its predecessor. Blinking in the watery light of a January morning, 2017, like many of its inhabitants, groans with the hangover from supervising the final death throes of the "Year of Horrors" that was 2016. Everywhere the perkier of those denizens, perhaps those most inured to hard drinking, started the annual task of churning out comments and predictions about the year ahead.

I've never been one for making predictions - I'm usually wrong - so instead I'll celebrate things we already have that are wonderful. We are, ignore all the doom and gloom, truly a blessed generation and we don't remind ourselves of this fact often enough. It's not just that there are fewer poor people in the world that ever in human history but that the things those no longer poor folk can have include stuff that were the stuff of science fiction just a decade or two ago.

I lost my phone in Lisbon during 2016 (on 23 June as it happens) and for various reasons had to get a cheap smart phone as a stop gap before my new and shiny Samsung was available. For less than £20 I had the sort of computing power that, as a student, had occupied a whole floor of a building in Hull. And with that bargain computing I could make phone calls, send letters, research the information I need for work plus things undreamed of back in the 1980s like social media and text messaging.

We've also found that the electricity these things need to run - much less as it happens that in times past - is now increasingly coming from renewal sources. And the fossil fuel sources we still use - fracked natural gas especially - are also far less contributory to climate change. If the EU would stop being dumb about importing cheaper solar panels from the Far East (more protectionist nonsense I'm afraid) maybe we'd move even faster towards a sustainable energy market without having to do so by making poorer people's fuel more expensive.

There was a time when brand ownership was what matters to food businesses because brands allowed a premium price to the consumer. Today - if the coffee business is anything to go by - the brand is no longer the thing, it's capacity and production efficiency that matters more. Food businesses are now delivering their margins more by reducing production costs rather than through the costly malarkey of brand marketing. This renews the wonderful thing that is cheap food, something brought to you by great farmers, fantastic manufacturers and brilliant supermarketers. It is a cause for celebration that we spend just 11% of our household incomes on food and drink (13% if you include booze and fags) and the trends - especially if Brexit opens up international food markets - will carry on downwards to the benefit of everyone.

Because we no longer spend all that cash on food, we've been able to buy stuff we otherwise wouldn't have had the money for - such as over 20% of our income on leisure, pleasure, recreation, culture, hotels and restaurants. Not only do we have more leisure time but we've also got the cash to enjoy that time better. And to top it all we're living longer and healthier lives than ever before - a trend that's set to continue. Whereas a previous generation retired at 60 or 65 and died ten or twelve years later, today's retirees can expect - even with a raised retirement age - to live passed 80 in an active independent life (and some can look to living a great deal longer).

For sure this longevity presents a challenge - not least to our creaking and badly run health service - but it shows why the cult of the young that dominated media and politics for so long is no longer such a deal. Those 55 year old baby boomers (like me) can look forward to an average of 30 years more life so don't tell us that we've nothing invested in that Brexit decision. And with reducing rates of dementia and heart disease joining rapidly rising cancer survival rates whose to say thirty years doesn't become 35 or even forty!

Meanwhile, society is getting better. Crime rates have shown a recent rise but the really bad ones like murder are as low as they've been since the '70s. Other supposed crises seem less so - child obesity rates at five and eleven are at the lowest they've been since 2000 and this might represent a switch in what was a seemingly intractable problem. Vaping has resulted in an acceleration in smoking's decline - would be even faster in public health folk would get with the programme and accept that the markets and a consumer product has achieved what they couldn't.

Elsewhere the frantic panic about 'hate crime' seems misplaced too. If our primary schools are any guide, the UK is a really tolerant and non-racist place - out of 4.5 million children aged five to eleven there were just 420 racist 'incidents' in 2014-15 which is about one incident for each 10,000 children. And this came after a long campaign to make schools report incidents rather than just using their own discipline and correction. In Bradford - as multi-ethnic a place as you get - the Council and police had to put on extra resources to encourage the reporting of 'hate crime' And in a couple of months they managed just eight reports of such crimes from a population of half-a-million. We really aren't a racist nation - nor indeed are we especially sexist, homophobic or disablist either - at least if reports of hate crime are anything to go by.

The world's not perfect and mankind isn't perfect but let's get ourselves some perspective in 2017. Not everything's going to go well - some people will suffer personal loss or tragedy, celebrities who played a big part in our lives will die and the wrong side might win an election. But on the fundamentals and the direction of travel for technology, leisure, health and security the world's getting better year by year. There's no reason not to think this will continue on 2017. So look up, smile and enjoy the bounty that human genius has brought you.


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