The kids unwrapped their presents hours ago. There were a whole lot of them. They — we — definitely are among the most fortunate people on this planet from almost every point of view, not least of all our access to basic and not-so-basic material resources. I am very grateful for that.
The kids seem grateful, too, though, at six and three, they don’t yet have a global perspective on their good fortune, nor even a particularly keen local perspective. Ellis, our six-year old, is developing a pen pal relationship with a boy in Uganda, but his ability to relate to the differences in their circumstances is limited at present.
The relative abundance we enjoy prompts so many questions:
How have we arrived at a moment in history when some children wake up on Christmas morning to a rash of presents while other children wake up starving?
How on earth can we tolerate this?
How and when does one sensitize one’s children to these realities without overwhelming them or being a complete killjoy?
Beyond the moral shock one hopefully feels and expresses at these disparities, what — practically speaking — can and should we do to change things? Needless to say, the problems are complicated, and so many social, political and economic efforts to address them have failed miserably.
From one perspective — which is global, longitudinal and diffuse — things are changing decisively for the better, and they have been changing with increasing rapidity for some time. Watch these short, amazing videos by Hans Rosling, a Swedish physician, public health scholar and statistician, to see how and why:
200 years that changed the world
(The rest of this post may not make much sense unless you watch the videos, or at least the first one, which is just four minutes long.)
I can relate a bit to Roslings’ story about his mother’s first washing machine and what it meant for their family. My paternal grandmother, who died in 2003, six months shy of her 100th birthday, told me many stories about how cars, air travel, modern medicine and other innovations she had witnessed transformed her world.
My father (her son) worked three jobs when we were young — as a laborer for the Northern Illinois Gas Company (by day), as the foreman of a janitorial crew (at night), and as a floor salesman at Sears (on the weekend) — to make ends meet and better our living standard before eventually getting his first white collar job as a bank teller. Many of my own early Christmas presents, some of which were technological innovations like the walkie-talkie, were “purchased” with S&H Green Stamps that my mother collected from gas and grocery store purchases throughout the year during that just-making-ends-meet era, so the space beneath the tree would seem to overflow for my brothers and me, just as it seemed to overflow for our kids this morning. Her mother, my grandmother, who was widowed at an early age, no doubt was equally ingenious at providing more for her three girls at Christmastime than her secretary’s income otherwise allowed.
My parents wanted to create better circumstances for us than their parents and immigrant grandparents had been able to create for their children. Stories like this abound in the west and, increasingly, around the world. Stories of aspiration, of hard work, of creative insight skillfully applied, and of resulting innovations that help transform the world and improve others’ lives. The Rosling family’s washing machine. The Internet that made the Arab Spring possible.
I’ve worked in entrepreneurial environments for much of the past 25 years — sometimes as part of new businesses, sometimes as an advisor to them. I’m presently involved in a solar energy startup that’s developing technology with the potential to supply the world’s energy needs, cleanly, at half the cost of the cheapest fossil fuel. I advise a new fund which invests only in companies that treat their employees well, engineer their operations for sustainability, and the like. Many of my colleagues and friends are involved in similarly promising enterprises. These and many other businesses like them are examples of the types of enterprises that give Rosling, and me, hope for our common future.
The picture is not all rosy, as we know. Businesses are profiting today by solving problems created by past business activities, and some of today’s new businesses no doubt are creating other problems. There’s way too much greed and corruption. Wealth distribution within some rich and developing countries is far too uneven, and currently moving in the wrong direction. Even at their theoretical — imaginary, really — best, business activity and technological innovation are just two potential forces for positive change. Happy endings aren’t guaranteed. But, like Rosling, I’m inclined to be hopeful, in part because I’m in the business world, see parts of it that give me reason to be hopeful, and so can’t paint it all black with an overly broad brush, as I see many people doing these days.
There is much progress on other fronts, as well. Steven Pinker’s recent, exhaustively researched book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, makes the case that (in Peter Singer’s words) “our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence.”
You may doubt all this, insisting that the world surely is going to hell in a hand basket, but, with the exception of a few notable and not-to-be-discounted problems like global warming, the trend data is decisively against you.
There’s another perspective, of course — this one intensely local, in-the-moment, and specific. Seven billion of them actually, way too many of which still are defined by poverty, anguish and hopelessness. It’s the perspective of that starving child, whether he is in Mumbai or Manhattan. Of the poor, lonely, elderly woman who has no one with whom to share Christmas.
This is the perspective to which Jesus and other ancient and contemporary prophets give voice. Though hope for the future is a key theme in prophetic discourse, from this perspective there really is no hope other than the hope that’s actualized here-and-now. There is no arc of progress. Only food for the hungry. Shelter for the homeless. Clothing for the unclothed. Speech on behalf of the voiceless. Here. Now.
We obviously need both perspectives. Moreover, and more than ever, I think we need to integrate both perspectives, in relations among nations, within national governments at all levels, within companies, within our homes, within our hearts.
All seven billion of them, but especially those relatively few hearts that awoke to plenty this Christmas morning.