Ten Great Things That Happened in 2016

It pretty much goes without saying that 2016 has been a rough year for a lot of people and for a multitude reasons, none of which need to be rehashed here. Suffice it to say, I am all the more grateful to have had a largely great year, due in no small part to the support and companionship of loved ones and the good fortune of my life circumstances.

And contrary to popular belief, there was more to 2016 than celebrity deaths and political decay. As Swedish writer and historian Johan Norberg reminds us, the past year has seen plenty of amazing progress in areas as wide ranging as conservation, public healthy, and conflict resolution. Here are just ten examples: Continue reading

The Fortunate Optimist

Many will — and indeed have — rightly point out that the only reason I am a fairly optimistic person is that I have lived a comparatively easy and privileged life. But I think that is how it should be — why should I be so grim when I have been so lucky? Why should I squander my good fortune and opportunity when so many others — indeed, the majority of humans who have ever lived and who presently live — have suffered far greater hardship and injustice. I am grateful to even have a basis for hopefulness and enthusiasm, so I cherish and cultivate it accordingly. It is not about being starry-eyed, naive, and willfully ignorant, but trying to keep even the bad in one’s life, and in the world at large, in check however one can.

Of course, this is not to say that people do not have good reasons to be cynical, regardless of their seemingly positive circumstances and experiences, or that pessimists are categorically ungrateful and ignorant. Like almost any person that has ever lived, I have seen and experienced enough to know that there are reasonable grounds to feel hopeless, misanthropic, and even nihilistic — indeed, I struggle regularly with bouts of those feelings as well. But for practical and philosophical reasons, I try to balance it out by valuing whatever flicker of hope I can find (be it in my life or among humanity as a whole).

What are your thoughts?


Big Ideas: Little Packages

The following is courtesy of National Geographic, another one of my top sources. Though widely perceived to be strictly anthropological in it’s content (and for the most part it is), “Nat Geo” covers a wide-range of topics, delving into science, history, the arts, and even political science. I highly recommend it for those of you with broader tastes in addition to a love of photographic splendor.

Though I should have been in bed hours ago, I could not resist sharing this little gem, rich I just read earlier today. It’s a list of simple but dynamic innovations that could save entire communities across the world, particularly in least-developed nations. The link for it is here, and all but one of the inventions shown come with their own website for those interested in learning more. Most are either awaiting release or have already been introduced in limited number to their target demographics. All of them thankfully appear to have passed their trials.

As the introduction succinctly notes:

Can good design save the world? It just might, one novel idea at a time. Sparked by programs like the Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability course at Stanford University’s Institute of Design, designers are creating products to meet the needs of communities in developing countries. It turns out that even the most pressing problems, from health care to potable water, can have affordable—and beautifully designed—solutions.

Indeed, that’s best part: most of these concepts are particularly complex or profound, yet they accomplish as much as we would expect from an expensive new technology. It’s all a matter of applying clever, practical designs – or re-conceptualizing existing ones – to address very particular needs.

For example, one elegant invention is a mere water container that is shaped in such a way as to make it easier to transport (it can be rolled along the ground rather than be carried). This is great for the millions of women and children who must traverse miles of often treacherous land to find water, only to be burdened with a heavier load on the way back.

Another of my personal favorites consist of nothing more than filling one clay pot with sand, than wedging another clay pot within it, keeping them separated by a barrier of wet substrate. As it dries, the evaporated water keeps food preserved for weeks, rather than the usual few days. Simple, cheap, and easy to make just about anywhere. Most fascinating is the fact that this is based on a rather ancient technique. It’s amazing to think that some of the modern world’s problems have already been addressed by our predecessors thousands of years ago!

As regular readers know, I’m a “devout” humanist – I believe in the worth and positive nature of the human species, and am more-or-less optimistic about our capacity to do good for one another and the world. Though I find myself increasingly susceptible to bouts of pessimism and outright misanthropy, witnessing our the exercise of higher faculties – our capacity to ponder, explore, discover, and invent – gives me a surge of renewed hope and enthusiasm.

I can’t wait for these sleek and simple inventions to reach the masses and improve the lives of millions. Funding and coordination is always a difficult process for these sorts of things: all sorts of technologies currently exist that could better the lot of humanity, yet they rarely make it passed their own trials – and even when they do, mass-producing and distributing them is a whole other story. This no doubt explains the growing emphasis on simplicity and affordability that more and more inventors are opting for.

Therein lies the beauty of innovation. It’s not just a matter of creativity or advanced engineering. It’s solving a problem in whatever way possible, and insuring that it’s as easy as any other known thus far. If this short list of ideas are vastly beneficial as they stand, imagine what more could be accomplished if we invest more resources into science and research? It’s something policymakers, investors, and the general public should ponder.

The Defiant Optimist

The other day, someone asked me how I can be so optimistic and idealistic (I’ll humbly add naive at times too) in spite of all the terrible things I read and study about regularly. Indeed, it’s a question I get asked quite frequently, and it’s certainly not an unfair one. Conventional wisdom holds that the more someone knows, the more depressed they’re likely to be. Put another way, the more intelligent or informed you are, the more miserable you probably are too.

I’ll concede that there is some degree of truth to this axiom. There are indeed many unhappy and disquieting subjects out there, and one doesn’t even need to be especially scholarly in any way to be at least remotely aware of them. War, poverty, corruption, torture, genocide, injustice, disease,  and other miserable topics have been present throughout the entire span of our existence. Moreover, one can go even deeper and become intimately aware of  specific events and stories that are rife with examples of brutality, betrayal, dishonesty, immorality, and injustice, among many other unpleasant factors.

Thus, the idea of ignorance being bliss would seem a valid proposition. Obviously, the more we shelter ourselves from all this nastiness that pervades our existence, the better we’ll feel, comparatively speaking. After all, humans are naturally empathetic creatures – even the most hardened of us, barring any mental illness, will in some way be negatively affected by too much exposure to morbid and cynical issues (indeed, the hardhearted are often such because they’ve seen and known enough to become detached or even numb).

I myself have personally experienced periods of cynicism, misanthropy, and even long-term depression largely as a consequence of delving into these terrible facts of life. I’ve even had bouts of nihilism that admittedly still surface from time to time, albeit briefly. An underlying objective in one of my majors,  International Relations,  was understanding war and human conflict in general (in fact, the entire field was created mostly in response to the world wars, in an attempt to understand and prevent such things from happening again).  That naturally exposes us to the worst of human nature: our propensity for violence, bigotry, insecurity, greed, and power hunger.

Moreover, IR required us to learn about history and (obviously) the world as a whole. But human history is rife with war, tyranny, and moral degradation, which all tend stand out more than anything else; the world is full of countries beset by these same things and more. Working to make the world a peaceful place, or to provide humanitarian assistance to it’s populace, thus requires a deep and intimate understanding of some of the most disturbing elements of our existence. It seems like a perverse trade-off: if I want to help the world and combat what ails it, I must come to understand all the evils that contribute to human suffering. I must also develop empathy with the suffering, putting myself in the place of those who’ve experienced misery and pain on a level I could never remotely relate with – and would never want to.

In any case I’ve always been naturally drawn to these things. I chose to major in International Relations because I had an inclination towards learning about other countries, perspectives, and problems of the human condition. Perhaps I am just a morbid person deep down or something, who knows (why we are who are and why we do what we do merits a whole other discussion that I”ll save for another post).

But going back the question that started all this musing, I find the answer to be rather simple, if not intuitive: when one sees how much more horrible things are for many – if not most – people in the world, one comes to appreciate everything more. The rancid poverty and disease and oppression that befalls the bulk of the human race, as has been the case for our entire history, can be sickening to behold, but it makes for a macabre reminder for why I should count every blessing, not matter how small: a warm bed to sleep in, clean water to drink, electricity, even an indoor toilet – all these things are far more than what my average fellow human enjoys.

Furthermore, such a terrible realty can also be made to be a source of great inspiration. Among all that suffering there is always perseverance and progress. For all the evils of human nature that I am exposed to, there are also many admirable and enlightening traits, as people come together and harness their talent and sheer will to make it through the worst that life has to offer. I often find myself amazed at how some folks could pull through these unthinkable tragedies. I can’t help but wonder if I or others I know, in all our comfort, could ever muster such courage and fortitude in the face of such overwhelming and despairing obstacles.

Most importantly, I also realize that the world around us could crumble at any moment. With the future being so uncertain, and humanity beset by so many daunting struggles that challenge our very survival, we must make the most of every second we have on this Earth. Cherish the people, places, and things that we have and live life to the fullest. Obviously, I’m not suggesting we just ignore the world’s problems and live it up the best we can. We should always endeavor to do our part in fixing our society as best we can. But it wouldn’t hurt to stop wallowing in misery and realize just how good we have it.

Frankly, a part of my feels rather guilty for thinking this way. I feel wrong looking at the plight of poor and suffering people and subsequently deriving some sort of satisfaction with myself. It feels almost exploitive, but I can’t help it. The way I see it, I am making the most out of the negativity I am regularly exposed to. Rather than sulk or become miserable, I instead try to let it motivate me: to live a better life, make the most of what I have, and work to rectify the many problems society faces. Granted, such reasoning isn’t flawless, but it’s the most I can.

Besides, nothing was ever done without enthusiasm. No amount of misery, misanthropy, and cynicism is going to make my life – or the world as a whole – better. There’s no point in letting all this get to me when I have so much more to live for.