Hope is a hard sell these days.
For reasons that defy analysis, there are a great many people out there, perhaps even a majority, who are traveling though this life convinced the world is a horrible place and getting worse by the minute. Scroll down your Facebook page, read your local letters to the editor, or just visit any public forum and you’ll see it, a sea of Sturm und Drang. Even those who would offer some glimmer of hope for the future, do so with a matter-of-fact slash at the world’s crumbling status.
“I know we all had a terrible year, but …”
“I realize the world isn’t what it used to be, but …”
Not to but too fine an edge on it, but these people really need to get their heads out of their butts.
The reality of it is, we live in amazing times. This world offers more opportunity to more people than at any other pointing human history. We live longer, eat better, enjoy more free time and are witness to technological advances that promise to make our childrens’ lives even richer. The great evils of the world — slavery, genocide, starvation — are in decline. In almost every measurable way, humans are at the top of their game.
So why the dour mood? I can only guess. For some, it’s an issue of personal stake. The world population as a whole may be better off, but in your house there is sickness or sadness or financial woes. And while you are almost certainly doing immeasurably better than whatever your 19th century counterpart would have been, that sort of perspective comes hard for most folks.
For others, it’s a sense that the country isn’t going where they would like. Lost elections, changing rules and the fact that the majority is shifting have some of us clinging to a inaccurate belief that the world was better in the last decade or generation or, for some of you, millennium.
I suspect the greatest contributor may be access. That same technology that spurs much of the globes greatness, also offers us 24 hour access to its failings. There is still evil in the world, still poverty and murder and wicked men, and now we know about it all in great detail. One hundred or even 50 years ago, we would have heard little about a tragedy taking place beyond or shores or community. Now we hear it all. A lot of people blame the media for this. They are certainly complicit, but we have the freedom to choose which media we follow, and while you should not block out the ugliness of the world, you can choose to balance it with a little hope.
The latest issue of Smithsonian magazine is absolutely chock-full of that sort of hope. The issue features the recipients of the Smithsonian’s annual American Ingenuity Awards and offers a glance at the amazing places our nation and world are heading.
Start with the simple fact that it took us 121 years to establish the first 1 million patents on new American ideas. The most recent million came in just five years. And some of those innovations have the power to change our world.
Take Sebastian Thrun, an artificial intelligence expert most famous for his work on self-driving cars. He is now leading the charge on increasing and improving access and quality of online education. His Udacity.com offers free courses taught by academics and industry innovators, all free. In time, financial and economic barriers to education can be eliminated and a poor child in New Delhi or Cridersville will have access to a world-class education.
Or consider Elon Musk, who took wealth earned developing the company that would become PayPal and used it to figure out how to launch cargo carriers into space at one-tenth the cost of a Space Shuttle launch. His side project is the Tesla electric car, the latest version of which can travel 300 miles on a charge, go zero to 60 in 5.5 seconds, and can seat five with room for golf clubs. The cost is $57,000 — a serious decline from its predecessors' $200,000 price tags — and comes with an eight-year, 100,000-mile warranty.
Finally, if you want real inspiration, check out the story of Jack Andraka, a high school sophomore who won the $75,000 grand prize at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair as a freshman. His breakthrough uses nanotubes to uncover a protein called mesothelin. I won’t pretend to understand the details, but basically, the presence of too much mesothelin in the blood is an early warning of pancreatic cancer, so Andraka’s method could create a simple and affordable way to identify the cancer early. About 40,000 people died of pancreatic cancer last year, including a family friend of Andraka — meaning a 14-year-old kid from Maryland was compassionate enough to get worked up about the cause of a friend’s death and smart enough to help figure out a way to keep it from happening to others.
If that doesn’t give you hope, well, there’s just no hope for you.