For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined.
Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (Harpercollins, 2017), 2.
Read that again. Let it really sink in. Right now, as you live and breathe, more people are dying due to an influx of sustenance, not a deficit. More people are living out their lives to their body’s physical limit than are dying from infectious disease. And more people are consciously choosing to opt out of life by way of suicide than are being forcefully removed from it by another human being.
When I say let that sink in, I’m afraid you don’t understand how deeply I think you should go. What I mean to say is that you should do more than just smile to yourself and acknowledge how counterintuitive those facts are and then carry on with your day. You should be taking an imaginative leap into what the state of the world actually is.
An imaginative leap into what the world actually is? Isn’t imagination for transcending what’s actual? Nope. Not anymore, welcome to the 21st century. It’s a strange notion, but it’s true. Understanding even the simplest of facts about our current condition now requires a stretch of imagination that was previously used to entertain fantasies. We may not look like the Jetsons, but in a whole host of ways we are living in a sci-fi future.
This cognitive skill is summed up brilliantly by Richard Feynman, a physicist known for his ability to make devastating insights by imagining what a physical system might look like from the particle’s point of view.
Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.
Richard Feynman, The Character of Physical Law (Modern Library, 1999), 9.
Feynman was a practitioner of this cognitive “imagination” skill because physics was in turmoil and demanded it. In our situation, I’m asking far less of you. Forget about particles, quantum electrodynamics, and string theory. Just imagine yourself living in a world that is safer than any other time in history. A world that was built on foundations capable of achieving radical progress. A world that is ripe for our philanthropic and entrepreneurial taking. Here’s another fact,
The United Nations estimates that poverty was reduced more in the last fifty years than in the previous 500.
Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (Harper-Collins, 2010), 15.
Is it starting to sink in? More in the last 50 years than in the previous 500. While caveats surely exist, there is something unique about these data. What should catch our attention are the sheer orders of magnitude. We can argue minutia about what really qualifies as tangible progress, but with the particular metrics at hand, there is not much to debate.
What we commonly consider to be “imagination” is starting to sound more like an unprecedented cognitive tool than an escape from reality. In a sense, we should be escaping into reality armed with this information and start working the levers from the inside. Take the leap, stretch your intuitions, and know that in many cases truth is stranger than fiction.