I can understand nostalgia. I can understand looking back to a time when I was younger, fitter, faster, thinner, more attractive, more self assured and thinking it was better then. All those years ago I had been lied to less often, I had experienced cheating less often and had been disappointed less often, so perhaps it is not surprising these times have a rosy glow of the ‘good old days’. But although I remember those times fondly I am also aware that there were, in many significant ways worse.
As a baby boomer my early life was spend in the 60’s and 70’s and it was substantially different to that of my children’s. In those days many fewer of us went into tertiary education, foreign travel was an exotic figment of our imagination, central heating was known only to the wealthy. Television and car ownership had spread to the populace but cars were primitive compared to our current models and “one car families” were the norm as were television sets which could provide our three, or later four, broadcast channels. Ideas such as personal computers, digital photography, mobile phones, satellite navigation, and the internet were still science fiction. So although I may be nostalgic for my young self I am not nostalgic, in any true sense, for that period of time.
Individually my life was certainly less materially wealthy than my children’s and much less so than my own life now. But on a bigger scale there have been much more important changes with life changing effects.
In America last year 3,500,000 fewer Americans were in poverty according to the national census (1). In China millions have been pulled out of poverty especially in the urban centres (2). Across the globe, with varying degrees of success, absolute poverty is declining. Between 1990 and 2010, millions of people were taken out of extreme poverty when this was halved according to the World Bank (3). These changes would seem to relate to our growing trade and, as a consequence, wealth. This growth in trade has also been associated with a reduction in deaths from violence. We are less likely to be killed or injured by others of our own species (4). Millions more of us now live free from actual violence, whether personal assault or as a consequence of war. Diseases which used to kill millions are now plagues of the past and part of history. Recall that smallpox, a killer of billions, was declared eradicated in 1980 (5).
It is unusual then, in the face off all these numbers and in the face of our own personal experience we are still so pessimistic and nostalgic. All our experience is that life has got better both for ourselves and for others. We can all see that materially we are much more affluent than generations before us. Our life expectancy figures let us know that we are less plagued by illness and early death than before. We may not know it but we are freer from violence and live in a more sociable society with less crime than before and the figures are quite clear on this – despite our perception
But despite all of this, still only 30% of us think life has improved and 43% of us feel Britain has changed for the worse (6). While recently 44% worried for the future (7) when all our experience is that things tend to get better.
Were this nostalgia and pessimism merely a pleasant fondness for our youth passed the there would be no problem. Unfortunately, however, we often believe life was better, rather then were better, those days ago. This leads us to make mistakes. It makes us hanker for old certainties, to look back at old ways of doing things, when what we need to do is to continue the progress we have made. It sometimes makes us fear the future and change. For example our fear of GM crops, and “golden rice” in particular, will consign 2 million children to an avoidable early death next year(8). We have not run out of challenges facing mankind and there is no good reason to try and put the brakes on progress.
Our rose tinted spectacles can also mislead us into reactionary, or backward looking, politics; wistfully thinking back of times of national pride and fearing globalisation. The future problems we will have to overcome will require continued trade, continued free movement of people, continued intermingling of peoples and knowledge. To think otherwise will lead us to miss opportunities which will consign present generations to experience unnecessary illness, hardship or violence. If we want a bright and optimistic future we will have to believe it possible and work to make it. We should not give up hope or wallow in nostalgia. In the wise words of Abraham Lincoln “The best way to predict your future is to create it”