Reasons for optimism in 2012

Earlier this year, I was asked to contribute to Cosmopolitan magazine’s January edition – 50 Things to be Grateful For (or to Look Forward To) in 2012. Here’s what I said:

When we think about the evolution and development of society, we often emphasise competition rather than cooperation. But nature – including our natures – is only partly described by Tennyson’s famous description of it as ‘red in tooth and claw’. We also evolve through cooperation aimed at finding better ways to live, to educate, to govern and communicate. It’s worth highlighting three aspects here of relevance to South Africans.

The first, relevant to all humans, is that we seem to be getting less violent. Kurt Schock’s 2005 book Unarmed Insurrections, and more recently Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels Of Our Nature: How Violence Has Declined present compelling cases for the notion that the past few decades have seen a substantial shift from away from war and towards resolving differences in less destructive ways.

The second, related to the first, is the rise of civil society as a force in accomplishing these resolutions. In South Africa, the Right to Know campaign has reminded South Africans that they can make a loud enough noise for government to be forced to pay attention. Elsewhere, tyrannical regimes are even being caused to fall, partly as a result of this (usually) nonviolent form of people’s power, as in the so-called Arab Spring.

And finally, we shouldn’t forget that a peaceful and prosperous future is only possible if we empower everybody to determine the course of their own lives, and help them develop the resources to do so. A vital foundation for having such control is education especially for women, who have historically suffered a disproportionate share of social inequality – often propped up by high fertility rates and low levels of economic agency. While readers of Cosmopolitan will no doubt be less affected by these factors than many other women, the welfare of our fellow citizens affects us all through impacts on government spending and social harmony (amongst other things). It is thus immensely heartening to note that while still unacceptably high, literacy rates are steadily increasing, and fertility rates are falling.

We have a long, long way to go, but it’s not only Polyannas who dare to imagine that they see light at the end of the tunnel.

There are of course countless reasons for little or no optimism. But seeing as those are undoubtedly all over the news as per usual, I’ll leave it there, and wish you all a good year.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.