How Can This Be? Are People Getting Better While the World is Getting Worse?

Where does it go wrong? It seems to me that we know how to help individuals heal from trauma. It seems to me that we even know how to enable individuals to live more fulfilling lives. But this doesn’t transfer neatly and naturally into making the world a better place.

In my life I have spent some time listening to people. Some of these people had significant difficulties doing the usual things and maintaining the usual types of relationships. Some couldn’t persevere in a way that meant being employed even a few hours a week, others had very few relationships — some didn’t want to go out their front door.

At what is thought of as the other end of the spectrum, for a brief while I worked in a gaol. This taught me a couple of things: most crime is financial, and most crime is drug related (so legalise the damn things and find a way to deal with it!). I was leading classes in ‘Cognitive Skills’ (which came down to thinking about the consequences before acting) and such things.

In all this time spent listening to people I have been surprised by how well people do. Even with people who exhibit quite nasty behaviour, when I have found out their background I have been surprised by how well they are doing. I have found this without exception.

A qualification is in order. I have been listening to people who are willing to talk — so this is a biased sample. To some extent these are people who are willing to at least talk about what is happening for them, and what has happened in their past.

With this qualification I have found that people are usually doing better than could be realistically expected once we know their past trauma. I have met several people who have had experiences that I am certain I couldn’t have gone through and remained sane. My observation is that people are usually doing better than their parents did. This leads me to think that individuals are getting better.

It seems to me that in many ways the world is getting worse, especially in relation to the two crises of ‘ancient sunlight’ (fossil fuels). There is the crisis of heating our planet by burning fossil fuels (global warming) and the crisis of their imminent demise (peak oil). These crises affect us all, but not equally. It is the poor who suffer first and most severely. The response to both these crises by government seems pathetic. We have had the remarkable spectacle of oil companies doing more about alternative fuels than governments (at least in Australia, where I’m from).

What I find so intriguing and appalling is the mismatch between individuals and the global situation. Individuals are getting better, but the global situation is getting worse.

There is a saying that good people lead to good families; good families lead to good neighbourhoods; good neighbourhoods lead to good countries; and good countries make a good world. The counterpart is that, “For evil to triumph, all that is required is for the good to remain silent”. (I pass over the problem of who is good, who is bad, and who decides.) Both these approaches reduce the global to the individual. If the world is in a bad way it is up to me to fix it.

This reduction to the individual has its truth. Sitting around complaining may be pleasant (for some people anyway), but it doesn’t do anything to address the situation. Every change starts with someone — and if I don’t start I don’t know whether it will be me.

But, well, it doesn’t seem to work. Most people do not approve of much injustice they see around them, and yet it persists. Most people would never treat those close to them, or even strangers, with the flagrant injustice handed out to the poorer nations or the poor in the richer nations. Somewhere along the line, good people aren’t leading to a good world.

The biggest problem I have with this reduction to the individual is that it seems unrealistic — or just plain grandiose. The change may start with one person, but it doesn’t stop there. Changing the world involves large numbers of people — and often huge amounts of communication and technology. To expect one individual to change the world is a crushing burden. For each individual to change what they have control of can be liberation.

A qualification is in order. There are huge numbers of people and organisations working to make the world a better place. There are extraordinarily creative and innovative breakthroughs being made. It seems to me that there are no technical impediments stopping the world providing a good life for all its inhabitants (though perhaps without a few of the material goods that those in the wealthier parts of the world are used to).

Where does it go wrong? It seems to me that we know how to help individuals heal from trauma. It seems to me that we even know how to enable individuals to live more fulfilling lives. But this doesn’t transfer neatly and naturally into making the world a better place.

Here are the ideas I have about where the breakdown occurs between the individual and the global and what to do about it:

  • I think we know how to be human in small groups but not in large crowds.
  • I think that if power corrupts, then so does powerlessness. People want a sense of agency — control over their lives, and the sense that they can make a difference to the problems that they see around them.
  • I think that to fix global problems, people need a local way to address the global problem.
  • I think that we need better ways of decision making than the bureaucratic and current political polarising. There are ways such as citizen juries already in existence.

I am aware that every word I have written here can be contested and disagreed with. I invite you to do this in the comments. In my experience it is possible to find a way toward a common goal with those I disagree with. If we, with good will, can surface our disagreements and discuss them, then I find that relationships improve instead of deteriorating. And, as grandiose as this may be, this gives me hope for our world.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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