Imagine you had the chance to be reborn at any time in human history. What would you choose?
There are plenty of sights that it would be a delight to experience first-hand. The first time our ancestors grabbed a tool. The moment pen was put to paper. Civilisation’s dawn, and the flourishing that followed. You might choose to watch Michaelangelo add the final daubs of paint to the Sistine Chapel, or cram into a 16th-Century theatre to watch a Shakespeare opening night.
However, living to see these momentary highlights would also bring myriad downsides. If you got ill, your medical care might involve leeches and trepanning. A violent death would always feel near. And the probability would be that you would be poor and hungry for most of your life. For the majority of people throughout history, life was hard, short and at times, brutal.
If you had the chance to be reborn, one of the smarter, more prudent choices would be today; right now. At times, it can feel like 2016 has been a bad year, with global terrorism flaring, refugee crises, climate change and race-related shootings to name a few of the gloomier headlines. There is no doubt that our species is far from nailing the task of becoming a prosperous, harmonious civilisation.
The likelihood of a violent death has never been lower; on average, we’re better educated than ever, and childhood mortality has plummeted
Nonetheless, as the researchers Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna argued recently in their book Age of Discovery, we’ve never had it so good. Life expectancy, they point out, has risen more in the past 50 years than the previous 1000: a child born in 2016 stands a fairly good chance of seeing the arrival of the 22nd Century. The likelihood of a violent death has never been lower; on average, we’re better educated than ever, and childhood mortality has plummeted. Among the most striking changes, the last few decades has brought remarkable successes in tackling global poverty: in 1981, almost half the people in the developing world lived below the poverty line; as of 2012, that figure had dropped to 12.7%.
Apart from an increase in living standards, such improvements mean that we are, in turn, better placed to solve the 21st Century’s problems. “These conditions create an ideal habitat for ideas and genius to flourish, and that flourishing is well under way,” write Goldin and Kutarna. “Science and technology has never been closer to flipping our basic condition from scarcity to abundance.”
And that’s important because in 2016 major global challenges are manifold. We may have never had it so good, but there’s no doubt that there remains much to improve about the world. Humanity’s profligacy is threatening to send global temperatures rising; our over-use of drugs places us on the cusp of an antibiotic apocalypse, and we are far from solving the continual and ubiquitous global suffering caused by disease, cancer and mental health problems. And that’s before you even consider the myriad societal issues we have yet to deal with, such as inequality, oppression, prejudice and lack of personal freedom.
No single person can change the world, but if enough talented minds are put to enough discrete problems – if we share knowledge, and exchange ideas with one another – then seemingly incremental progress can gradually transform into great leaps.
The World-Changing Ideas Summit
A meeting of great minds
In November, BBC Future is staging a special event in Sydney, Australia, bringing together a diverse selection of talented and innovative scientists, technologists and thinkers to discuss tomorrow's big ideas. Discover more...
That’s why BBC Future decided to bring together a selection of the world’s most fascinating thinkers at a live event. Sharing ideas, we believe, is the best way to nudge our species forward: what makes human beings unique among life on Earth is the ability to connect our minds.
Our ‘World-Changing Ideas Summit’ on 15 November in Sydney promises to be a thought-provoking exploration of how technology, science and health will transform the human experience. A unique and diverse group of people from the worlds of tech, medicine, transport, space travel and more will present bold ideas, showcase new technology, provoke discussion, and challenge imaginations about our shared future.
- BBC TV presenter Michael Mosley on the future of food and health
- Scientist Heather Hendrickson on tackling the antibiotic apocalypse
- Uber’s Kevin Corti on the hidden patterns of city transport
- Researcher and TV presenter Emma Johnston on the impact of cities on oceans
- Astronauts Ron Garan and Andrew Thomas on the coming era of space travel
Browse the WCIS speaker list, and agenda.
To be part of this conversation, and to discuss the world-changing ideas that could transform our future for the better, join us in Sydney as an audience member, or follow BBC Future on Facebook for news, updates and live coverage.
So, to return to the opening question: what is the true best time to be alive? If humanity can continue to intelligently exploit the findings of science and technology to reshape our future, the answer is simple:
Richard Fisher is the Editor of BBC Future. Twitter: @rifish
Join 700,000+ Future fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn and Instagram.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.