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Silver Lining Day

April 4, 2011

A few years ago, a BBC newsreader and journalist called Martyn Lewis came in for much criticism because of his attempts to promote good news in his employer’s news bulletins. He was accused of trivialising the news. Everyone knows, after all, that the most important stories are those that cause us to furrow our brows, mutter silent curses and lose our beauty sleep through worrying about the consequences.

Even when we hear positive stories, we search for the dark side. A million less people dying from cancer every year? Great, but what about the other hundred million? Unemployment figures down? Fine, but that doesn’t alter the fundamental causes.

I’m as guilty as the next guy. As I pontificate about the Middle East and other serious topics, my favourite sentiment is “good, but”. That’s when I’m not wallowing in the dark side with no redeeming suggestion of hope.

Yesterday’s Sunday Times carries an article by Richard Woods, Don’t Worry, Be Happy, (sorry, can’t give you a link unless you’re prepared to pay the Sunday Times for access) in which he reports the deliberations of a bunch of optimists who got together recently in Oxford to discuss the “megatrends and context for large scale changes”. Woods cites six reasons why life has got better in the past fifty years: falling poverty, increased disposable income, reduced infant mortality, increased food supplies, increased life expectancy and reducing costs of technology.

Going straight into “good, but” mode, I would be tempted to say sure, try telling that to a family in the Niger Delta or the hinterland of North Korea.

Futurology is a great game. I’d love to be paid a fortune to think great thoughts about the world in fifty years’ time. In fact I do think such thoughts, and you get them from 59steps for free – worthless or otherwise is for you to decide!

But moving down the scale from megatrends , I’m going to see if I can make Martyn Lewis – if he’s still alive – proud of me by declaring my own Silver Lining Day. In that spirit here are five pieces of bad news from which – if you try really hard – you can derive some underlying positives.

Let’s start with Pastor Terry Jones. The bad news is that he or one of his mates finally did it. They burned a Quran, and in doing so sparked a riot in Afghanistan in which several UN personnel lost their lives. The good news is that now he’s played his ace, there’s a fair chance that he will slither away into an entirely deserved obscurity. Also good news that a few more people might remember that the physical manifestation of words on a page is not the same as the message Muslims believe was sent to the Prophet Mohammed and repeated by him as an oral recitation. Book burners have never destroyed fundamental ideas, and never will.

Next on the list – the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The bad news is that people have died, and across a wide region the survivors will be thinking twice about eating sushi and seaweed. The good news is that when the politicians have overcome their squeamishness about continuing to advocate nuclear power in the face of negative public opinion, there is the chance they might realise that the lessons learned at Fukushima can contribute to mitigating the risks of the technology. So thanks to Fukushima, future nuclear installations can be made safer. Assuming you’re still a believer in nuclear power, that is.

Next, Libya. The bad news is that people are still dying in their droves. The good news is that the Libyan revolt reminds us that revolution takes more than a month of demonstrations, and that every country and every situation is different. Overarching rules and doctrines cannot apply, and the purpose of change has to be to provide a platform for better lives. And that can take years, not a few frenzied weeks. Reality has returned.

Then, arising partly out of the Libyan crisis, we have the oil price spike. The bad news is that it threatens to push many of the wealthy economies into recession, and destabilise the weaker ones. The good news is that we have yet another event that forces us to think beyond oil. Yes, even you, Saudi Arabia, who could power the world with just a tiny fraction of your sun-blessed desert. If there is one advantage of political systems in which the rulers don’t have to stand for election, it is that those in power can take long-term decisions without fearing the consequences, especially if they can afford it. That’s another silver lining for frustrated advocates of democracy, by the way. So governments and gas guzzlers everywhere, you have yet another chance to do the right thing.

Next, back to Japan. I don’t have to spell out the bad news – the suffering speaks for itself. But the good news is that more than almost any other nation, the Japanese have the discipline and determination to recover rapidly from the disaster. The stimulus to the economy of the billions of reconstruction yen will see to that. Whatever you might think about the protectionist instincts of the Japanese politicians and economists, the world needs a strong Japanese economy, and on a human level, the long-suffering Japanese people now deserve some good fortune.

Try as I might, I can’t think of any silver linings for Pakistan, Afghanistan, North Korea, any number of African nations, and for the people of Palestine, Somalia and Yemen. But trust me, they’re out there if we look hard enough. And I’m looking.

I’ll end with one more piece of bad news that has nothing to do with the world and everything to do with me. A couple of weeks ago I turned sixty. The bad news for me is that unless I emulate Jeanne Calment, the lady in Arles who lived to be one hundred and twenty, I have less time left on the planet than I have already spent. The good news is that I’m approaching a time when I never have to wear a suit again, when people forgive me for repeating myself and forgetting things, and when courteous youngsters offer me a seat on public transport because of my advancing years.

Well, the last one’s a bit far-fetched, I agree. But the best thing of all is that despite the aches and pains of old sports injuries and other self-inflicted debilitation, there is one part of me that – albeit perhaps in a state of delusion – I feel is working better than ever. That’s my mind. And the joy of being sixty is that provided I look after yourself, I will hopefully have decades of sense-making and constructive thinking to look forward to before Dr Alzheimer comes calling, plus even more decades of memories and experience to fall back on.

That’s a serious silver lining!

  1. So the vacation was also a birthday celebration?

    All the very best for future decades.

    • You’re too kind, Rupert. There are many more highwaymen apart from Dr Alzheimer waiting to accost us, but the same applies to any age. Inshallah!

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