During the early 1990s, crimes like gunfire, rape, robbery, carjacking, and other violence were on relentless rise in the US. Experts predicted that a generation of killers was about to hurl the country into deep chaos.
In 1995, criminologist James Allen Fox predicted the rate of teen homicide to rise by 15 percent over the next decade at best; at worst, it would double. President Clinton declared they had about six years “to turn this juvenile crime thing around.” Else his successors’ biggest struggle would be to keep body and soul together for people on the street.
Then crime began to fall with astounding magnitude. Instead of rising by 100 percent or even fifteen percent as Fox warned, crime fell more than 50 percent within five years. By 2000, the overall crime rate in the US dropped to its lowest level in 35 years.
Doomsayers changed their tunes overnight. They attributed it to the roaring economy of the 1990s. Others hailed innovative policing strategies, and so on.
All these explanations sounded logical and believable. But none of them were true.
What really turned crime rates around was a tiny event that occurred in the 1970s: the Roe v. Wade case.
Roe v. Wade
Norma McCorvey, a poor, uneducated, unskilled, alcoholic, drug-using twenty-one-year-old woman wanted to abort her third pregnancy in 1970. But abortion was illegal in most states across the US at that time.
People far more powerful than McCorvey adopted her cause and made her the lead plaintiff in a case seeking to legalize abortion. The defendant was Henry Wade, a public prosecutor. By the time the case made it to the US Supreme Court, McCorvey’s name got changed to Jane Roe, and the case became known as Roe v. Wade.
The court ruled in favor of McCorvey in 1973, by which time she already gave birth. Yet, this judgment had a drastic effect.
The cases of legal abortions sharply rose from 750,000 in 1973 to around 1.5 million each year until the 1980s. Millions of poor, unmarried, teenage girls could ensure they didn’t give birth to children who, studies showed, were much more likely than average to become criminals. As a result, crime rates plummeted by up to 45 percent.
None of the “experts” talked about this event.
The world is going to end (not).
Doomsayers paint a bleak picture of the world. They appear to present a case of Cassandra Complex, a social phenomenon where people’s accurate predictions of crises get ignored. Their predictions, critiques, and arguments present juicy bytes for the media to sink its teeth into. As a result, doomsayers always hog the spotlight.
I’m all for conversations that create awareness. But “awareness” that doesn’t invoke action is harmful for multiple reasons.
First, it spirals into blame games. The “someone-must-do-something” doomsayers berate others for “not doing enough.” In turn, people on the other side push back. To the extent that they refuse to accept the gravity of a situation. All we see and hear are shouts and screams.
Second, others jump on the bandwagon and sabotage discussions to forward their own vested interests, which dilutes the original cause and makes it toxic.
Finally, doomsayers believe their “world-is-going-to-end” rhetoric with such conviction that they refuse to notice the work happening on the ground. They refuse to acknowledge the power of the exponential growth curve.
What is the Exponential Growth Curve?
Work during the embryonic stages is often so tiny it’s invisible. But when the outcomes double win power on a regular basis, they cause disruption, much like a proverbial butterfly flapping its wings in one continent and create a hurricane in another. This is known as exponential growth.
During the initial phases, results are minuscule. 0.01 doubles to 0.02 which becomes 0.04, 0.08, and so on. To the naked eye, this still appears like zero, like nothing is happening. But when the exponential curve compounds from decimals to whole numbers (1, 2, 4, 8, and so on), its results start becoming visible. Now, the outcomes are just 30 steps away from a billion-fold improvement. (source)
Consider your smartphone. In the 1950s and ‘60s, processors were expensive and slow. But over time, their speed rapidly advanced and prices drastically fell. The result is that the device you’re probably reading this article on is more powerful than the computers that sent the first rocket to the moon. Likewise, cameras that costed tens of thousands of dollars in the 1960s cost less than $20 in your smartphone today.
The Great Horse Manure Crisis is another example. In 1894, The Times declared: “in 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure.” The reasoning was that they needed additional horses to remove manure the horse carriages left on the street. And those additional horses would produce more manure.
But Karl Benz had applied for a patent in 1886 for his “vehicle powered by a gas engine.” This was the beginning of the automobile revolution. By 1920, all cars were mass-produced. Just like that, we averted the crisis.
The Roe v. Wade case is another example of exponential results from tiny events.
A present-day example of this phenomenon is climate change. Doomsayers keep declaring that emissions will kill the world in the next fifty years. They berate world leaders for not doing enough.
But much of the good work is currently flying under the radar. The Ocean Interceptor, the Tesla Powerwall, technologies like geoengineering and 3D Printing… Critics say the new tech is slow and expensive (like computing was in the 1960s), that it doesn’t solve the whole problem. But they ignore the power of the exponential growth curve, which will make evolving tech affordable and mainstream.
The same holds true for other concerns like the Indian economy and gender bias at work. These are grave issues. But instead of highlighting only the negatives, let’s look beneath the surface to discover good work and celebrate it.
It’s important to pose questions about pressing issues. But it’s more important to educate ourselves by collecting more information, building balanced perspectives, and searching for our own answers before doing so. This will help us ask better (and more meaningful) questions instead of behaving like the herd.
Let’s not confuse whistleblowers with doomsayers. Whistleblowers raise red flags that, if addressed, timely, can avert drastic outcomes (like the COVID—19 virus, the subprime crisis, and the Bhopal Gas Tragedy). Unfortunately, those voices get stifled while the ones that create noise get handed the microphones.
We should celebrate action.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood… and who at the worst fails while daring greatly.” — Theodore Roosevelt
Let’s listen to people, but do our own homework too. Let’s glorify the doers instead of the demanders. Let’s contribute to solutions instead of adding to problems.
The world is much better than doomsayers make it appear. The human spirit is far more resilient than we know. We can be a part of positive change. if we pay attention to the right things.
After all, change begins with us.