Five Lessons from History (4/5)

"The irony is that growth - if you can stick around - is a more powerful force, because it compounds, but setbacks capture greater attention because they happen suddenly."
- Morgan Housel

Lesson #4: Progress happens too slowly for people to notice; setbacks happen too fast for people to ignore.

Our obsession with drama

I can think of an almost infinite number of incidents which have resulted in a large number of deaths. The worst of them all, the 1918 outbreak of the Spanish flu, caused more than 50 million deaths worldwide, but that is only one of many. The combination of wars, natural disasters, outbreaks of various diseases and other incidents kill millions every year.

I suggest you take a quick look at Exhibit 1a-b below. As you can see in Exhibit 1a, by far the biggest cause of death amongst natural disasters is something to do with water – either droughts or floods. If you then flip to Exhibit 1b, you’ll see that, as a cause of death, natural disasters are less troublesome these days when compared to 50-100 years ago, and that observation doesn’t even take into account that planet Earth is far more densely populated these days.

Exhibit 1a: Global number of deaths annually from natural disasters, 1900-2016
Source: Our World in Data

Exhibit 1b: Global number of deaths annually from natural disasters, by decade
Source: Our World in Data

At least in the developed world, by far the biggest cause of death is a combination of heart and cancer diseases. Causes like natural disasters don’t even make it to the top 10 (see Exhibit 2 which is based on US data only). Despite that, newspapers and other mainstream media spend little time on the former and oceans of time on the latter and, as we have learned in recent months, pandemics are no different. Worldwide, about 233,000 have now died from Covid-19 (see here). In the US alone, every single year, 1¼ million people die from cancer or heart disease, but the Covid-19 story obviously sells more newspapers.

Exhibit 2: Percentage distribution of 10 leading causes of death by sex, US 2017