Reasons to Give Thanks

by | November 20, 2023

Recent years have been marked by profound shocks. The rise of populism and a crisis of democracy in much of the western world, a pandemic that killed millions and revealed the fragility of our social fabric, an accelerating and existential climate crisis, disastrous and murderous wars in Europe and the Middle East, a new cold war between the US and China—these are but a few reasons to despair. 

Conventional wisdom has declared that we live in the most dangerous time since the late 1930’s. This may be true. But it is also true that every generation identifies its threats as uniquely treacherous. After all, evolution has encouraged humans to experience the world as revolving around us. And in periods of stress, we are particularly prone to tunnel vision, typically losing context as a result.

So, in the interest of putting events into perspective, we have sought to delineate five truly devastating periods in humanity’s history, some caused by nature and some by man. In recalling previous dark times we gain perspective about the challenges we face today, and—even more important—about our collective capacity to overcome them. 

  • The Toba Catastrophe: Around 75,000 years ago, a supervolcanic eruption took place in what is now Indonesia.  It led to a volcanic winter that lasted a decade, cooled the planet around 3-5 degrees Celsius, produced a genetic bottleneck, and is believed to have reduced the human population to under 10,000. Humanity came perilously close to being wiped out. 
  • The Bubonic Plague: In 1346, a bacterium called Yersinia pestis, transmitted by fleas and rats, spread across Eurasia and North Africa. By some estimates, up to 200 million people perished over the subsequent eight years. Europe’s population was reduced by approximately one-half and took 150 years to recover.
  • Smallpox in the Americas:  In 1520, a Spanish sailing ship from Cuba landed in Mexico carrying a man infected by smallpox. Unlike the Europeans, who had thousands of years of immunities from animal infections resulting from their farming activities, the peoples of South, Central and North America had no prior exposure to diseases like smallpox, influenza, and measles. The result was staggering – up to 95% of the local population died in the ensuing years. With estimates of twenty million dead, it was the germ – as Pulitzer-prize winning author Jared Diamond famously noted – not the armament, which set the stage for the European colonization of the Americas.  
  • The 1929 Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression: In October 1929, a month after the London Stock Exchange crashed, the US market followed suit and the world’s two largest economies were deeply damaged. Over the subsequent four years, US industrial production fell 47% and real GDP declined 30%. Declines in wholesale prices exceeded 30% and the unemployment rate surpassed 20%. In much of Europe, the dynamics were similar and most industrialized countries experienced deflation of over 30%. The human toll was terrible, with over 60% of rural households and 82% of farms classified as impoverished. 
  • World War II: Between 1939 and 1945, the deadliest conflict in human history took place. Most of the world’s countries were at war and between 70-85 million people died. Genocide, notably the Holocaust, along with starvation, disease, massacres, and the deployment of the only two nuclear devices ever used in human warfare characterized one of humanity’s darkest periods.

My, what a downer. But what does this summary of disasters have to do with today’s troubles? 

First, as difficult as our current challenges appear, we can learn much from history about the human capacity to endure, innovate, and overcome. 

Today, in many ways we are we are responding effectively to the crises of our time. Science stopped the pandemic in its tracks, demonstrating the paradigm-shifting advances of mRNA vaccines. Democracy, under threat in the United States, has (thus far) held up. Russia’s naked and murderous aggression in Ukraine has been met by a largely unified response from an expanded NATO. Putin’s military has been significantly degraded, revealing a power far short of super. 

Second, humanity is resilient. 

Time and again, nature and man have sought to wipe us out. Yet we have bounced back. Out of the devastation of World War II, the West, including vanquished Germany, Italy and Japan, coalesced around a series of multi-lateral institutions – the UN, World Bank, IMF, the European Union, and the WTO—to deliver global economic and political cooperation among nation states never before seen in human history. Even among adversaries such as the US and the Soviet Union, significant progress was made to reduce the risk of nuclear Armageddon, an accomplishment largely forgotten because history does not record the absence of events.

Third, humanity finds a way to come back. 

That’s even true regarding its greatest challenge, slowing climate change. The rapid uptake of renewable energy sources and hopes for even more significant breakthroughs, such as fusion energy,  point to our ability to adapt. Advances in AI technology herald new strategies to tackle climate challenges. And last week, the Biden-Xi meeting produced a rare pledge to renew climate cooperation and pursue efforts to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030 globally. 

Fourth, human progress is not linear. 

Often our better angels are only revealed in response to tragedy, calamity, and threat. The images of wanton violence against innocent civilians cause us to recoil, but they also enable us to regroup. We cannot know whether the tragedies on and since October 7 will lead to the search for enduring solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but already they are driving greater focus on the dynamics at play and a desire to move beyond the status quo ante

We never welcome human tragedy, but when it inevitably arises, we often find the courage to think and act in ways that previously eluded us. More than a thousand years of civil war in Europe found its resolution in the ashes of 1945.  Few might have believed then that what would subsequently arise would be peace, harmony, and unprecedented cooperation spanning three generations of Europeans. 

Later this week, US families join in giving thanks. Many will return to loved ones with heavy hearts, burdened by the unending news of suffering and threats. But upon reflection, many of us will be thankful for our collective spirit, resolve, and ingenuity to meet and overcome challenges. 

Ours is not a uniquely troubled world. Only the specifics are new or different. The common thread of our being is that within us resides the capacity to overcome. Humanity has not lost its ability to bend arcs in the directions of justice, freedom, civility, sustainability, and peace. We only require the will to do so.

Filed Under: Economics . Featured

About the Author

Alex Friedman

Alex Friedman is the co-founder of Jackson Hole Economics, LLC, a private research organization which provides analysis on economics, politics, the environment and finance, and develops actionable ideas for how sustainable growth can be achieved. Friedman is a senior leader with two decades of experience growing and transforming organizations in the financial and non-profit industry. He was the CEO of GAM Investments in London and chairman of the firm’s executive board. Previously, he was the Global Chief Investment Officer of UBS Wealth Management in Zurich, chairman of the UBS global investment committee, and a member of the executive board of the private bank. Before moving to UBS, Alex Friedman served as the Chief Financial Officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He was a member of the foundation’s management committee, oversaw strategic planning, and managed a range of the day-to-day operating functions of the world’s largest philanthropic organization. Friedman also created the foundation’s program-related investments group, the largest impact investing philanthropic fund in the world. He started his career in corporate finance at Lazard. Friedman served as a White House Fellow in the Clinton administration and as an assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Defense. He is a member of the board of directors of Franklin Resources, Inc. (Franklin Templeton), a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Chairman of the Advisory Board of Project Syndicate and a board member of the American Alpine Club. Friedman is a regular contributor to a range of newspapers and thought leadership groups and is also the author of Babu’s Bindi, and The Big Thing, both children’s books. He is an avid mountaineer and rock climber and led the first major climb to raise money for charity through an ascent of Mt. McKinley. Friedman holds a JD from Columbia Law School, where he was a Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar, an MBA from Columbia Business School, and a BA from Princeton University.

Larry Hatheway

Larry Hatheway has over 25 years experience as an economist and multi-asset investment professional. He is co-founder, with Alexander Friedman, of Jackson Hole Economics, LLC, which offers commentary and analysis on the global economy, policy & politics, and their broad implications for capital markets. Prior to co-founding Jackson Hole Economics, LLC Larry worked at GAM Investments from 2015-2019 as Group Chief Economist and Global Head of Investment Solutions, where he was responsible for a team of 50 investment professionals managing over $10bn in assets. While at GAM, Larry authored numerous articles on the world economy, policy-making and multi-asset investment strategy. Larry was also the lead investment manager for various mandates, funds and an actively managed multi-asset index. Larry also served on the GAM Group Management Board, was Chairman of the GAM London Limited Board and served as member of the GAM Investment Management Limited Board. Larry was also Chairman of the GAM Diversity & Inclusion Committee. During his tenure at GAM, Larry was based in London, UK and Zurich, Switzerland. From 1992 until 2015 Larry worked at UBS Investment Bank as UBS Chief Economist (2005-2015), Head of Global Asset Allocation (2001-2012), Global Head of Fixed Income and Currency Strategy (1998-2001), Chief Economist, Asia (1995-1998) and Senior International Economist (1992-1995). During his tenure at UBS, Larry was also a standing member of the UBS Wealth Management Investment Committee. While at UBS, Larry worked in Zurich, Switzerland, London, UK (various occasions), Singapore and Stamford, CT. At both GAM Investments and UBS Investment Bank Larry was widely recognized for his appearances on Bloomberg TV, CNBC, the BBC, CNN and other media outlets. He frequently published articles and opinion pieces for Bloomberg, CNBC, Project Syndicate, and The Financial Times, among others. Before joining UBS in 1992, Larry held roles at the Federal Reserve (Board of Governors), Citibank and Manufacturers Hanover Trust. Larry Hatheway holds a PhD in Economics from the University of Texas, an MA in International Studies from the Johns Hopkins University, and a BA in History and German from Whitman College. Larry is married with four grown children and a loving Cairn Terrier, and resides in Wilson, WY.

Related Posts

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This