Kruger Christmas 4: 2016, Why You So Mean?

The news of Carrie Fisher’s death was a blow. 60 seems way too young for such a vibrant, witty, irreverent survivor to go. The zeitgeist of the year says that it’s uniquely awful. 2016 is being talked about as if it’s a curse, springing ridiculous political twists and mowing down beloved public figures.

Of course, more than a few people have pointed out that when many of our celebrities are baby boomers, born from 1945 to 1950, we’re going to start seeing a lot of attrition. Other wise folks have pointed out that social media is locking us into the 24hr news cycle–where outrage follows disaster follows farce. Sadly, most of the world now seems to believe that we’ve entered a dark time.

That’s because most people don’t know the underlying trends, and confuse incidents with the direction of events. Even worse, trends respond to sentiment, and this pessimistic outlook in the face of what could honestly be described as a golden age for humanity, could be dangerous.

Famine has more or less disappeared since the 1940s. For the first time in the history of humanity. Child mortality has plummeted. Birth-rates even in “developing” nations are rapidly dropping to the levels of wealthy countries. Absolute poverty is declining around the world. More people die in car accidents and suicides than from war and murder, and not because car-accidents and suicides have increased by much. Even cancer rates in developed nations, in direct contradiction to exploitative conspiracy sites like naturalnews.com, are down–partly because smoking rates continue to fall. Installing new solar energy plants is now cheaper than building any other kind of energy production per megawatt. Cheaper even than wind power. We can see a future of incredibly cheap, totally clean energy just on the horizon.

The future for humanity, barring unforeseen disaster, is looking pretty cushy. But this comes at the expense of the other organisms on the planet.

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Kruger is a time capsule. A little piece of the South Africa that was before the 20th Century. A place that was as rich a haven for indigenous trees and animals as it was for indigenous humans. Now the majority of South Africa is given over to human-made landscapes. Agriculture doesn’t approve of bushveldt trees and marauding elephants. Not to mention feisty lions. Without the environment, smaller mammals, birds, and insects are rarely able to adapt.

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As we find ever more ingenious ways to eradicate deprivation among humans, the situation for the environment is likely to deteriorate further. Clean energy may eventually halt global warming and reduce pollution. But it’s unlikely to reverse habitat destruction.

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Many, perhaps most, of the visible species of animals may become extinct in the next hundred years due to this encroachment. We’ll likely live in a world that is easier and safer, but considerably less interesting. So a place like Kruger has become truly precious. The wilderness that once threatened us is now a place of peace and nostalgia.

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Although we’ve already lost so much, it may be wise to soak up as much as we can now. Because much of it will be gone within my lifetime. People outside the Middle East should be much more worried about that than about Islamic State, which is losing its absurd battle to reverse the tide.

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Median Income Per Capita in South Africa

I finally found something I’ve been looking for for a while: a figure for South Africa’s median income per capita. The average income per capita is an absolutely meaningless figure unless income is distributed in a bell curve–which it almost never is. It certainly isn’t  in South Africa–a country ranked as the most unequal in the world by some estimates.

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A family in New Crossroads Township in Cape Town that I photographed in 2004

Median is the figure taken by putting every person’s income in ascending order and then selecting the middle figure. For the median you need to know each income–including for those without bank accounts, not paying tax, and those working entirely in cash. This is much harder to do than the meaningless average figure, for which all you need do is take the gross national income and divide by the population size.

Easy, but it is absurdly misleading in the world of the “one percent” who are estimated to own half the world’s wealth. According to this calculation, the average South African earned $7,563 per annum in 2012–or R65,000 using a 2012 exchange rate of R8.60 to the US$. Remember, that average includes a handful in South Africa who earn vast fortunes.

A Gallup survey of at least 2,000 people per country  conducted from 2006 t0 2012 gives SA’s median per capita income as $1,217, or R10,400. Then take on board that the poorest households were possibly more difficult to contact, which would make the survey figure higher than it actually is, and we start to see how misleading the average figure is.

This median figure suggests that, at the time of the survey, half of South Africans earned less than R10,400 per year. R65,000 would be hard to live on, but R10,500 is in another league. In comparison, the median US income at the time of the survey was $15,480 or R133,000–more than ten times the South African figure. Of course, the American average at that time was $49,481, or R425,500. Because the average is also a meaningless measure of central tendency in a society with income as skewed as the USA’s–where, like South Africa, a handful of super-earners take the lion’s share.