Today is my birthday. On this day, 36 years ago, planet Earth welcomed forth one more small human. What was the world like back then? Which things have improved since that day? And which things have gotten worse? Let’s get on board the Delorean and travel back in time!
As a new year approaches, people often take a look back, remember everything that’s happened in the last 12 months, and make plans for the next 12. But every once in a while it’s also good to look back at your entire life and rethink the years to come.

In this episode of Altruphysics, I’m going to do just that. But, so as not to bore you, instead of talking about my life, I will talk about the world – about how it was 36 years ago and how it has changed since then.

And, at the end of the episode, I will ask one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves – the question that led me to create this channel.

So let’s go back to that particular Friday night when I first came into the world, on November 28th, 1986.

What was the world like in 1986?

My mother gave birth in a hospital in Seville. In the delivery room, when I was put into my mother’s arms for the first time, the young woman on the next bed looked at me and said “The son of a b***! He’s laughing!” And indeed, according to my mother, I really was smiling. I may not have been born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but at least with a good dose of optimism.

At that time there were just under 5 billion people in the world, which doesn’t seem like a lot to us now. However, in terms of annual growth, that period was at an all-time high, since by the end of the 1980s, the world was gaining 90 million more people each year compared with the previous one – a record that we won’t beat in possibly hundreds of years. So historically speaking, it was a very special year, albeit a very unoriginal one to be born in.

36 years ago no one had the internet at home, a mobile phone or a social media account, and a state-of-the-art computer looked like this:

Old computer
Computer in 1986, photo by MBlairMartin.

1986 was the year the first high-temperature superconductor was discovered. But it was also the year of the worst nuclear accident in history, at Chernobyl, and the year of the Challenger space shuttle accident.

Another historical event that was much less publicized was a limnic eruption, an extremely strange natural disaster that occurred in Lake Nyos, in Cameroon. That lake, located in a volcanic crater, had accumulated large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) dissolved in the water. Then suddenly, on August 21, 1986, hundreds of thousands of tons of accumulated CO2 erupted from the depths of the lake, forming a cloud that spread around the area at high speed, suffocating some 1,800 people and thousands of animals.

Obviously, I am leaving out many other important events, as well as a lot of eighties hits. If something occurs to you, you can leave a comment. But right now it’s time to get back in the Delorean and travel back into the present.

Which things have improved?

As I mentioned in the last episode of AltruFísica, there are many reasons to be happy for humanity, since, broadly speaking, we can cite countless examples of progress. To mention a few, the percentage of child deaths in the world is almost 3 times lower today than it was in 1986. Life expectancy has since increased by nearly ten years. And in general the world today has more education, more wealth, and more democracy than when I was born.

If we talk about science and technology, the price per watt of a solar panel is today 30 times lower than it was then. The cost of disk storage is more than a million times lower. The cost of sequencing a human genome, since it was first achieved in 2001, is now hundreds of thousands of times cheaper. And if we talk about advances in physics, we could be here until tomorrow (and I’d miss my birthday), so I’ll just mention a few examples that come to mind.

For starters, when I was born we didn’t have any evidence of planets outside the solar system. Today, however, we have confirmed the existence of more than 5,000 exoplanets and we know of thousands of other possible candidates.

When I was born, the Higgs boson was a purely theoretical particle. Today, we not only have evidence for it, but also for many other particles which were previously unknown.

36 years ago we also had no proof of the existence of gravitational waves. Today, we have already directly observed 90 black hole and neutron star mergers. And of course, we also have photos of the occasional supermassive black hole.

Supermassive black hole at the core of M87, Event Horizon Telescope.

Finally, in 1986, we didn’t even know that the expansion of the Universe was accelerating. In other words, the idea that we had of the Universe, its past and its future, has changed radically since then (if you’re interested in knowing more, I have another episode on the subject).

All this without mentioning thousands of other scientific and humanitarian advances, as well as works of art that changed the world forever. Unfortunately, however, not all changes have been for the better.

Which things have gotten worse?

In 1986, we were halfway between the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere that we have today, and what it used to be for thousands of years, before we started burning fossil fuels. In total, we have emitted more than one trillion tons of CO2 since I was born, and consequently, the planet has warmed between 0.5 and 0.8 degrees Celsius. On an environmental level, we are worse now than 36 years ago. We could and should have done much more for the planet.

The last 36 years have also been fraught with wars and massacres. However, both in absolute numbers and per inhabitant, the number of fatalities in war conflicts has been less than in the rest of the 20th century. Even so, it did not seem appropriate to mention these tragedies in the section about positive changes. Especially as the last 36 years have seen some of the worst genocides in history, such as the one in Rwanda and the one in Darfur.

But, leaving aside the environmental and humanitarian crises of the last 36 years, where we have most certainly failed is in the welfare of other animals. From 1986 until today, the number of land animals killed each year for meat has tripled. In fact, meat consumption per person today implies twice as many animal deaths as it did when I was born.

So, broadly speaking, the world is a much better place than it was 36 years ago…if you’re a human being. For many other animals the world has become a terrible dystopia.

All this brings me to one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves – the question that led me to create AltruFísica.

What can we do to make the future the best it can be?

This question has a lot to unpack, so we will discuss it more in depth over the next episodes. However, please allow me to reveal one small piece of the puzzle:

Something that each one of us can do is invest our money in projects that improve the world in the most cost-effective ways possible. In other words, projects that save and improve as many lives as possible, given your economic contribution. This naturally includes protecting the lives of non-human animals too, and lives in the future, by investing in environmental projects or reducing existential risks, for example. In the description, I will put several links to some of the most effective organizations where you can donate today.

Because you see, today is not just my birthday – it’s also the annual day of effective donations: “Effective giving day”. So, instead of giving me a birthday present, I ask you to make an effective donation. So that in 36 years from now we can look back again and be happy to see how the world has changed.

Which other events from 1986 should I have mentioned? And in what other ways has the world changed since then? If you have any other ideas, or if you do manage to make a donation, please leave a comment.

Thank you very much for accompanying me until this point, and I hope to see you in the next episode of AltruFísica.