The Case For Optimism
News, commentary and academia are all-negative all-the-time. The latest Gallup poll shows only 36 percent of Americans are “satisfied with the way things are going,” versus 71 percent 20 years ago. Yet in the main, the United States has never been better off.
Across the globe there is horrible war in a few places, and backsliding regarding liberty in China and other nations. Yet in the main, the world has never been better off.
How do we reconcile such conflicting realities?
My book It’s Better Than It Looks comes to the counterintuitive conclusion that the world shows positive trend lines in nearly all major areas.
The reason I wrote this book is that evidence of a better world is beginning to accumulate. Our understanding of life ought to be based on observation of the new factual evidence, not on old doomsday assumptions or political scare-mongering.
Because academics, politicians, pundits and cable news are inclined to embrace pessimism, a feedback loop is created: we keep telling ourselves things are terrible, even as evidence of the reverse accumulates.
Is it really better than it looks? Crime, disease rates, discrimination and pollution (other than greenhouse gases) are in extended phases of decline. Longevity, education and living standards have been rising. Unemployment and inflation both are near historic lows; supplies of food and resources are high. Technology grows steadily safer rather than more dangerous.
Though there are heartbreaking exceptions such as Syria, incidence and intensity of war are in a quarter-century cycle of diminishing. During the last 25 years, the chance that a member of the human family would become a casualty of war has dropped to less than a tenth of what it was in the century before.
Most striking, freedom from want, one of the Four Freedoms sought by Franklin Roosevelt, draws ever-closer. In 1990, more than a third of humanity endured what the World Bank defines as extreme poverty. Today that share is down to 10 percent — despite about 1.5 billion people added to the global census during the period.
Just before leaving office, Barack Obama said, “If you had to choose blindly what moment you’d want to be born, you’d choose now… the world has never, collectively, been wealthier, better educated, healthier or less violent than it is today. That’s hard to imagine given what we see in the news, but it’s true.”
Does optimism lead to complacency? Far from it: optimism offers the strongest case for the next round of reform.
The reason pollution, discrimination and violence are declining, while longevity, education levels and economic output are rising, is that social, business and regulatory reforms have worked.
More reforms are needed now to counter climate change and inequality; address shortages of affordable housing; treat refugees properly; close the racial and gender pay gaps. Embracing the positive worldview leads ineluctably to favoring such reforms.
Of course there are men and women with serious problems. But as It’s Better Than It Looks says, “Most people across the world live better than any generation in the past, and trends of improvement are likely to continue.”
Accepting the accumulating evidence that most global conditions are improving means rejecting the reactionary claims of the world’s declinists and autocrats. We need to snap out of the pessimistic mindset — and get down to work on making the world even better.
Gregg Easterbrook is the author of It’s Better Than It Looks and 10 other books.