With another year soon to end, it may be a good time to ask, is the world getting better? Are we making progress? Is it, as Jimmy Stewart annually reminds us in the holiday film classic, “a wonderful life"? Or are we on the edge of decline, the whole thing going to hell in the proverbial handbasket?
Are we at the edge of “lift off,” or at the edge of the “cliff” (fiscal or otherwise)?
With wars and rumors of war always with us, with Israeli/ Palestinian issues seemingly intractable, with continued gun violence and appalling shooting sprees here in the U.S., with high unemployment and fiscal uncertainty on the near horizon, it would be easy to come to the conclusion that the present is bad and the future ominous. And don’t get me started on climate change, extreme weather and garbage pileups at sea. It’s bad, bad, bad.
Not so say a series of recent books, whose authors contend that, by many measures, enormous progress has been made in the last several decades, both in the U.S. and worldwide.
The latest contribution to the genre of optimism is Steven Johnson’s book Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age. That book’s key themes were summarized in Johnson’s recent article, “We’re Living the Dream — We Just Don’t Realize It.”
Here’s Johnson: “Over the past two decades, what have the U.S. trends been for the following important measures of social health: high school dropout rates, college enrollment, juvenile crime, drunken driving, traffic deaths, infant mortality, life expectancy, per capita gasoline consumption, workplace injuries, air pollution, divorce, male-female wage equality, charitable giving, voter turnout, per capita GDP and teen pregnancy?
“The answer for all of them is the same: The trend is positive. Almost all those varied metrics of social wellness have improved by more than 20 percent over the past two decades. And that's not counting the myriad small wonders of modern medicine that have improved our quality of life as well as our longevity: the anti-depressants and insulin pumps and quadruple bypasses.”
Take just one of these areas: divorce. Johnson notes how often people say, in ominous tones, “Half of all marriages end in divorce.” Turns out that hasn’t been true since the early 80’s. Today it’s more like one-third of marriages that end in divorce. That’s a big change and a good one.
Seattle too has positive trend lines in a host of social indicators including: crime statistics (down), recycling plastic (up), overall garbage reduction, increased units of affordable housing, the numbers of people getting exercise by walking and cycling, as well as increases in things as diverse as the number of trees in the city and the number of Seattleites who volunteer.
But we miss a lot of these big changes and positive developments, claims Johnson. They don’t seem to register with us. Why? Are we addicted to bad news?
Another work with a similar argument is Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler. Diamandis and Kotler take a more global view of our situation, again arguing that by many measures the present is improved, while the future offers abundant reasons for optimism. And they place particular emphasis on technological developments that enable human beings to deal with intractable problems as never before.
A still earlier 2004 entry into this mix was from New Republic Editor Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better and Better While People Feel Worse. Like Johnson and Diamandis/Kolter, Easterbrook tracks the many objective measures of health, well-being and prosperity that have been moving in the right direction, but then wonders why, if that’s the case, so many people seem to believe that things are getting worse?
When it comes to the doctrine of progress and what some call the “official religion of America,” optimism, I confess that I tend to be a doubter. I am, it seems, disposed to skepticism about claims of “better and better,” or overwhelming confidence in our capacity to solve all our problems.
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