The future ain't so bad, even without rose-colored glasses

New books say our lives are a three-steps-forward, two-steps-back type of deal.
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New books say our lives are a three-steps-forward, two-steps-back type of deal.

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.

But at least sometimes it is also wise to doubt one’s doubts. Sometimes it is good to question a tendency to fix on problems or bad news. One can raise questions about a chronic “half-empty” perspective without falling prey to what Barbara Ehrenrich described in her book Bright-Sided as the mindless excesses of positive thinking.

A friend a generation older than me warned that, as we get older, we are tempted to join the “Ain’t It Awful Club.” That is, we are tempted to look at the world in which we are no longer quite the movers and shakers we once were (or thought we were) and think that those who are have it completely wrong.

He was right, I think, to call this out as a spiritual temptation, one to be resisted.

Are we tempted these days — as a society — to become card-carrying members of the “Ain’t It Awful Club?” As I noted in a piece here last week, it seems there’s a tendency to think of ourselves as “Twilight People,” living at the end of the day. Has our pendulum so swung from the the days when progress was “our most important product” that we now see only ruin and decline? And if so, why?

Johnson blames the usual suspect, the media, for focusing on the negative while missing the positive. But going deeper he notes that many of the stories of real progress have two qualities that make them hard for the public to get hold of.

They aren’t hero stories. There isn’t usually one figure to point to and celebrate. Rather these steps forward are the result of large collective efforts — networks. Moreover, much of such change is quite gradual and incremental, as for example, airline safety (now “ridiculously safe” says Johnson) or decreased poverty levels world-wide (“astonishing progress”).

Easterbrook posited a different answer for our tendency to grumpiness or pessimism. “Trends in the educational, legal, political and media systems all urge contemporary men and women to view themselves as wronged by various forces real and imagined; to get angry and fight back; to fixate on any harms of which they may have been the target; to search for wrongs about which to become engaged.”

We’ve O.D.’ed, says Easterbrook, on anger and complaint. There’s something to that argument.

And perhaps more importantly, there’s a lot to the arguments of those who track ominous signs like receding glaciers, rising seas, and depleted fish stocks. We face some very real and tough challenges, some of which are the downside of other upsides, a case in point being the astonishing rise in standards of living in China.

But, for me at least, it is important to be reminded by the Johnsons, Diamandes and Easterbrooks of the world that we human beings can and have made progress on some real and vexing challenges. If looking clearly and honestly at our problems is important, and it is, it is also important to look equally clearly and honestly at the good news and not succumb to the temptation to join the “Ain’t It Awful” club.

Years ago the wonderful essayist E. B. White wrote that “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” I share White’s sense of being so torn, unsure whether I ought to save the world or savor it. Such ambivalence seems to me about right.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.