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Optimism has gone out of style, a best-selling author argues, but he thinks the world is in better shape than ever

If you watch the news, you could be forgiven for believing the world is on the brink of collapse. In the current media environment, that message is in heavy rotation, and it gets heavier all the time. In 2017, 59 percent of Americans said this was “the lowest point in U.S. history that they can remember.” To many, it seems obvious that the present is far worse than the past.

But Gregg Easterbrook has some news for them: The facts don’t support that conclusion. In his new book, It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear, he argues that the developed world is mired in “declinism” — the belief that things are getting worse all the time — when the opposite is true. In almost every area — the environment, the economy, education, health — Easterbrook says conditions are improving thanks to government policies and the efforts of organizations such as Rotary to find solutions to the problems we face. 

Why is this so hard to believe? Some of the reasons are psychological, some are economic, some are cultural. But the misperception matters, because pessimism can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. To solve problems, we must believe they can be solved. 

Image by Viktor Miller Gausa

Easterbrook is the author of 11 books, including the best-selling The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, which examined why our standard of living and our sense of well-being have not risen in tandem. Easterbrook is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He spoke with frequent contributor Frank Bures from his home in Washington, D.C.

Q: What gave you the idea for this book?

A: The Progress Paradox was about what’s subjective — how we feel about our current moment. Things are mainly good, yet people don’t feel happy about them. That was the big question of that book. But I was left thinking, OK, things are mainly good. Why are things mainly good? What caused that to happen? Maybe some of it was just luck, but it can’t all be luck.

In It’s Better Than It Looks, I show that most of the improvement of society is the result of policy choices, by both institutions and individuals, that worked. Not only do people not generally understand that, but they believe the reverse. They think that everything that’s been tried has failed. But the facts are that the United States and Western Europe have never been in better condition. Most, although of course not all, of the world has never been in better condition.

Q: You trace the rise of declinism in your book and suggest that it accelerated in the early 2000s, when social media took off. 

A: The trend of thinking that things are worse than they are was already in progress before Facebook was turned on. But social media has accelerated that trend and made it worse. I’m not saying social media was the only reason. It was one of many. But it amplified a trend that was already in progress.

Q: Why do we want to believe that things are going downhill?

A: One reason is that we’ve been trained by schools and colleges to think that everything is bad and that anybody who’s telling you anything good must be a Pollyanna or an apologist. He must be secretly in the pay of the super-rich. Americans have been trained to a specific type of selection bias to only see negative news and not positive news.

Another factor is that government controls an ever-larger share of the GDP. When my parents were growing up in the 1920s and 1930s, government controlled hardly any of the GDP. There was a lot wrong with this arrangement. There was no Medicare or Medicaid, no federal housing assistance, almost no federal help for transportation, less federal funding for education. It’s good that we have those things now. 

Today, in the United States, government controls [through direct spending on goods and services and transfer payments such as Social Security, subsidies, and financial aid] 41 percent of the GDP. In the United Kingdom, it’s 48 percent. In some Scandinavian nations, it’s more than half. Increasingly our lives are tied to government benefits, which isn’t necessarily bad; the expansion of the entitlement state resolved a lot of the structural problems of poverty and destitution. But it also drilled into our heads the words “woe is me.” If you want something from the political system, you claim to be the victim of some injustice. You claim that the world is in terrible condition and that the only possible solution is for government to give you a special benefit. It gives us a huge incentive to claim that things are worse than they are. And the political parties have responded to that.

Q: So the belief that the world is getting worse isn’t just the province of the left or the right?

A: You can find it on both the left and right. But there are also many people who have what I call “abundance denial.” Most Americans now live better, in the material sense, than any generation of the past. Anybody who tells you he or she would rather live in the 19th century either is lying or has no idea what 19th-century life was like. Almost everybody today lives better than any generation in the past, but they don’t want to admit it. They want to deny it. People say, “It’s so terrible, I don’t live as well as my parents did.” Check your parents at the same age [as you are now], and see what their material living standards were — what their education level was, what their longevity was at that point in life, et cetera — and see whether you’re actually not living as well as your parents did.

Q: What are some of the things that are getting better?

A: Practically everything. Take the last 30 years: Criminal violence has been declining steadily. It peaked in the early 1990s and has declined since then. The number and the intensity of wars in the world have gone down. Many forms of pollution are in decline everywhere in the world. The big exception is climate change. 

The current Western generation is the most educated generation in the history of our planet. And education is rising everywhere. India, for example, is a very well-educated country. Not a century ago, almost everyone in India was illiterate. Now, a majority of people have received a pretty good education. 

Disease rates are declining in almost every nation in the world, including the big killers: cancer, heart disease, and stroke. Longevity is rising everywhere. We’ve had a little bit of sputter in American statistics because of painkiller abuse. That’s a big concern and a huge problem. But in general, longevity is increasing almost everywhere in the world. It’s been increasing for a century and a half. 

Material living standards are increasing. Buying power is increasing. In the United States and Western Europe, the level of income received by the middle class clearly has been stalled for the past 30 years or so, but buying power has continued to increase at 3 percent per year.

Those are the big trends. It’s hard to think of any underlying trend in the Western world that’s negative. And the same goes for most of the underlying trends, although sadly not all, in the larger world. 

Q: Are you even optimistic about climate change? 

A: I am. It would be wrong to say it will be easy to correct climate change. But I think it can be done, and I think it will end up costing a lot less than people think. Inequality is a much tougher nut to crack. In a free society, you want freedom of opportunity, but it’s hard to imagine equality of outcomes and retain that freedom. I’m much more optimistic about climate change than inequality. But I don’t think we should give up on inequality.

Q: You also say that climate change might be less apocalyptic than we think.

A: I think an apocalyptic outcome is very unlikely. If you look at the range of possibilities for climate change, there’s a tiny chance it will be apocalyptic. There’s also a tiny chance it will be beneficial. The more likely outcome for climate change is that it will gradually cause social problems like higher disease rates in the equatorial countries. But I think those problems could be avoided. It won’t be easy. It’s just more practical than people think. Greenhouse gases are fundamentally an air pollution problem, and the last two big air pollution problems — smog and acid rain — both were solved much more quickly and cheaply than anybody predicted. If society gets serious about greenhouse gases, we’ll address it faster and more cheaply than people think, too. 

Q: What would you say to people who have a feeling of dread about the future?

A: If you look at all of the predictions of doom in the past, none of them have ever come true. It’s not that a few of them came true. None of them came true. Population growth was supposed to destroy us in the 1960s. Fifty years ago, it was commonly predicted that there would be mass starvation, hundreds of millions or even billions of people starving to death. Now the global population is double what it was, and malnutrition is at the lowest level ever. Runaway, unstoppable diseases were supposed to cause millions, or billions, of people to die. But they’ve never been observed in society, and they’ve never been observed in nature. So far as we know, there has never been a runaway disease, and the likelihood is that there never will be a runaway disease. The biosphere is elaborately designed to resist all forms of runaway effects. That plants, mammals, and people are here is proof the diseases don’t win.

We were supposed to run out of oil. We were supposed to run out of ferrous metals. We were supposed to run out of rare earth materials. We were supposed to run out of natural gas. Not only have none of those things happened, but we now have significantly more of all those resources than when people predicted they were about to run out. A hundred years ago, everybody thought we were about to run out of coal. 

In general, one should be skeptical of sweeping statements, but I don’t think this statement is too sweeping: No predicted apocalypse has ever occurred. So it’s possible that predictions of doom that swirl around climate change could come true, but it’s not likely.

Q: You make a great case for the fact that things are slowly and steadily getting better. Aren’t you afraid that people might see that as a reason to sit back and do nothing?

A: Often when you say things are getting better, pundits and politicians say, “Oh, that leads to complacency!” That is not what I am saying. I am simply saying that things are getting better. The success of past reforms is the reason to support reforms for the future. Nobody expects me, or you, or any one individual to change the world. But we do expect each individual to influence the things that he or she is able to influence. Support reform programs. As a voter, when you have a choice, choose the optimistic candidate.   

Q: How do you define optimism?

A: Optimism is not being a Polly-anna. That’s what people say to try to discredit it. Pessimists believe that problems cannot be fixed. Optimists believe that problems can be fixed. Optimism is a hopeful point of view. You can be a cynical optimist. You can be an optimist and be furiously angry about all the things that are wrong with the world, which I am. But if you’re an optimist, you think those things can be fixed. In my book, I quote the economic historian Deirdre McCloskey, who says that throughout history, the pessimists were almost always wrong and the optimists were almost always right.

Q: That sounds good, but it is hard for people to trust that optimism, given that the news we consume about the world is so insistently negative.

A: If you, or me, or anybody wants to make a choice to be negative about life, you can do that, but it is important to remember it is a choice. Being a declinist is not something that’s imposed on you by factual understanding of events. It is your choice. But if you make that choice, the improvement of the world becomes a lot less likely. 

Q: Rotarians are fundamentally optimistic; they believe problems can be solved. How do you think polio eradication fits into this mindset?

A: That’s a great example. People said eradicating polio was impossible, and we now know it is possible. Today people say that eradicating malaria is impossible. That’s because we haven’t yet figured out how to do it. That’s all.

People who make the optimistic choice — not to deny the problems but to believe they can be fixed — make the world better. 

• Read more stories from The Rotarian.