If you listen to the "news," it is understandable how the picture of our world is one of chaos and deterioration. But that is according to a press that some say has long since forsaken journalistic integrity for what could easily be called "tabloid histrionics."
In his new book, "It's better than it looks," author Gregg Easterbrook makes a compelling argument that things are nowhere near as bad as they may seem. In fact, despite the general pessimism that exists, in addition to evidence that can be seen (like rising wages and wealth, better health, longer lifespans and so on) there is also evidence that is not seen. For example, he argues that Granaries are not empty. The many predictions made in the 1960's that billions would die of starvation have not come true.
Instead, he says, "by 2015, the United Nations reported global malnutrition had declined to the lowest level in history. Nearly all malnutrition that persists is caused by distribution failures or by government corruption, not by lack of supply." In fact, obesity is rapidly becoming a global problem.
Even though there are occasional panics, "resources have not been depleted despite the incredible proliferation of people, vehicles, aircraft, and construction." Instead of oil and gas running out by the year 2,000, as some in the 1970's had predicted, "both are in worldwide oversupply," along with minerals and ores.
Similarly, there are no runaway plagues. "Unstoppable outbreaks of super-viruses and mutations were said to menace a growing world; instead, nearly all disease rates are in decline, including the rates of most cancers."
Pollution is also down in western nations. As measured by the number of air-quality alerts, smog in major cities like Los Angeles is in free fall. Sulfur dioxide, the main source of acid rain, is down by 81% in the United States since 1990, and forests in Appalachia, "are in the best condition they have been in since the eighteenth century."
In America, as well in the rest of the world, crime and violence are getting less, not more frequent, according to Mr. Easterbrook. Since an all-time post WWII high in 1993, "the frequency and intensity of combat have gone down worldwide." And despite worries about authoritarianism the dictators of the world are not winning. In the 1980s, dictators damaged countries in nearly every continent. Today, the Kim family's control of North Korea is an aberration.
Throughout the book, data supporting author Easterbrook’s observations is presented.
In addition to providing new ammunition for optimists, Mr. Easterbrook's goal is to identify the things we've been doing right and examine what we can do about the extant problems we face. In particular, he cites the seemingly "impossible" challenges of inequality and climate change, as well as health-care costs, nuclear proliferation, and others. He insists these problems are solvable, if we make an effort.
The proof is in each one of the areas of progress he documents. Every one of those problems was solved by individuals and organizations, both public and private, who decided to do something about it. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said during a time much darker than our own, "We observe a world of great opportunities disguised as insoluble problems."
Mr. Easterbrook ironically observes, early 20th century progressives were at that time the optimists who envisioned an "America the Beautiful" where, in words from the hymn, "alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears."
In his thoughtful book, Mr. Easterbrook is hoping to make optimism intellectually respectable again. As he concludes, "History is not deterministic, teleological, or controlled in any matter." And he shows that, thanks to human ingenuity, "history is an arrow...and the arrow of history points forever upward."