Scott H Young

Why the World is Actually Getting Better


Globe

I’m halfway through reading The Progress Paradox, by Gregg Easterbrook. The paradox is simply this: why do people feel worse, when life is actually getting better.

Easterbrook spends a long chapter arguing how, in almost every dimension, life for Western countries is not (as many exclaim) diving into an abyss, but getting better. And, it has been getting better for decades.

Some Benchmarks of Improvement

I won’t exhaust the plentiful research Easterbrook has done on global trends. If you’re interested in seeing the full scope of the argument, I suggest reading the book. However, I’ll highlight some of the most important benchmarks he uses as a case for optimism:

  1. Income. The middle class today are wealthier (in terms of real dollars’ buying power) than the rich only a century ago.
  2. Environment. Aside for greenhouse gases, Easterbrook shows that virtually all forms of pollution and environmental damage are in decline in the west. CFCs, industrial pollutants, lead in gasoline, just to name a few.
  3. Crime. After peaking in the 1980s, violent crime is down significantly in the United States.
  4. Class Divide. The richest may have more money, but the lifestyle they can buy (travel, home ownership, air conditioning, etc.) are no longer restricted to a minority of the population.
  5. World Poverty. Although some pockets of the world continue to stagnate, the overall reduction in global poverty should be celebrated.
  6. Education. More people are going to school than ever before, Easterbrook argues. And college degrees are now open to more people, rather than just the elite class.
  7. Health Care. Sure, there may be flaws in any system, however people are living longer and healthier lives than before. Easterbrook claims that most diseases worldwide (AIDS is a notable exception) are in decline, and have been for years.
  8. Prejudice. The leader of the United States is black. Even if prejudice still exists, keep in mind that over half a century ago, men like Obama hadn’t even secured voting rights. Gay marriage may be a hot political topic now, but if you compare that to a few decades earlier where homosexuality was illegal, and it is easier to see the march of progress.

Even if you disagree with a few of Easterbrook’s claims, or argue that a few of his his perceived improvements are actually regressions, it’s hard to deny the overall picture: the world is getting better.

“Won’t Optimism Create Complacency?”

I think a part of the rampant pessimism in society is because people worry that claiming everything is fine creates complacency. Even if the world has been improving, complacency won’t eliminate world poverty or prevent a potentially devastating greenhouse effect. We need action, the pundits claim, and the vehicle for getting action is often fear.

I agree that we need to focus on the problems of the world if we want to solve them. However, I believe that the way to do that isn’t by denying all of the progress we’ve made so far. We should congratulate ourselves for the previously intractable problems society has overcome, and act on these new problems knowing with confidence that we have overcome bigger obstacles before us.

“Even if We Have More Money, We’re Spiritually Poor”

I’m calling bullshit on this doomsayer’s argument. The idea that the past was a simpler time with truer ethical values just doesn’t bear scrutiny. Can we really uphold that a century ago were more ethical times when World Wars were being fought, minorities couldn’t vote, and women couldn’t work?

Money can’t buy happiness. And it definitely can’t buy meaning for life. But that doesn’t mean money itself is the enemy. Global prosperity means less people performing menial labor, starving and more access to education and new experiences.

“What About the Non-Western World?”

Global poverty, AIDS and the fates of those born into countries without the privileges of the west are concerning issues. Western society should be concerned that our global neighbors are suffering. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t be optimistic about the future, nor that we need to ignore the successes already achieved.

Poverty exists today. It also existed a century ago, however in far greater volumes. However instead of celebrating the raising of GDP in countries like China, it becomes a global threat to world democracy and western jobs. Even victories are spun into defeats.

The World is Getting Better

Life is improving. We still have problems around the world. But we have the opportunity to solve those problems, as we have with the problems of preceding generations. The case for optimism doesn’t argue that we should become complacent, and stop fighting for a better life. Just the opposite, we should keep fighting because we have a track record for winning those fights.


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33 Responses to “Why the World is Actually Getting Better”

  1. Cory says:

    Good to hear someone talking about all the positive things going on in the world. It seems all the media and critics ever talk about are the bad things going on. I think the 24 hour news cycle has a lot to do with the cynicism. Bad news sells and there is more time for them to fill.

    I always liked to read Easterbrook’s TMQ column on ESPN.com. I will have to check out that book.

  2. Hey Scott.

    It is nice to read something with this frame of mind behind it. I agree that seeing things as fine doesn’t create complacency. Solid progress requires a foundation of content before it can occur. Someone who is in a dangerous community has less mental energy to use for their success than someone who is in a safe area who feels safe and content.

    I like the fact that education is on the upslope, because it is negating controlled differences based on economic levels. The richest folks in the world still swim in pools consisting of water. Education is letting people realize the similarities between them and those who have amassed large amounts of wealth. I would not want this education spreading if I was in a position that benefited from a widespread lack of education. Knowledge seems to be bursting through previous barriers.

    Good to read this message that points upward.

  3. Basu says:

    I think that the problem behind this is change. If we accept that the past was better, we can say that change only led to bad things and therefore reject change in the current time, allowing us to settle into a plateau. But if we were to accept that the present is better than the past, then change becomes a good thing and people in general, I think, are afraid of change.

  4. Terry says:

    I believe that we are evolving for the better and our conscience is also evolving for the better. It may not be pretty but it’s happening..

  5. JayCruz says:

    Your post reminded me of the popular video “Everything is Amazing and Nobody is Happy” were Louis CK in an interview with Conan Obrien makes fun of how people take technology for granted. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8r1CZTLk-Gk

  6. Dave says:

    @JayCruz love that Louis C.K. video. I stumbled upon it when I asked my self if technology has made us any happier. I believe that technology and money can buy happiness, but it is insignificant compared to the happiness from a sense of purpose and belonging.
    I believe that after you have a thriving social life, a job that you enjoy, and you actually provide true value to society, there is nothing wrong with that vacation home, or the not so practical car, or the travel plans you’ve dreamed of. Just don’t look for solace in those things when the more crucial parts of your life are missing.

  7. Vlad Dolezal says:

    Ah, nice to see more people with an optimistic view of the world!

    Yes, there’s still poverty, crime and disease, and there will be for a long time to come. But we don’t need to feel miserable to fight them. We can fight them just as well (or better!) while feeling happy :D

  8. Konrad Germania says:

    Thanks for another great post Scott. We should also place emphasis on the extraordinary danger, which derives from this particular fear. People might actually get scared by global warming and just knock it off as sth unbeatable. Then they resign and tell themselves, that their behavioural vote doesn’t matter on a global scale and go on polluting. So in acknowledging our “track record” – as you call it – in solving global troubles, we should stand up and fight. But I doubt that fear is helpful; it rather is fairly menaceful when it comes to bringing up solutions and drawing energy every day. It is unfortunately but widely used as a defense towards destructive behaviour.

  9. Scott Cogswell says:

    Scott

    A friend and I appreciate that a young man such as yourself has found a book that has shown you some truth about the world that is contrary to what the major media outlets and the culture would have you believe. Your next course is to discover the foundational principles that dintinctly drive human progress in the manner outlined in The Progress Paradox, those being Judeo and Christian monotheism, and capitalism.

    Let me know if you’d like some recommendations on your next read.

    Sincerely

  10. lists says:

    The middle class is wealtheir is wrong, considering the inflation , middle class is going down

  11. Scott Young says:

    lists,

    Untrue. In real dollar buying power (inflation adjusted) the middle class in western nations (and especially in emerging economies like China) has gone up, up, up over the last few decades. Dramatically so.

    If you’re referring to the widening gap between the rich and middle class, that is true. While the middle class have gotten much richer, the rich have become richer by an even greater degree. However this increase in income inequality isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

    -Scott

  12. [...] down, I’m a die-hard optimist. I believe the world is getting better and that the pursuit of the ideal life is possible and worthwhile. While I disagree with a lot of [...]

  13. Roman says:

    Liked it .
    Finally found something similar to what i was thinking.
    I have faith in humanity and future and true believe that we will get better.

  14. [...] Steve Pavlina – Do It Now BodyRock.tv – The Power of Exercising Today Zen Habits – A Guide to Creating a Minimalist Home Scott H. Young – Why the World is Actually Getting Better [...]

  15. Robert says:

    The world is a better place, and now thanks to the internet the 7 or so people in the world who think so can communicate with one another!

    See? Getting better all the time. I tried telling someone yesterday that on the whole, globalization and capitalism had brought more people out of poverty and provided better incentives against war than anything else in history.

    Not a popular opinion.

  16. Bobby says:

    Is not the Bible true that when people speak of peace and optimism at that time which is now actually happening, destruction will inevitably come. you can read it somewhere in the new testament. ooh, ooh!

  17. steven says:

    I never thought of it that way. If you think of 100 years ago compared to now, sure the world is becoming better.
    But I was always thinking of the world long ago when everyone lived in little villages and all worked together to get there food and water etc.
    Everyone back then was happy and healthy and there was very little poverty.
    Right now we think having computers and movies and all is really fun and cant give it up, but if we never had them then wouldn’t racing someone be just as fun?
    What do you think about this?
    Is the world better now than it was thousands of years ago when people lived in small villages?

  18. Scott Young says:

    steven,

    If you believe the world is better than 100 years ago, that’s almost certainly more true that it is better than 1000 years ago. Your statement that everyone was happy and poverty did not exist are false–murder, wars, slavery, famine, illiteracy and religious persecution were all much higher in those times.

    If you desire the simplicity and community spirit of villages of yesterday, move to a small town in a developed country and be glad you’re born in the 21st century.

    my 2 cents.

    -Scott

  19. [...] längre nu än någonsin. Ingen påstår att världen är perfekt – men den är faktiskt bättre på de flesta sätt än den någonsin har varit. Allt annat är grundlöst okunnigt önsketänkande och [...]

  20. Troy Carkeek says:

    Facinating! such a simple concept that has so much truth in it – but the majority are so opposed to. We have been conditioned to focus on sufferring because it sells news – the media loves negativity and doomsday advertising! Personally I am ready to accept the beauty of this world – There are so many amazing caring people doing courageous caring things for each other all the time – I want to focus on them.
    Whatever you put your attention to – becomes bigger.
    If you want flowers to grow in your garden stop watering the weeds!
    Thanks Scott – a little bit of positivity out there in the world can go a very long way

  21. Debbie Lorion says:

    It is good to be positive and try to look for the good things. I agree with that. It is also good to not turn a blind eye to the areas that are much worse than they have ever been, even just 40 years ago. Shouldn’t we speak truthfully about areas that need work, in order to bring about positive changes.

    Younger generations don’t know what they are missing. Yes they can be entertained with big screen T.V.’s and computer games, but that does not compare to interacting with human beings. Unfortunately many more children today do not have the love and security of the family unit, with both a mother and father living at home. One final observation regarding how society has changed for the worse. Forty years ago, if a baby were born early and the mother didn’t plan to have that baby, it would be put up for adoption. It would not have mattered that she may intended to have an abortion, if the baby were born alive it would have been rushed to in incubator, no matter what the mother may say. Back then a baby had rights to be treated as a human being when it was born.

    Today, If a woman wants a late term abortion, and the baby happens to survive, and come into this world breathing, it is just left to die. What kind of a society can approve of such treatment of the most innocent and helpless of all human beings? If there were no other reason than this, I would have to say the world is not a better place today.

  22. [...] about every way you can measure, the world is a better place today than it was before. Life expectancy is up, poverty down, even most environmental indicators aside from greenhouse [...]

  23. [...] about every way you can measure, the world is a better place today than it was before. Life expectancy is up, poverty down, even most environmental indicators aside from greenhouse [...]

  24. Jesse says:

    @ Scott Cogswell “Your next course is to discover the foundational principles that dintinctly drive human progress in the manner outlined in The Progress Paradox, those being Judeo and Christian monotheism, and capitalism.”

    OK.. that is hilarious..Religion has fought progress throughout history.. fought against science, against rights for minorities & women..etc etc.. I think the world is getting better because the world is become more secular and educated..and are progressing past religion.

    If you want to truly get a good idea of what Christianity can do for humanity go back to when Christians were at the height of their power..http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inquisition

  25. [...] Just about every way you can measure, the world is a better place today than it was before. Life expectancy is up, poverty down, even most environmental indicators aside from greenhouse [...]

  26. H. K. Eide says:

    I hate to be the pessimist here, but I am.

    Though you may be right that wealth has grown as much as it has the reason is quite simple cheap available energy. Which will end in a relatively short time.

    None of the progress you are talking about would have been possible without 2 things – fossil-fuel and rape-of-nature.

    In the western world we spend 10 calories to create 1 (because of high energy demand in food production).

    Fish is getting to be a scarce resource without enough control (50% of fishing outside Norway is illegal).

    There is this picture I got a few years ago about a pond with 1 waterlily. Lets say it takes 30 days before the pond is stuffed with waterlilies. On day 29 only half the pond is full and everything seems fine! Actually never has more lilies been happy growing in this pond. They have enough space, food everything seems well.

  27. The world has always been perfect, is perfect and will remain perfect. Aligning ourselves with the Love that we already are and always have been is a version of reality worth spreading… be Love.

    Don’t worry, I’m not there yet either… but it’s getting closer with every sunrise.

    It won’t happen overnight… but it will happen!

  28. Corinna says:

    Dear Scott, you seem like a nice young man but the scales have not yet fallen from your eyes. It´s all good and well to be “positive”, that´s fine. But you are not looking reality in the face and that is a problem.

    You say “crime” went down statistically? No, crime is getting worse and worse. War is crime, murder is crime and lying is a cardinal sin. All of these are being perpretrated by the world powers. Can´t you see that??

    First you have a president who did not make good on his promises.

    Then you have the TV and newspapers and radio lying about unemployment, which is not 8 but rather around 20%.

    Then you have a mormon running for president whose religious community owns Pepsi which admits to using FETUSES (i.e.: natural flavors) for experimental taste testing.

    Then you´ve got chemtrailing, which does not clean the air but rather pollutes it and kills your brain and the rest of your body as well as charging up the atmosphere.

    Then there is TSA, a perfidious plot to undress those who want to fly in an airplane whilst irradiating their whole body. If you reneg, you get a touch up by some perverted “security” agent.

    What about HAARP? They are causing eathquakes and droughts as well as floods using HAARP and chemtails.

    Never heard of any of the above??

  29. Scott Young says:

    Corinna,

    The argument wasn’t that the world is perfect (or even good), but that it’s getting better. Politicians lie, wars are waged and murders committed. But that was all true in the past as well.

    -Scott

  30. Sean says:

    I agree with Cory in saying that the media only portrays the bad things int he world. We just do not stop to think that the bad things only make up a small fraction of everything in the world. I have fallen into that trap.

    Reading this article I find myself agreeing with everything it says. More and more people should read this and others like it.

    I refuse to believe that the future will get worse because if we believe that then we might as well give up now.

    We will get there. It might not happen in our lifetimes but everything is getting better. It has been going on throughout human history and it will keep on going.

  31. Susan says:

    Such oversimplification and faulty reasoning…

    The world just is what it is. It isn’t getting better or worse, just different.
    There is as much good as bad. Always has been. Always will be. It is just up to us which we want to focus on. Focus on the good, get more of it. Focus on the bad, get more of it. Maybe one day we’ll learn to create more good than bad, but we’re certainty not there yet.

    You can’t make a claim like #4 in any credible way unless you address the other sides of that issue like access to healthcare and education. Its faulty logic. I’m all for looking on the bright side. But let’s not pretend that something is what it isn’t. Pretending something is what it isn’t is not optimistic. It is just lazy. And it is its own form of resistance. It’ll work against you in the long run. If Acceptance and allowing are the goals, this ain’t gonna get you there.

  32. Larry Roberts says:

    My Father, almost 91 yrs old, lived through AND fought in, WW2, and says from what he see’s young Families going through today, feels they have it tougher than he did. What does THAT say to your theory , Scott ?
    I was born in 1966, and came of age in the 70′s and 1980′s, and let me say this, my kids today do NOT have it as good as I did growing up. Not a chance. Where do I begin ? The myriad of kids similar aged in my neighbourhood in the 60′s and 1970′s are NOT around in nearly the same numbers today. Many couples feel they cannot afford kids so dont have any. The neighbours in my area now all have mortgage helpers, meaning tenants or students in their basements, creating a FAR more transient situation in terms of coming & goings . That is a neg. thing when you have young ones. We used to know who was practically in EVERY house on our street…not now. My Dad taught school and earned only an avg wage, but we lived like kings. Road trips to California every year, 2 cars in the driveway, meals out often. We do NONE of that, even though my wife and I both work harder & more more hours than my Dad ever had to. My Mom stayed home & took care of the house and fed us. How many do that now ? The local hospital we had in the 1970′s was cleaned by staff that were paid well, and the floors were spotless. Now its cleaning service is contracted out to the lowest bidder, the result being filthy floors. Hospital food WAS made onsite, now its cooked at ONE hospital and shipped out to ALL area hospitals to be “flash-heated”. Real progress huh Scott ? Its all about cost saving now. And its way worse. When I talk to my childs teacher, who has been teaching school since 1972, and SHE tells me the whole teaching scene was FAR better when she started than today, I take that as comment from an expert. A couple in their 60′s I know soon to retire from the airport job they both have serving the public, speaking glowingly of the 1960′s in the aviation industry. Now ? Not so much. At all. My Dad’s friends almost ALL had careers that lasted a lifetime. Now so many face “term contracts” where there is VERY little stabilty. Benefits are cut to the bone, so there is very little space financially because dental and medical are not covered at work. I could go on and on but wont. And PLEASE dont tell me you cant see (hear ?) that music is getting worse. Led Zep, Pink Floyd, Queen, etc were fellatio to the ears. Think there is ANYthing out there today with that sonic pleasure ? There isn’t Scott. Finally, both my Mom (83) and Dad agree they had it MUCH easier raising my brother and I 40 yrs ago than what they see Families struggling with now. How can it be better now ? Its not. The glory years of 1950-1970 are NOT coming back. And when my folks tell me of THEIR childhood in the 1930′s and early 40′s, it was MUCH more similar to what I experienced growing up in the 70′s and 1980′s, to what we see happening (or NOT happening, actually) the last 5-7 years. Oh, one more thing…my daughter who is in high school has not had school dances held the last 2 years at her school. No teachers want to volunteer because it got quite rowdy at a dance a few yrs back. The result ? No more school dances. A rite of passage that occurred for generations is gone. Yah Scott, everything’s SO much better now !

  33. Scott Young says:

    Larry,

    I won’t argue with your observations because, they are, just that–observations. It’s really easy to pick out general observations as being indicative of larger, statistical movements, but it is also easy to cherry pick information in one direction or another.

    I suggest Matt Ridley’s book, The Rational Optimist and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature because they go through the medium of statististics to show which things seem to be getting better. I also recommend, as a somewhat more contrary point, Average is Over, by Tyler Cowen as a more empirical look at what has changed for the worse in the last few decades.

    You’ve listed many examples followed by seemingly rhetorical questions as if to imply the obviousness of your claim. But I could follow it with similarly hand-picked examples:

    - in the 70s there were serious concerns of a USSR/USA nuclear war.
    - the Vietnam war saw conscription
    - Google/Wikipedia has made information access far easier
    - Increased rights/liberties for women, minorities, homosexuals
    - etc.

    The point is that looking through the lens of statistics makes it easier to tease apart what changes have actually occurred. Staying on anecdotal responses is only justifiable if the availability of solid data is lacking.

    -Scott

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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