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:
- Income. The middle class today are wealthier (in terms of real dollars’ buying power) than the rich only a century ago.
- 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.
- Crime. After peaking in the 1980s, violent crime is down significantly in the United States.
- 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.
- World Poverty. Although some pockets of the world continue to stagnate, the overall reduction in global poverty should be celebrated.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.