We live in an age of paradox. According to study after study, almost everything we can measure is moving in a positive direction. Worldwide, there is less violence, less pollution (except for greenhouse gases), less war, greater longevity, and most diseases are declining. From the perspective of material living standards, in every part of the world, things are getting better.
But there is another side.
Diseases that were once a death sentence are now manageable, but health care costs are escalating, and the divide between those that can and cannot afford quality healthcare is widening.
Millions of people in the developing world are experiencing a standard of living never imagined possible, yet how people feel about the world is increasingly negative, especially in the United States. Technology has made life easier in so many ways, yet Silicon Valley is becoming the boogeyman.
In spite of all the positive trends, tribalism divides us, social media, politics, and economics reinforce the divide, and the 24/7 always-on culture makes it happen even faster.
So where are the reasons for optimism?
In this WhoWhatWhy podcast, Jeff Schechtman talks with prolific author and longtime Atlantic journalist Gregg Easterbrook about why he believes things are much better than they look.
Easterbrook reminds us that pessimism was in our national psyche long before social media. He argues against the common claim that the good old days were so good. In his view, it is this false pessimism that in large measure gave us Donald Trump.
His goal is to make optimism intellectually respectable. While he agrees there is plenty to worry about, Easterbrook insists that a change in national attitude could go a long way toward making positive change. In fact, he says that history shows that optimism is the best argument for reform: only optimism could have lifted 1.8 billion people, in China and India, out of extreme poverty in a single generation.
In discussing the broader consequences of negative thinking, Easterbrook explains why we have to take a more global view, and why we should not be so quick to discard the mechanisms for reform we already have.
And while it might be OK, as someone once said, to be a pessimist about tomorrow, Easterbrook exhorts us to at least be optimistic about the day after tomorrow.
Gregg Easterbrook is the author of It’s Better Than it Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear (PublicAffairs, February 20, 2018), and The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (Random House Trade Paperbacks, November 9, 2004).