I think I was seven years old, in 1986, when my father mused that it was unclear if the world was getting better or worse. He invoked the metaphor of humanity attempting a backflip, and figured we’re at the perilous halfway point in the maneuver. If we complete the flip, we’ll indeed be much better off, but we might be in the process of landing on our head.
This question hung with me throughout my childhood. Are we doomed? Is a utopian future possible? Are things right now overall good or bad? As I grew up, the context to think about these questions filled in gradually. In elementary school I got a basic taste of the then-standard concerns about the environment and society. These worries deepened in college as I took more critical courses and gravitated toward a more liberal social set. I founded a student group to combat overpopulation, braved tear gas and rubber bullets while protesting free trade in Quebec City, participated in campus demonstrations about climate change, and marched in Washington against the Iraq war.
But despite all this, I wasn’t necessarily convinced that humanity was failing to pull off that back flip. When I read Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky lament the malignant power structures of the West, I wondered how it was that those structures allowed what appeared to be basic progress in terms of the rights of women and minorities, in terms of the cleanliness of the air and water. My parents often described how the basic freedoms I enjoyed were unthinkable in their youth.
As I settled into early adulthood, life seemed good and getting better. As a high school science teacher, it felt like I had contact with the human spirit that was vibrant and optimistic. I read lots of psychology and would ardently defend my belief in the inherent goodness of people with a thought experiment: Consider how much harm a single individual could do to a crowd, then consider how much work it would take to do the equivalent amount of good. Since good is massively harder to perpetrate than harm, the mere fact that society even hangs together proves that good actions outnumber the bad.
Putting it all together, I was torn. Since strong cases were made for either side, it seemed that whichever way the balance tipped, it probably didn’t tip that much.
And then, in 2006 I read an article by NYTimes science writer John Tierney that described a famous bet from 1980. The disputants were celebrity scientist and Malthusian doomsayer Paul Ehlich and his foil, economist and cornucopianist Julian Simon. Among other things, Ehrlich predicted a “nutritional disaster that seems likely to overtake humanity in the 1970’s (or, at the latest, the 1980's). Due to a combination of ignorance, greed and callousness, a situation has been created that could lead to a billion or more people starving to death.” Essentially, humanity wouldn’t complete my father’s backflip. Simon saw the opposite — with more people come more innovations and more abundance.
The two sides traded arguments and insults until Simon openly challenged the Mathusians to a wager — pick five resources that they expected would become increasingly scarce during the coming global population boom, and therefore increasingly expensive. Ehrlich reportedly leapt to “accept Simon’s astonishing offer before other greedy people jump in.” Tierney’s article is well written and informative, and highly recommended, but the upshot is that Ehrlich lost.
The arresting part of this was Ehrlich’s language. To him, the truth was staring us in the face, and anyone who denied it was either stupid or corrupted. Either way, they were dangerous. He derided Simon in the press and on TV, all the while carrying a much larger following. And when the verdict was in — no food shortages, no mass starvation, no period of scarcity during the 80s or 90s — Ehrlich didn’t come back on The Tonight Show to announce the good news that he got it wrong.
Several subsequent pieces have all but sealed the question for me. Here’s a TEDTalk sampling of books and research: Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature and Enlightenment Now, and David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity, Hans Rosling’s The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen. But nothing has been more compelling than the TV docuseries The 1900’s House, in which an enthusiastic and hardy British family agrees to spend three months in a London home that has been completely remade to the specs of the year 1900. The experience is simply brutal.
Several caveats apply: Yes, for some people and some regions, things have gotten worse. And yes, any one metric can be debated (and should be). And yes, things haven’t improved as fast as many of us would like them to. But the granddaddy caveat is this: Sure, things may appear to be getting better, but we are on the brink of disaster. We live in comfort, but an uneasy comfort in a uniquely dangerous time of climate change and the collapse of democracy.
The point of this piece is to tell a personal story of how I came to my present view, rather than to definitively settle the question. But let me quickly address this granddaddy of quibbles — we have always lived on the edge of peril. The threat of famine, plague and war loomed over all previous civilizations, even when times were good. The solution to these threats depended on developing the relevant know-how in time. We will always face catastrophe, including human-made threats that are as unknowable to us today as nuclear annihilation was unknowable 100 years ago. And our salvation will always depend on figuring out a solution in time.
In the end, why does this question even matter? Might this optimistic conclusion in fact be harmful? Indeed, if there is still massive suffering and risk in the world, then popularizing the idea that things are getting better presents the moral hazard that we may neglect those in peril. However, the opposite is true. For the sake of effectively solving our problems, we need to make sure we don’t fall into Ehrlich’s trap of misjudgment and alarmism, lest we constrain the very forces of progress. It just might be that some of today’s most popular villains — capitalism, industry, and the ambitions of its billionaire titans — are central drivers of progress. Maybe Walmart is “the most successful social welfare system ever implemented.” If things are getting better, then maybe the mainstream institutions of society should be reinforced rather than attacked. If nothing else, I believe we should have some respect for the status quo. Study it, criticize it, improve it, outdo it, but don’t destroy it.