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The Case for Optimism

Now for the Good News!

Children playing violin in 2011 at the Suzuki Institute in Ithaca. Photo: Stilfehler/Wikipedia Commons

Bailey and Tupy have written a fact-filled book on modern trends, mostly positive...

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic I realised how much more vulnerable we are than I had previously believed. It was a sobering experience to read Niall Ferguson’s Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe where he described in detail the impact of famines, plagues, wars, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, droughts, and other almost unimaginable but all-too-real disasters, horrors and catastrophes. All this happened, even if it happened to ‘them’ rather than to ‘us’, whereas the present pandemic certainly happened to us. Staying at home in Iceland during these strange times, I also quickly reread Jared Diamond’s interesting, if less authoritative two books, Collapse and Upheaval. One of Diamond’s points is well taken, that some societies manage, by a combination of inner strength and fortuitious circumstances, to recover from calamities, for example Finland and West Germany after the Second World War. I would add my own country, Iceland, being on the margin of the inhabitable world. We survived while the Icelandic settlements in America (1008–1011) and Greenland (985–c. 1450) went under.

Poverty: From Rule to Exception

However, at the same time as we should realise our vulnerability, we also need to be reminded of the immense achievements of mankind over the last two centuries. This is the message in a remarkable new book by science writers Ronald Bailey and Marian Tupy, Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know, published by Cato Institute in Washington DC. The authors marshal an impressive array of incontestable facts on how the human condition has improved. Thus, they provide a corrective to the news with which we are bombarded every day. As Harvard Professor Steven Pinker says in a comment on their book: ‘There are two ways to understand the world: a constant drip of anecdotes about the worst things that have happened anywhere on the planet in the previous hour, or a bird’s-eye view of the grand developments that are transforming the human condition. The first is called “the news”, and for your wisdom and mental health I recommend balancing it with the second. Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know is a pleasure: gorgeous, self-contained vignettes on human progress, which you can sample at your leisure or devour in a sitting.’    

Consider poverty. It was the rule. Now it is the exception. It is estimated, Bailey and Tupy inform us (p. 9), that in 1820 84 per cent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. In 1910, the proportion had gone down to 66 per cent, in 1950 to 55 per cent, and in 1981 to 42 per cent. The latest assessment (by the World Bank) is that in 2018 the proportion is 8.6 per cent. Note how slow the decline of poverty was until the 1980s and how rapid it has been since. Also recall that the world’s population has dramatically increased at the same time, to 7.5 billion in 2018 (and now, in 2021, to 7.9 billion).

Plenty of Bread

Another intriguing fact (p. 15) is that food production per person has gone up despite the population increase. In the year 1968 Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich predicted that in the 1970s hundreds of millions of people would starve to death. This was the year in which the food supply in 34 out of 152 surveyed countries amounted to fewer than 2,000 calories per person per day. But in 2017, this was true of only 2 out of 173 countries surveyed. Everybody has benefitted from improved agricultural productivity and easier transport of food. Perhaps the jester’s remark is no longer relevant: ‘I have had a pretty good deal. I have had enough to eat and I have avoided being eaten. This is more than most animals living on earth can say.’

The authors emphasise, as do all sensible people, that man lives not by bread alone. They point out that wars between countries have become less frequent, probably because of globalisation. (You are less aggressive to your neighbour if you see in him or her a potential customer.) Violence, for example the murder rate, has greatly receded in most countries (p. 81). The authors quote recent research (p. 31) which also shows that happiness has been rising. They reject the common contention that it is not correlated to wealth. (Money does not buy happiness, to be sure, but it makes unhappiness more bearable. If you have to cry, it is nicer to do it at the Savoy than in a shack.)

Bailey and Tupy remind us (p. 33) of the amazing fact that ‘over the course of the 18 centuries that separated the birth of Christ and the election of Thomas Jefferson to the U.S. presidency, income rose by about 40 percent,’ whereas the real standard of living rose by more than tenfold between 1800 and 2008. Moreover, as a result of globalisation, global income inequality has been falling in recent years (p. 35). They also discuss trends reducing discrimination against both women and racial and sexual minorities, enabling human flourishing without any harm to others. Again, as I vividly remember from my salad days, in the Cold War the main threat was MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction. At the height of the Cold War, in 1986, there were 64,449 nuclear warheads, capable of destroying the planet many times over. In 2018, their number had fallen to 9,305 (p. 93).

The Present Pandemic

These are only few of the facts that the authors bring to our attention. Some might say that their message is not entirely convincing because we are in the midst of a pandemic which has already claimed the lives of four million people (around 0.05 per cent of the total world population). But the reason we find this pandemic so extraordinary is precisely because we are no longer used to disasters. When they struck in the past, the survivors just shrugged their shoulders and went on. The only response making sense was fatalism. It is true that both urbanisation and globalisation, two modern trends welcomed by the authors, have facilitated the dissemination of the Covid-19 disease. But it is not as if epidemics had not spread in the past: The Justinianic plague in the 540s and the Black Death in the 1340s, both originating in China like Covid-19, may each have killed 30 per cent of the world’s population at the time. Today, we can practise social distancing because, as Bailey and Tupy point out (p. 171), in developed countries like the United States, the living space of an average citizen has almost doubled. This was not possible in the crowded conditions of most cities in 1918–1919 when the Spanish Flu raged. Its death toll is estimated to have been between 40 and 50 million people, mostly healthy adults. Again, in this pandemic it took only a year to manufacture several vaccines which seem to be quite effective. This certainly is a triumph of science.         

Controversial Issues

My only criticism of this timely work is not really a criticism, but rather an observation. It is that the two authors try hard to steer clear of controversy and therefore they do not directly challenge certain ‘politically correct’ assumptions. This may actually be one of the book’s strengths rather than a weakness. But I note, for example, that in the Introduction (p. 1), the authors speak as if it is worrisome that ‘tropical forest area continues shrinking’. This surely depends on what is replacing it. If it is farmland dedicated to growing crops, then it need not mean a reduction of plants: after all, crops are plants. The land remains green. Moreover, trees in tropical forests which decay, die and fall naturally release carbon into the atmosphere whereas crops are usually kept at an even level. If the issue is biodiversity, then it can be maintained in much smaller areas than today’s tropical forests require. The Atlantic Forest (Mata Atlântica) in Brazil is now only 15 per cent of what it was when European first arrived. Nevertheless it still offers great biodiversity. Should those who want to preserve the whole of the Amazon Forest, instead of allowing the Brazilians to replace parts of it with crops, not compensate the Brazilians for the forgone alternative utilisations of those vast expanses of land?

The authors point out that we are certainly not seeing a decrease of world population, but rather an increase at a lower rate. They comment (p. 13) that this is good news because ‘reproductive freedom’ is expanded, as they put it. This seems plausible. But people worried about population growth should bear in mind that an additional person provides not only one more stomach to fill, but also usually an active mind and two hands that can be used to produce goods. Anyway, as has often been observed, the population explosion in the twentieth century was not because we had suddenly started breeding like rabbits: it was because we had stopped dying like flies.                

In a chapter on the retreat of malaria, Bailey and Tupy note (p. 71) that in the 1970s the use of the insecticide DDT ‘was restricted when researchers discovered that it had unintended deleterious effects on some wildlife, especially some bird species’. I should like to add that it was the excessive use of DDT in agriculture which made some bird species temporarily infertile, as Rachel Carson movingly described in Silent Spring. But DDT was, and is, cheap to produce and highly effective against malaria, without any significant harm to the environment. Banning it was not only a scandal: it was a tragedy. It has cost the lives of millions of people in poor countries. Fortunately, though, as the authors note, new tools are being developed against malaria.      

The authors seem to assume (p. 83) that capital punishment is an unmitigated evil. Is it? I can think of people who would deserve the death penalty, such as Belgian child molester Marc Dutroux who abducted and killed several young girls before his conviction in 2004, with two of them starving to death locked up in his house while he was serving a short prison sentence. Such monsters are rare, but they exist. The authors do not mention the interesting hypothesis by economist Isaac Ehrlich that the death penalty has a significant deterrence effect so that for each execution perhaps as many as eight lives are saved. This should not be surprising: even criminals respond to cost, and if the cost of murdering people go up, murders should become less likely. As Alphonse Karr exclaimed in 1849: ‘Si l’on veut abolir la peine de mort, en ce cas, que Messieurs les assassins commencent.’ If we want to abolish the death penalty, let our friends the murderers take the first step.

Progress: Possible, Not Inevitable

Reading Bailey’s and Tupy’s book, I was reminded of a debate I had in Sydney in 1985 with two highly articulate and intelligent conservatives, Dr. John Gray and Professor Kenneth Minogue. While I believe that (classical) liberalism can only be plausible if it incorporates some conservative insights, perhaps our main disagreement at the debate was about progress. Gray and Minogue found the very concept less than coherent. I argued however that although progress is not inevitable, it is possible. Ten Global Trends demonstrates the possibility of progress, even if history is certainly not an express train scheduled for destination Liberty. It is progress when people can pursue happiness each in his or her own way, regardless of social background, nationality, gender, race, religion or sexual preference. It is progress when people gain access to clean water and sufficient, healthy food and do not see half or more of their children die as infants. It is progress when young men are not killed by the millions in some faraway battlefields, to no purpose. We have a lot to fear, but Bailey’s and Tupy’s book is not only about incontestable facts: it is also about hope.  

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