The long read: The headlines have never been worse. But an increasingly influential group of thinkers insists that humankind has never had it so good and only our pessimism is holding us back
By the end of last year, anyone who had been paying even passing attention to the news headlines was highly likely to conclude that everything was terrible, and that the only attitude that made sense was one of profound pessimism tempered, perhaps, by cynical humour, on the principle that if the world is going to hell in a handbasket, one may as well try to enjoy the ride. Naturally, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump loomed largest for many. But you didnt need to be a remainer or a critic of Trumps to feel depressed by the carnage in Syria; by the deaths of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean; by North Korean missile tests, the spread of the zika virus, or terror attacks in Nice, Belgium, Florida, Pakistan and elsewhere nor by the spectre of catastrophic climate change, lurking behind everything else. (And all thats before even considering the string of deaths of beloved celebrities that seemed like a calculated attempt, on 2016s part, to rub salt in the wound: in the space of a few months, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Carrie Fisher and George Michael, to name only a handful, were all gone.) And few of the headlines so far in 2017 Grenfell tower, the Manchester and London attacks, Brexit chaos, and 24/7 Trump provide any reason to take a sunnier view.
Yet one group of increasingly prominent commentators has seemed uniquely immune to the gloom. In December, in an article headlined Never forget that we live in the best of times, the Times columnist Philip Collins provided an end-of-year summary of reasons to be cheerful: during 2016, he noted, the proportion of the worlds population living in extreme poverty had fallen below 10% for the first time; global carbon emissions from fossil fuels had failed to rise for the third year running; the death penalty had been ruled illegal in more than half of all countries and giant pandas had been removed from the endangered species list.
In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof declared that by many measures, 2016 was the best year in the history of humanity, with falling global inequality, child mortality roughly half what it had been as recently as 1990, and 300,000 more people gaining access to electricity each day. Throughout 2016 and into 2017, alongside Collins at the Times, the author and former Northern Rock chairman Matt Ridley the title of whose book The Rational Optimist makes his inclinations plain kept up his weekly output of ebullient columns celebrating the promise of artificial intelligence, free trade and fracking. By the time the professional contrarian Brendan ONeill delivered his own version of the argument, in the Spectator (Nothing better sums up the aloofness of the chattering class than their blathering about 2016 being the worst year ever) the viewpoint was becoming sufficiently well-entrenched that ONeill seemed in danger of forfeiting his contrarianism.
The loose but growing collection of pundits, academics and thinktank operatives who endorse this stubbornly cheerful, handbasket-free account of our situation have occasionally been labelled the New Optimists, a name intended to evoke the rebellious scepticism of the New Atheists led by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. And from their perspective, our prevailing mood of despair is irrational, and frankly a bit self-indulgent. They argue that it says more about us than it does about how things really are illustrating a certain tendency toward collective self-flagellation, and an unwillingness to believe in the power of human ingenuity. And that it is best explained as the result of various psychological biases that served a purpose on the prehistoric savannah but now, in a media-saturated era, constantly mislead us.
Once upon a time, it was of great survival value to be worried about everything that could go wrong, says Johan Norberg, a Swedish historian and self-declared New Optimist whose book Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future was published just before Trump won the presidency last year. This is what makes bad news especially compelling: in our evolutionary past, it was a very good thing that your attention could be easily seized by negative information, since it might well indicate an imminent risk to your own survival. (The cave-dweller who always assumed there was a lion behind the next rock would usually be wrong but hed be much more likely to survive and reproduce than one who always assumed the opposite.) But that was all before newspapers, television and the internet: in these hyper-connected times, our addiction to bad news just leads us to vacuum up depressing or enraging stories from across the globe, whether they threaten us or not, and therefore to conclude that things are much worse than they are.
Really good news, on the other hand, can be a lot harder to spot partly because it tends to occur gradually. Max Roser, an Oxford economist who spreads the New Optimist gospel via his Twitter feed, pointed out recently that a newspaper could legitimately have run the headline NUMBER OF PEOPLE IN EXTREME POVERTY FELL BY 137,000 SINCE YESTERDAY every day for the last 25 years. But none would have done so, because predictable daily events, by definition, arent newsworthy. And youll rarely see a headline about a bad event that failed to occur. But surely any judicious assessment of our situation ought to take into account all the wars, pandemics and natural disasters that might hypothetically have happened but didnt?
I used to be a pessimist myself, says Norberg, an urbane 43-year-old raised in Stockholm who is now a fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington DC. I used to long for the good old days. But then I started reading history, and asking myself, well, where would I have been in those good old days, in my ancestors northern Sweden? I probably wouldnt have been anywhere. Life expectancy was too short. They mixed tree bark in the bread, to make it last longer!
In his book, Norberg canters through 10 of the most important basic indicators of human flourishing food, sanitation, life expectancy, poverty, violence, the state of the environment, literacy, freedom, equality and the conditions of childhood. And he takes special pleasure in squelching the fantasies of anyone inclined to wish they had been born a couple of centuries back: it wasnt so long ago, he observes, that dogs gnawed at the abandoned corpses of plague victims in the streets of European cities. As recently as 1882, only 2% of homes in New York had running water; in 1900, worldwide life expectancy was a paltry 31, thanks both to early adult death and rampant child mortality. Today, by contrast, its 71 and those extra decades involve far less suffering, too. If it takes you 20 minutes to read this chapter, Norberg writes at one point, in his own variation on the New Optimists favourite refrain, almost another 2,000 people will have risen out of [extreme] poverty currently defined as living on less than $1.90 per day.
These barrages of upbeat statistics seem intended to have the effect of demolishing the usual intractable political disagreements about the state of the planet. The New Optimists invite us to forget our partisan biases and tribal loyalties; to dispense with our cherished theories about what is wrong with the world and what should be done about it, and breathe, instead, the refreshing air of objective fact. The data doesnt lie. Just look at the numbers!
But numbers, it turns out, can be as political as anything else.
The New Optimists are certainly right on the nostalgia front: nobody in their right mind should wish to have lived in a previous century. In a 2015 survey for YouGov, 65% of British people (and 81% of the French) said they thought the world was getting worse but judged according to numerous sensible metrics, theyre simply wrong. People are indeed rising out of extreme poverty at an extraordinary rate; child mortality really has plummeted; standards of literacy, sanitation and life expectancy have never been higher. The average European or American enjoys luxuries medieval potentates literally couldnt have imagined. The essential finding of Steven Pinkers 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, a key reference text for the New Optimists, seems also to have been largely accepted: that we are living in historys most peaceful era, with violence of all kinds from deaths in war to schoolyard bullying in steep decline.
But the New Optimists arent primarily interested in persuading us that human life involves a lot less suffering than it did a few hundred years ago. (Even if youre a card-carrying pessimist, you probably didnt need convincing of that fact.) Nestled inside that essentially indisputable claim, there are several more controversial implications. For example: that since things have so clearly been improving, we have good reason to assume they will continue to improve. And further though this is a claim only sometimes made explicit in the work of the New Optimists that whatever weve been doing these past decades, its clearly working, and so the political and economic arrangements that have brought us here are the ones we ought to stick with. Optimism, after all, means more than just believing that things arent as bad as you imagined: it means having justified confidence that they will be getting even better soon. Rational optimism holds that the world will pull out of the current crisis, Ridley wrote after the financial crisis of 2007-8, because of the way that markets in goods, services and ideas allow human beings to exchange and specialise honestly for the betterment of all I am a rational optimist: rational, because I have arrived at optimism not through temperament or instinct, but by looking at the evidence.