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Oh damn, lots of good news

One of the things that seems to bug people these days is expressions of how the world is getting better, wealthier, and happier. My recent comments on the glories of global capitalism flushed out some pretty stubborn adherents of fixed-wealth, mercantilist economics. Much of the attitudes I encountered in the comments are based on a profound pessimism about the ability of people to adapt to change, or even enjoy the challenges of change. Even so, in these gloomy times, it is good to have a clear statement about how good many developments now are. Allister Heath has noted that optimism is almost a taboo an attitude these days as admitting in Victorian times that one enjoyed sex. Anyway, pessimists be damned, read this by Allister:

For billions of people around the world, these are the best of times to be alive. From Beijing to Bratislava, more of us are living longer, healthier and more comfortable lives than at any time in history; fewer of us are suffering from poverty, hunger or illiteracy. Pestilence, famine, death and even war, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, are in retreat, thanks to the liberating forces of capitalism and technology.

If you believe that such apparently outlandish claims cannot possibly be true, think again. In a book which will trigger intense controversy when it is published later this month, the acclaimed American economist Indur Goklany, former US delegate to the United Nations’ intergovernmental panel on climate change, demonstrates that on every objective measure of the human condition – be it life expectancy, food availability, access to clean water, infant mortality, literacy rates or child labour – well-being and quality of life are improving around the world.

A remarkable compendium of information at odds with the present fashionable pessimism, Goklany’s The Improving State of the World, published by the Cato Institute, reveals that, contrary to popular belief, it is the poorest who are enjoying the most dramatic rise in living standards. Refuting a central premise of the modern green movement, it also demonstrates that as countries become richer, they also become cleaner, healthier and more environmentally conscious

I love articles like this. It must drive the gloomongers nuts. And driving such people nuts is not just a pleasure, but a public duty.

Hope has become a commodity in short supply in the West. Even though more progress will always be required, our victories over famine and extreme poverty during the past two centuries are civilisation’s greatest achievement. It is time we took a well-deserved break from worrying about terrorism, rising crime, social dislocation and all our other problems to celebrate what we have actually got right.


29 comments to Oh damn, lots of good news

  • David Roberts

    Jonathon, to me the evidence that, those of us alive today, are the most fortunate humans, ever, is overwhelming.
    Humanity has the possibility to eliminate poverty and disease, to explore all aspects of the universe and to enable people to achieve their dreams. The only impediment is ourselves.
    Yet most articulate people seem not to share this view.
    To understand the cause of this delusion, so that it can be debunked is urgent, less the gloom becomes a self fulfilling prophesy.

  • Tedd McHenry

    …less [sic] the gloom becomes a self fulfilling prophesy.

    That is what I fear. It seems that almost everyone I know has lost faith in, or even actively opposes, science, technology, and economic liberty — the very things that brought us to this happy situation.

  • Clayton

    It’s no mystery why optimism isn’t popular. Smart people are cynical and witty, wry and sarcastic. Being optimistic means you are a naive sheeple being taken advantage of and lied to and that you aren’t enlightened or clever.

    Voltaire; he’s more famous for being sarcastic than he is for being insightful, just check out which of his quotes circulate the most.

  • ArtD0dger

    Face it, there’s a huge class of people with a vested interest (or even just an aspiration to have a vested interest) in proving that capitalism doesn’t work. They will incessantly downplay any good news and invent all manner of crises to justify their grabbing any little chunk of power.

    And they create this distortionary climate in which bad policies can be frequently proposed and occasionally adopted. Public duty indeed, Johnathan.

  • Clayton wrote:

    Voltaire; he’s more famous for being sarcastic than he is for being insightful, just check out which of his quotes circulate the most.

    This may well be true, but it says more about the people who read Voltaire than it says about the man himself. Likewise concerning those who make up dictionaries of quotations.

    My favourite, as a good libertarian, is of course:

    I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.

    which, however, my dictionary of quotations actually attributes to Tallentyre, as a summary of Voltaire’s view on the burning of someone else’s book.

    Try these true(-er) quotations, and get back to me on where lies the the sarcasm:

    We owe respect to the living; to the dead we owe only truth.

    Superstition sets the whole world in flames; philosophy quenches them.

    Whatever you do, stamp out abuses, and love those who love you.

    So, I think he has a good share of insight.

    As for sarcasm and cynicism, these are rhetorical styles chosen, to a large extent, to win (and win over) the audience of one’s choice: perhaps part of the key to Voltaires success. That should be balanced against any possible insight they give to someone’s inner self. Likewise (doubtless) is that swearing style beloved by certain blogs: style and/or inner sick anger? Personally, for preference, I’ll stick mostly with cynicism.

    Concerning Johnathon’s find, and his view, I am very much with him. It’s a delight to find someone who makes the effort in objectively tying down why we should be happy, overall, with our quality of life.

    Best regards

  • My love for Cato is ever growing.

    However, Nigel, I’m not so sure about this quotation:

    “Whatever you do, stamp out abuses, and love those who love you.”

    Could be giving a lot of people a claim on your love. It’d be nice to be popular enough for this to be a problem….

  • Jason

    What’s wrong with you? I come to Samizdata precisely for the cynicism and bitterness, but what do I find this morning but hope and talk of a little thing called love. Mark my words, it’s a slippery slope to fwuffy bunny wabbits.

    More in sorrow than anger,


  • Ham

    All that may be true, but I’ve not seen anyone smile in years. Perhaps another big war would put things in perspective.

  • MarkE

    I admit to being a pessimist, but claim to have been dragged down by the pessimists around me. How can I rejoice in the scientific advances through my own lifetime, when media, public and even politicians say (and may even believe) scientific advance is bad (or even evil!!!)? How do I rejoice in the elimination of disease, when all I see is people who would once have been dead already, whinging about “suffering” from a snot nose? How can I rejoice in the economic benefits we enjoy when I’m told (falsely) the cheap flowers I just bought Mrs MarkE are “killing the planet”? How do I enjoy the potential for freedom we now enjoy, when so many are scared of their own freedom, so need to restrict mine?

    Did Voltaire say “Hell is other people” (too lazy to check)?

  • You can be a cynic and still optimistic about the future.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    MarkE, the saying was from Sartre, one of the most over-rated writers in history, and an apologist for J. Stalin.

  • RAB

    Quite right Andrew, My first reaction to absolutely everything is “Oh yeah?” especially anything comeing from the mouth of a politician.
    But I can die a happy man! I have had the honour and pleasure of making George Monbiot groan live on air.

  • Yes, it’s refreshing to hear someone say these things. I’ll look forward to Goklany’s book. Norberg’s “In Defense of Global Capitalism” is a good one, too.

    Come on RAB, tell us the story!

  • Millie Woods

    The problem is that all of the world’s engineers, medical researchers and agronomists are busy creating the means to make these gains while the lawyers and poli-sci bloviators are in charge of the political process and road block building.

  • RAB

    Well since you asked!
    I listen to BBC 5 live of a daytime, and a while back all the usual suspects , including mr Monbiot, had gathered to discuss Global Warming.
    As usual with the BBC, the balance was impeccable-
    There wasn’t any.
    So after three quarters of an hour of doomed doomed we’re all doomed, I snapped and sent in this email-

    I live on top of the highest hill, here in Bristol, and I for one am rather looking forward to having a sea view

    The Beeb kindly read it out and the collective groan was truely music to my ears!

  • Manuel II Paleologos

    Jean-Paul Sartre said “Hell is other people” (or at least “L’enfer, c’est les autres”).

    However, he didn’t really say that; one of the people in one of his plays did. It’s like quoting Shylock or Iago or Mark Antony and ascribing those sentiments to Shakespeare.

    I don’t like Sartre either, but quoting out of context is still wrong.

  • MarkE

    Thanx for the education all (I got called into a sleepathon (sorry, project meeting) so I couldn’t thank you earlier).

    I take the points about Sartre but, now even more than earlier, hell really is (certain) other people!

  • Ivan

    Johnathan Pearce:

    MarkE, the saying was from Sartre, one of the most over-rated writers in history, and an apologist for J. Stalin.

    Apologist? That’s kind of like calling a Wahhabi fundamentalist a mere “apologist for Mohammed.” 🙂

  • veryretired

    The constant stream of doom and gloom serves two very specific purposes, one superficial, and one much deeper.

    The superficial is easy to understand. You are the editor of a daily newspaper, or the evening TV news. Two photos, (or pieces of video, in the case of the latter) are placed on your desk.

    The first photo is east from the intersection of Oak and Maple Streets. It shows several nice, middle class homes with well maintained yards, flowers, a few kids on bikes or skateboards, some people walking along the sidewalk, and the usual number of parked and moving cars and trucks.

    The second photo, taken at almost the same moment, is west from the intersection of Oak and Maple. It shows several police cars and fire trucks. Smoke and flames are visible coming from one of the houses, and people in a panic are running down the street.

    In the case of the TV news, there are dramatic sounds of sirens, people shouting, flashes of light, bursts of flame, and the general tumult of a desperate emergency situation.

    Which photo goes on the front page of the paper?

    Which tape sequence leads off the evening news show?

    You know the answer as well as I do. Danger, disaster, dramatic rescues, flames, blood, smashed cars, burned out houses, bomb debris, dead bodies—that’s the news each and every day. Next to sex, it sells the best, draws the most eyes, brings in the most bucks.

    It it bleeds, it leads.

    As has been documented many times, people’s fears are often seriously out of touch with what actually threatens them. The constant drumbeat on the news and in the papers each day gives an essentially false picture, so that ordinary people are terrified of crime, when crime rates are dropping, or convinced kidnappers lurk behind every playground bush, when most abductions of children are by a non-custodial parent.

    However troubling, this is only neurosis—a climate of unreasoned anxiety over misidentified dangers.

    Deeper, and infinitely more threatening, is the intellectual and moral climate which is predicated on the axiom that only pain, suffering, deprivation, and death can be the consequence of selfish people working in a selfish system of profit seeking businesses concerned only with making money, not uplifting the spiritual nature of humanity, and striving for the common good.

    There was once many years ago a famous experiment in perception, in which very skilled mail sorters on trains were fitted with glasses that turned their vision upside down.

    I remember watching the film as these men, who had been able to hand sort dozens of letters per minute into the correct bins, were suddenly unable to see correctly, and became hesitant and clumsy as they tried to translate their topsy-turvy world into the well memorized motions they had perfected over years of use.

    Eventually, and this was the point of the experiment, these sorters’ brains re-reversed the images, so that the upside down was once again right side up, and they were able to approach their previous sorting speeds. When the glasses were removed, the whole problem had to be solved all over again, as their brains re-righted themselves to perceiving up and down as they really were, without distorting lenses.

    What the brain does mechanically for a rote, physical task, the mind tries to do for more complex intellectual and moral questions, i.e., keep the perspective right side up. But what happens when the intellectual and moral lenses espoused by many of the leading minds in a culture are inverted?

    This is the truly dangerous threat of a culture obsessed with denigrating the individual, and praising the collective, at every opportunity.

    When someone adopts the viewpoint that any work done by men or women for their own interests is evil, but for someone else’s interests is good, then the purpose is not to increase the good, but to gain the power to define whose interests should be served, and whose are selfish and evil.

    I have read and heard so many statements over the years to the effect that modern western culture is unhealthy, dangerous, poisonous, cancerous, and generally evil, while some misty never-never land would be so wondeful if only the evil capitalists could be abolished, and everyone could share and share alike.

    Left unspoken, of course, is who gets to decide your share.

    Ideas and values are like prisms—they seperate out the various components of life into spectra of choice and action. What options do you have if your prism shows red as being green, and white as being black?

    Living in the real world is like being one of the Wallendas, a hundred feet in the air, balanced on that thin wire, with all the duties and responsibilities of adulthood balanced on your shoulders. Upside down glasses are not a good idea, if you want to make it to the other side.

    I’m afraid there are those who live to see others fall.

  • Having read the wise words (no change there then) of veryretired, I am reminded of the, presumably very old, saying:

    Charity begins at home.

    And perhaps with good reason, and no ill-wishes against one’s fellow man: just the desire not to trouble them unnecessarily and overmuch.

    Best regards

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Ivan, not entirely sure what you are saying, but anyway, Sartre was a hardline communist who held the idiotarian view of Uncle Joe, as did many of his contemporaries. I recommend Paul Johnson’s book, Intellectuals, which does a pretty good demolition job on Sartre, not to mention Bertold Brecht, Rousseau, etc.

  • adamthemad

    It’s good to see a few carry on the kind of work for which Julian Simon became infamous.

    Wired Magazine had an excellent article on Simon before he passed away. Highly recommended. It makes a great Sat/Sun afternoon read, especially with mass quantities of one’s favorite hot beverage.

    The Doomslayer

  • I read a very interesting book whose title and author I have forgotten…my brother got the book for Christmas and I read it in the few days I was there visiting…the author said we are hardwired to scan the environment for threats, so finding few/none, we seek to see threats that aren’t there. We can ignore a huge amount of safety/good things input while doing this scanning. That’s why the tendency for catastrophizing. A primitive survival instinct run amok. Sounds plausible to me.

    The Futurist blog on UN Human Development Data: outside Africa, poverty is rare…and other tidbits

    The Futurist blog: economic growth is exponential and accelerating

    The Futurist blog on the Age of Democracy

    Just some doses of optimism to counter the doom.

    It rains too much in the UK and the sky is too grey. I think that explains some of the doom and gloom.

  • Ivan

    Johnathan Pearce:

    Ivan, not entirely sure what you are saying, but anyway, Sartre was a hardline communist who held the idiotarian view of Uncle Joe, as did many of his contemporaries.

    This was exactly the point of my post — the description of him as a mere “apologist” for Stalin is a bit of an understatement (it might leave the uninformed with the impression that he was merely downplaying the monstrosity of Stalin or arguing moral equivalence between the USSR and the liberal West). Instead, as you correctly remark, he was an out-and-out Stalinist hardliner, for whom the Moscow party line was holy writ, even when it came to the the most outrageous and absurd excesses of Stalinism.

    I was always wondering how it’s possible that the intellectual mainstream in the West holds men like Sartre in such high esteem. I mean, he supposedly came up with some profoundly important philosophical insights into the human nature and human society, and these deep and highly relevant insights led him to the conclusion that the solution for the problems of humanity is nothing other than… out-and-out hardline Stalinism?! I’m baffled.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Ivan, fair do’s. Point taken. By the way, I think the appeal of Sartre was borne, perhaps, for the veneration that people are encouraged to have for the sort of verbiage he came out with. People think it sounds clever and sophisticated. The whole business of existentialism, hen you think about it, was a brilliant piece of theatre: it did not mean much that was coherent but it sure sounded smart. Satre was also great at creating the image of the chain-smoking, womanising lefty dude in the leather jacket.

    The fact that he supported one of the worst tyrannies known to man was conveniently ignored by many. However, his reputation is a bit tarnished these days, but not nearly tarnished enough.

  • Baz

    It’s in the interest of most of us in the public sector to spread the bad news; lots of jobs and pensions depend on things being not only bad but getting worse.

    How on earth do you think these charities keep going otherwise?

    Much the same applies to the media – good news is no news.

  • Baz

    It’s in the interest of most of us in the public sector to spread the bad news; lots of jobs and pensions depend on things being not only bad but getting worse.

    How on earth do you think these charities keep going otherwise?

    Much the same applies to the media – good news is no news.

  • “This is the best of all possible worlds..” ..and I will not accept otherwise.

  • This caught my eye: “…the daily food intake in poor countries has increased by 38 per cent since the 1960s to 2,666 calories per person per day on average.”

    I’m an affluent Westerner, could probably stand to lose five or ten pounds, and I don’t eat 2,600 calories a day. Of course I have a sedentary job and don’t exercise like I should, but 2,600 calories is more than enough for anyone but a lumberjack to thrive. What this means is that, in aggregate, the battle to feed the world is over, and we won.