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The case for optimism

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A quick glance at the headlines over the past year would be enough to give anyone a grim outlook on the future of our world – but there are good reasons to be hopeful. David Rothkopf makes the case for why the fate of future generations is far from doomed

The average person, looking around the world today, might say things are very grim. It’s understandable. Headlines from Syria reveal devastation and human tragedy on an unimaginable scale. Billions of people suffer with too little, lacking basic necessities such as access to food, water, sanitation, or electricity. Terrorists wage their asymmetric wars not just against states but within our psyches. In the United States and Europe, right-wing leaders sell a tale of decline and civilizations at risk-and plenty of voters are buying it. Look no further than Donald Trump’s ascent to the White House on a wave of hateful sentiment.

It is the worst of times. And yet, reflecting on the 2016 campaign in his newest book – and in many ways his most personal and provocative yet – New York Times columnist and 2013 Global Thinker Thomas Friedman begins with a quote from Marie Curie: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

Friedman, who is a friend, goes further. His book is titled Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. So here is a guy who has covered the Middle East and the tribulations of the world for 30 years, and three Pulitzer Prizes later, he is embracing optimism. Why?

The title of the book gives a clue. “Thank you for being late” refers to the degree to which Friedman found himself grateful for the quiet moments each day that he was granted when people with whom he was to meet were delayed by the press of daily life, giving him time to reflect. The book represents an effort to look at what has happened in the world and, in particular, on the “accelerations” that have transformed it and left so many people run ragged, bewildered, and unable to process the meaning of recent changes.

Violent riots broke out in Oakland, California in November following the election of Donald Trump (Reuters)

Those accelerations – in technological advancement, climate change, and globalisation – have reordered the planet from top to bottom, and Friedman spent three and a half years exploring how and looking for meaning. The search brings him back to his hometown in Minnesota to contemplate how the shifting tectonics of modern civilization have altered that which seemed most familiar to him as a child.

The book is written with Friedman’s typically probing search for greater meaning, for big ideas, and for organising principles. And, in the end, it leaves one with the feeling that while the changes that are remaking the planet pose great challenges – notably in the area of climate change – they really do offer even greater opportunities for the lives of everyone in virtually every corner of the world.

This raises a couple of questions. First, do the facts bear out the idea that things are really improving broadly and not just in terms of the gadgets or technologies we have at our disposal? Second, does history offer any clues about the nature and sustainability of step changes of the type Friedman’s book so engagingly focuses on?

To answer those questions, consider that Friedman is not the first to embrace optimism. Indeed, while declinists of every stripe sometimes seem to have greater access to the media, there has been a bit of a groundswell recently of people making the case that the present has a lot to recommend it and that the future looks even better. Furthermore, the current crop of optimists has not based views on the age-old triumph of hope over experience. Rather, to the contrary, their views are arrived at the old-fashioned way – through research, based on data. In fact, I count myself among them because, in my view, optimism is the most logical, sound, and defensible position to arrive at after a rigorous study of history.

We do not live in a perfect world. But we live in a perfectible one. History shows that, over the long run, we collectively have made progress work.

National Guard troops have been sent to Ferguson during ongoing protests and riots sparked by the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown (Getty)

Steven Pinker of Harvard University blindsided a world weary of war stories and the fear of terrorism in 2011 with the publication of his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. In it, he argued and demonstrated through an analysis of available data that violence in human societies has dropped markedly throughout history and that we live in one of the most peaceful and safe times ever

Pinker writes, “Believe it or not … violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era of our species’ existence.” If you lived in what he described as the “pre-state” era, you had a 1-in-6 chance of dying in conflict. In the last century, for all its horrific violence, that number fell to just a 3 per cent chance. And the current period is the most violence-free in history. Pinker offers six major civilising factors, ranging from the rise of institutions and the rule of law to our current respite from global conflicts, to help explain why.

England fans throw bottles and clash with police ahead of a game against Russia in June (Getty)

Other data supports this. Between 500,000 and 900,000 people died in battle in 1950. By 2008, according to PolitiFact, this number was down to 30,000. Independent researchers associated with the Human Security Project at Simon Fraser University have concluded: “Today there is broad agreement within the research community that the number and deadliness of interstate wars has declined dramatically since the end of World War II, and the incidence of civil wars has declined substantially since the end of the Cold War.”

They found that the average number of interstate wars falling from six per year in the 1950s to just one per year now is significant because such conflicts usually are deadlier than civil wars. It also does not take a very sophisticated analysis to conclude that the threats we face today from the likes of the Islamic State, while real, are much, much smaller than the risk of global thermonuclear war or of world wars.

Other positive changes are equally clear. Nothing is more basic to quality of life than its duration. In the pre-modern world, life expectancy was about 30 years. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, with its huge leaps forward in public health and scientific progress, life expectancy has increased substantially, aided most notably by declines in child mortality rates. Average expectancy worldwide has more than doubled since 1900, and no country in the world today has a lower life expectancy than the countries in the world with the highest life expectancies in 1800.

St. Paul’s Cathedral remains intact after an air raid during World War Two (Rex)

The Industrial Revolution produced other massive changes in quality of life. Modern indoor plumbing was introduced to the rich in the United States only in the mid-19th century. In the US, today, virtually every home has it. Worldwide, only 76 per cent of people had access to improved water sources in 1990; that number is now around 91 per cent. Only 1 per cent of US homes had indoor plumbing and electricity in 1920. Today, almost all do. Worldwide, while no one had access to electricity before the late 19th century, around 83 per cent of the population does today.

In 1850, almost everyone in the world lived in an autocracy or a colony. Even the few democracies around were very unrepresentative. Today, the majority of the world’s people live in countries ruled by democratic regimes – more than 4.1 billion people – and only 1.7 billion live in autocracies.

In 1800, almost nine out of 10 people were illiterate. Today, nearly the same proportion can read (Creative Commons)

Real gross domestic product per capita held steady at around $400 to $600 a year for most people in most places for most of the last millennium. It started to change in the developed world as the Industrial Revolution hit. But the real breakthrough came about as globalisation gained traction about 50 years ago. According to the World Bank, it rose from a global adjusted average of $449.63 in 1960 to over $10,000 in 2015. The result is that the share of the world’s population living in poverty has fallen from 94 per cent in 1820 to under 10 percent today.

In 1800, almost nine out of 10 people were illiterate. Today, almost the same proportion can read. In 1970, only 6 per cent of the world’s people had a landline phone. In 2014, we passed the point where there were more cellular devices than people on the planet. According to the World Bank, by the following year, the average rate of cellular subscriptions per 100 people was 98.6.

History, then, offers an encouraging story. It is one of the reasons that those who study it and analyse current change anticipate that, while huge tests confront us now, great progress will continue. Dislocations of workers by new technologies pose a real challenge, note Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson in their important works, Race Against the Machine and The Second Machine Age. But they also point to the prospect of less backbreaking labour, shorter workweeks, and longer work lives. AARP has analysed this in the US and sees a change few could have expected or gleaned from the tenor of public debate just a few years ago: the older members of society, rather than being a burden, are likely to become a boon. Retirement is a concept that will have to be rethought as companies are able to tap into their most experienced workers for much longer, thanks to information technologies that enable them to remain relevant, active, and engaged in creating value.

Estimates today are that, effectively, the entire world will have internet access be linked together in a man-made system for the very first time in history-sometime between 2020 and 2030. We are beating cancer, with deaths down 23 per cent in a generation. A cure may be far off, but as Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, has acknowledged, it’s possible that more people “are going to live [for a] prolonged high-quality time in peaceful coexistence with their disease.”

Progress like this has made benchmarks such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which were adopted in 2015, seem not only achievable, but achievable in the near future. These include ending poverty, eradicating hunger, ensuring that, within a decade and a half, all girls and boys can complete primary and secondary education for free, ensuring clean water for all, and guaranteeing that everyone has access to affordable, sustainable, and reliable energy.

As many as 70 per cent of millennials say they view the world as being ‘full of opportunities’ (Getty)

Perhaps this is why a recent study among 26,000 millennials by the World Economic Forum reveals something quite different from the snark and cynicism of political debates, which is often erroneously associated with young people. When they look at the world around them, 70 per cent see it as full of opportunities, versus only 30 per cent who see it as full of struggles; 86 per cent see technology creating jobs, while only 14 per cent see it destroying them.

Millennials are hopeful. They are hopeful for the same reason that Friedman and Pinker and the technolophiliacs of Silicon Valley are hopeful. They are hopeful because the story of human history is one of continuous progress, and we don’t just live in a moment in which this is ongoing – we live in a moment when progress is inexorably accelerating. Indeed, when you consider that living in one global community and in one single cultural ecosystem promises better understanding of one another, ubiquitous sensing, unlimited data storage, big-data analytics, and the ever-increasing capacity to connect the world’s best and most creative minds, the prospect of seeing the world in detail as it is and as it might be seems possible for the very first time. Optimism is not outlandish – it is required. Realism equals optimism.




68 Comments on "The case for optimism"

  1. DMyers on Sun, 18th Dec 2016 12:06 am 

    Boat must have meant to write mpg above, miles per gallon. Nonetheless, from my recollection, 10 is way low. We frequently bought a dollar’s worth of gas in those days (~3 gal). That was sufficient to run for a while, which would not be the case at 10 mpg. In spite of the message from sixties beach music, most people never owned a four-speed, dual quad, posi-traction “409”.

    The points presented by the article and the responses amount to an argument over whether the glass is half full or half empty. Although this turn of words suggests the importance of perspective, it also implies the complexities with arriving at a final conclusion as to which case is most likely true.

    Nothing is gained by outright denial of these optimist arguments by way of factual example. History abounds with examples of both, those who did the impossible and those who failed to do the possible.

    What I sometimes find lacking in optimistic revisionism is a failure to designate and account for externalities that accompany apparent improvements in life and the times. If externalities result in a setback of progress made, then, well, there was really no progress made.

  2. antaris on Sun, 18th Dec 2016 12:10 am 

    But what I said is probably correct. All the money spent on trying to find other life is only placating the the smart dumb minds. A good make work project. Just like 7! City idiots looking into the hole.

  3. makati1 on Sun, 18th Dec 2016 12:26 am 

    My 65 Chevy 396 got 15 mpg avg. and 18 mpg on the interstate. Boat has problems with numbers over his number of fingers unless he has his shoes off.

  4. Cloggie on Sun, 18th Dec 2016 7:55 am 

    Autonomous buses are popping up everywhere in Europe, dramatically lowering travelling cost (no expensive driver necessary). Example Switzerland:


    France-Lyon, Amsterdam, etc.

    It will be ever less necessary to own a private car.

  5. Davy on Sun, 18th Dec 2016 8:17 am 

    Clog, great idea, let’s dehumanizes our daily experience where ever possible so we can be happier with a lower cost experience. It won’t be long and we will be considering eliminating whole populations so we can lower costs.

  6. penury on Sun, 18th Dec 2016 12:14 pm 

    Davy I agree. People no longer have any connection to nature and you can see how that is working out. People no longer care about wildlife, that is working well, pepole no longer care about the sea life, or the Arctic ice, so lets show them that they no longer must deal with those ‘others” who frighten these poor snowflakes to their safe places. And soon enough the nasty humans can join the rest of the animals on the endangered species list. I am certain that that will be a day of celebration.

  7. Cloggie on Sun, 18th Dec 2016 12:26 pm

    Revenue: € 654 million (2013)

    Greenpeace: Budget €236.9 million (2011)

  8. Cloggie on Sun, 18th Dec 2016 12:56 pm

    Among the potential benefits of automated cars is a significant reduction of traffic accidents, and the resulting deaths and injuries, and related costs, including lower insurance costs; major increases in roadway capacity, with the potential to more than quadruple capacity, resulting in significantly less traffic congestion; enhance mobility for the elderly, people with disabilities, and low-income citizens; relieve travelers from driving and navigation chores, freeing commuting hours with more time for leisure or work; less fuel consumption, producing less air pollution and a lower carbon footprint from road travel; significantly reduced parking space needs in cities, freeing space for other public and private uses; and facilitating or improving existing and new business models of mobility as a service, including carsharing, e-hailing, ride hailing services, real-time ridesharing, and other services of the sharing economy, all contributing to reduce car ownership.?

  9. Apneaman on Sun, 18th Dec 2016 1:58 pm 

    Cloggit, I can’t wait for fantasy car days to happen. Meanwhile back in REALITY, real humans with real children must deal with real consequences of overshoot and collapse.

    Corpus Christi Texas: Chemical named in water pollution crisis

    “Corpus Christi officials have identified a chemical that is suspected to have leaked into the Texan city’s tap water on Wednesday night.
    The contaminant, they say, is Indulin AA-86, an asphalt emulsifier which can burn human skin in concentrated form.
    On Wednesday the city of 320,000 people announced that residents should not touch, drink or use the water.”

    Corpus Christi’s Drinking Water Can Burn Human Skin

    Trump’s new EPA chief will fix it, right?

    “‘It’s been a few days since we had a story about how the United States in 2016 is unable to provide clean drinking water to its citizens. So along comes Corpus Christi, Texas, to make up for lost time. In this story, however, we get another look into the “business-friendly” climate of which a succession of Texas governors are so very proud, and the one that incoming Secretary of Energy Rick Perry would like to bring to the nation at large. ”

  10. Apneaman on Sun, 18th Dec 2016 11:38 pm 

    How many millions are desperately turning to chemical help to feel a little optimism?

    Deaths from synthetic opioids up 72%, CDC says

    Opiod fentanyl killed pop star Prince in April

    “The new report says the latest available data found that 33,091 people died from opioid overdoses in 2015. That number combines prescription and illegal forms of the painkiller that can also send users into a state of euphoria. They account for 63% of the 52,000 deaths from any type of drug overdose in 2015, up from 2014, when 61% of fatal overdoses were due to opioids.”

    Sadly, not everyone can get a big whack of feel good chemicals squirting in their brains from listening to these techno utopian hope pimps.

  11. Cloggie on Mon, 19th Dec 2016 2:12 am 

    Cloggit, I can’t wait for fantasy car days to happen.


    Some guestimated numbers:

    Price small bus: 50k
    Price chauffeur: 50k/year
    Economic life span bus: 10 years
    (Sell to your Ukraine afterwards)

    Accumulated cost bus over 10 years:
    Standard bus: 550k
    Autonomous bus : 50k

    Upshot: reduced travel cost with a factor of 11.

    See the point? Travelling becomes almost for free. Consequences: owning a car is for dummies. It could even be forbidden if this climate change thingy becomes a pressing issue after all (don’t hold your breath). The government then can additionally begin rationing the number of kilometers/years driven.

    The real advantage is a far smaller global car fleet and ditto less embedded energy and sunk resources.

    But what do you know. And now find us some flooded river to keep your climate collapse fantasy alive.

  12. Cloggie on Mon, 19th Dec 2016 4:07 am 

    More cause for optimism: Zsa Zsa Gabor passed away, the #1 Anglo gold digger, who gave marriage a bad name. A few highlights:

    “A man in love is incomplete, until he is married. Than he is finished.”

    “A married man is like a fire – if they are not overseen, they will go out”

    “I never hated a man to the tune that I returned his diamonds.”

    “I am a wonderful house keeper. Every time when I leave a man, I keep the house.”

    “I never can remember names. Why do you think I call everybody ‘darling’?”

    “You may call me a bitch, but don’t call me old.”

    “I know nothing about sex, I was married all the time.”

    “If you like a man and he likes you, you should get married immediately before you change your mind. You have enough time for that during the marriage.”
    How to Catch a Man, How to Keep a Man, How to Get Rid of a Man.

    Zsa Zsa after a life well spent:

  13. Cloggie on Mon, 19th Dec 2016 4:09 am 

    It is not entirely clear what happened to the cake:

  14. Cloggie on Mon, 19th Dec 2016 4:40 am 

    More optimism: Germany (and the rest of NW-Europe) is booming:

    …and hoovers over economy index 111, with 2005=100.

    Der Spiegel pretends to be surprised that the population isn’t optimistic at all, in sharp contrast to the economy.

    Like in America, there is a German run on small fire arms. And that has nothing to do with the economy but everything with shifting demographics and a feeling of insecurity.

    Der Spiegel should worry that one day these weapons will be used against the promoters of mass migration, like themselves.

  15. Apneaman on Mon, 19th Dec 2016 5:46 pm 

    I prefer grumpy asshole, Dave Cohen over any of theses deluded and/or lying hopium dealers.

    Learned Helplessness

    “It is the existential experience that nothing good can or will happen. It is utter hopelessness, the very real experience that your choices don’t matter much, or a recognition that you’re not even making choices at all—you’re locked in.”

    “The inevitable corruption and malfeasance of America’s predatory elites fostered the neglect and structural economic problems which gave rise to learned helplessness (utter hopelessness) in the people of all those red states that went for Trump because they believed he was, for once, a positive choice they could make. When Trump spoke to their concerns, despite the fact that his leadership is already the biggest bait-and-switch in human history, that was enough to induce hopeless people to vote for him.”

  16. JR on Tue, 20th Dec 2016 5:02 pm 

    HOLY BATSHIT!! If what the author really means by this statement: “really do offer even greater opportunities” includes hunger, starvation, suffering, deprivation, destruction, disease, war, escalating levels of poverty and forced immigration (refugees), job losses, sky rocketing prices, pollution and oxygen levels dropping (to say nothing specifically about climate change), then those “opportunities” are going to be quite “wonderful”.

    More hopium for morons to consume. The infinite growth hoopla on a finite planet simply guarantees indefinite happiness to all. Without consequences of course, or depletion.

    Yada, yada, yada. Are people actually paid to write this shit?

  17. JR on Tue, 20th Dec 2016 5:04 pm 

    “History, then, offers an encouraging story.”

    Yes it does. Humans are fucking stupid, evil, ignorant and rapacious. Too fucking dumb to realize that we are making the same mistakes, over and over again. Promoting more civilization is like shooting ourselves in the head with a faster bullet. How’s that for “encouraging”?

    Why do stupid articles like this keep getting published here?

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