“We are better off than anytime in history”

In an age of fear, The Atlantic Monthly journalist and prolific book author Gregg Easterbrook takes on doomsday theories and makes an unexpected case for optimism.

Spring has finally arrived. We ache to spread our arms, stretch our winter bodies in the warming sun, and breathe deeply of the reawakening of nature — if only the news of the world was not so depressing.

Tensions are rising between the US and Iran. The US-China trade war is heating up. Venezuela is descending into civil war. The glorious Notre Dame cathedral went up in flames. And that is only a small sampling of the disasters besetting the world. Christians are slaughtered in Sri Lanka. ISIS is back. Europe and the US are facing mass migration crises. Authoritarianism is on the rise, along with global health and wealth inequalities. And then there are the weather catastrophes many scientists ascribe to man-made global warming.

In this doomsday era, it is a relief to find Gregg Easterbrook’s literary balm, “It's Better Than It Looks.

In his new book, Easterbrook surveys a wide variety of data and finds that: humans are healthier, wealthier, more peaceful, and more democratic than at any time in history.

Die Weltwoche asks the cockeyed contrarian why he’s so sublimely optimistic about the fate of humankind.

 

Gregg, the news reports a constant stream of disasters. Why do you remain a steadfast optimist in this age of fear?

I think the optimistic view is the rational view. Yes, there are many things to be afraid of, it's a big world, it's 7 billion people. In our world, there will always be something going wrong somewhere. We have put up way too much emphasis on the negative aspects of our life, way too much emphasis on the negative interpretation of those aspects.

The fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral is good recent example. The New York Times, the most important newspaper in the United States, used very large type headlines, Cathedral Burns in Paris Tragedy. They called it a tragedy. It's a building of historic significance that was terrible to see it in flames. But nobody was hurt. It's just a material thing. It can be rebuilt. The coverage of the media was just so overblown. There is a constant desire to put the most negative possible spin on things.

But the Notre Dame aside, there seems to be a wave of rolling catastrophes like mass migration crisis, unprecedented heatwaves, storms, and floods across the globe...

When you put the most negative possible interpretation on events, you open the door for political demagoguery. People like Donald Trump who ran a relentlessly negative campaign, based on incredibly wild exaggeration of the negative condition of the countries. You see a lot of Eastern European politicians right now are doing the same thing. Historically, negative claims have gone hand-in-hand with demagoguery and politics. This should be opposed by intellectuals. One of the reasons I wrote the book, It's Better Than It Looks, is to try to recapture optimism as an intellectually respectable idea. Intellectuals should oppose the demagoguery spouted by Trump and others on the European landscape. Practically every objective thing you can measure about United States and European society, a lot of Asia, is positive, not negative. It has been positive for years, if not decades. Why is that? It's because political reforms have worked.

Doomsday thinking has been around as long as mankind. Why do people, today, in an unprecedented age of knowledge and information, believe so strongly that everything is getting worse?

I realized that it certainly sells newspapers. It gets people to turn on televisions, it sells political campaigns. The key thing about the word Doomsday is that all previous Doomsday predictions have turned out to be wrong. I don't mean to say that some of them turned out to be wrong, all over them turned out to be wrong, every single one.

Now, some of the doomsday predictions of the past didn't happen because people effected the reforms that were necessary to prevent the described problems. The Silent Spring Claim of 1962 is the most obvious example, that claimed that bird species would all become extinct in a very short time. Almost all bird species in North America are healthier in numbers and diversity than they were 50 years ago. They didn't fall extinct, but part of that is because the reforms that were necessary were put into effect.

Bird species might be healthier, but biodiversity, more broadly speaking, seems to be in terrible condition. The UN warned, in a report last week, that 1 million species are at risk of extinction. Isn't that shocking?

Well, if you're a headline writer, you would say, "Jeez, this is a coincidence that they came up with exactly 1 million as the number to warn about." I think species extinction, that report is a computer generated number. Anybody who's done Computer Modeling knows that computer models produce the result that they're designed to produce. I'm very suspicious of that report. It was a politicized report.

What if it was half that size? That's still a lot of species.

If it was half that size, it would be a calamity. Threat on species is a real problem. In my book, I use the numbers generated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which uses actual counts, not computer projection. And by actual counts, they find dozens of species around the world that are imperiled, they find that the rate of peril to species is greater than the natural background rate. There isn't any doubt that human action pushes many species toward extinction. It's just ridiculous to think that it's a million, unless you extrapolate the fact that say we have very little knowledge of what kind of life there may be deep in the sea, and practically anything could be happening there. Other species that you can count, and I go over the statistics for the species you can actually count in my book, there is a lot of reason for concern, but no reason to think that some kind of an emergency is in progress.

Mass extinction has occurred five times in Earth’s history. Scientists warn that we are heading for another big one.

Are we living in an age of mass extinction now? It's possible. I can't prove to you that there aren't uncatalogued species at the bottom of the sea that are falling extinct, but as I say, of the species that you can actually see and count, there've only been a few extinctions in the last 50 years. The problem is the real problem, but much exaggerated in public opinion.

This year, we witnessed the sudden appearance of a teenage doomsday prophet from Sweden. Her name is Greta, and she calls for immediate action against climate change. According a study published by the World Economic Forum, last year, we saw unprecedented, extreme weather events. Where is your optimism when it comes go global warming?

I devote a chapter to climate change, which is real and scientifically proven, nobody should doubt that there is human impact on climate change. I think it can be more readily fixed than people understand. Greenhouse gases are fundamentally an air pollution problem. In the two previous serious air pollution problems the United States, Europe, and China, those being smog and acid rain, both were fixed much faster and much more cheaply than anybody expected. Smog and acid rain vanished from the American political landscape because they vanished from the sky, and smog and acid rain are down in most of Europe. Acid rain is actually declining in coast of China. Even as polluted as China is, they are making progress against the acid rain there.

Just as smog and acid rain declined, can greenhouse gas emissions decline, as well?

Both those problems are structurally similar to greenhouse gas emission. I think if society got serious about smog in the 1970s, and when I say society I mean Western society, got serious about acid rain in the 1980s, hasn't got serious about greenhouse gases yet. And I think we'll find that dealing with it is cheaper and more effective than anybody's projecting right now.

Your book covers what you identify as the seven most commonly cited global threats. One is inequality. According the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 13% of the world population go to bed starving due to malnutrition.

That is the lowest level in human history.

That's the lowest? We are talking about hundreds of millions of people.

Well, this is a statistic, and I looked at it one of two ways. If you look at it as a percentage of the human population, the malnourished are at the lowest level in human history. The human population is the largest it's ever been, we're up to seven billion people in the world, 13% of seven billion is a big number. It's far more than the total population of the United States, so that malnutrition remains a major problem in the world. But we have not experienced waves of global starvation that were widely expected 50 years ago.

Another doomsday prediction?

There's the classic example of the doomsday prediction that didn't come true, but we still do have malnutrition. Malnutrition is in almost all cases not a result of lack of sufficient food. It's the result, in almost all cases, of distribution problems and government corruption. Venezuela is the current worst example. The hunger that's occurring in Venezuela is all the product of government policy. It has nothing to do with the availability of food stuffs for the population.

Let’s talk about human health. Consumption of alcohol is on the rise. Between 1990 and 2017, global alcohol consumption rose 10%, according a study published in “The Lancet.” People are also becoming more obese. Male infertility is on the rise. Is human health deteriorating?

Well, it certainly could be better, but if it's deteriorating, our bodies have a funny way of showing it because longevity is increasing almost everywhere in the world. We've had two years of decline in average life expectancy at birth in the United States in '15 and '16. Those are the only two sets years in American history. Almost all nations of the world, including war torn nations, including Afghanistan, have a record level of longevity and life expectancy at birth.

Those are slightly different figures, but they tell you basically the same thing, human longevity keeps going up. Rates of almost all of the major diseases are going down. Hypertension is up, obesity is up, but cancer, heart disease and stroke, the big killers, they're all down. Cigarette smoking is declining almost everywhere, not in China, but almost everywhere else. Alcohol use is rising in some places.

In the United States, we have a big current problem with opioids and similar prescription painkillers. There’s abuse of the narcotic painkillers Percocet, Oxy and Vicodin. Overall, human health is the best it's ever been. There's no sign there's a gradual increase in the human lifespan is slowing.

As you often do in your book, sometimes it helps to look back one hundred years and imagine what health and medicine looked like then.

Today in the United States life expectancy of a child at birth is 78 years. A hundred years ago, it was 46 years. Our life expectancy is close to doubling in just a century. Other countries life expectancy is even a little bit higher. In Japan life expectancy at birth now it's 86 years. The increase in life expectancy is a puzzling thing to researchers. It doesn't seem to link any specific event. It didn't go way up when antibiotics were discovered. I didn't go way down during either of the world wars. Life expectancy just seems to continue to rise. It's as if the whole world was riding an escalator that was very slowly going up. The statistics show that almost everywhere in the world, life expectancy has increased.

A reason of great concern is migration. Violence in Syria triggered masses to flee. The Rohingya are on the move. People from all over Africa are traveling to cross the Mediterranean into Europe. Many tragedies happen on the way. How does mass migration, with all its social and economic consequences, fit your optimism?

Migration is going to get worse before it gets better driven by two factors. One is the expansion of the population of the world. Probably we'll be able to continue to feed the human population no matter how much the population rises.

The other is the disparity between wealth and different societies. You're closer to this in Europe than I'm in the United States, we have some population pressure on our southern border. If you look at the Mediterranean, the wealth differential between the northern side and the southern side is the greatest in human history. The population of the southern side of the Mediterranean is rising very fast. The population of the northern side is stable or even declining. Over the next 50 years the pressure on the Mediterranean basin from people on the southern side who want to go to northern side will be growing. That’s going to become a larger and larger issue for the whole world to deal with.

Security is a top priority to most people. In 2009, then newly-elected US President Barack Obama went to Prague and called for a world free of nuclear weapons. Today, we are far from that. Recently, the US declared they will withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Are we heading toward a new nuclear arms race?

I don't think so. The US and the Russian Federation are both trying to design new delivery mechanism revamped that already exist. That’s is the main reason for the withdrawal from the treaty. In fact, if you look at this total number of nuclear warheads in the world from the peak of the 1970s to today, we have 86% fewer nuclear bombs in the world than we had in the peak of the 1970s, but still the numbers that exist, if even a small percentage of them exploded, will be a calamity beyond measure.

I'm not sure if it is possible to eliminate all nuclear weapons altogether. But let's suppose Obama’s proposal was possible. Would you actually want to do that? In the period that the atomic bomb has existed, there has been no great power war, and you know how bleak human history is as regards great power war. Think how peaceful Europe has been in the last 75 years versus any previous 75-year-period. Nuclear deterrence is not the only factor, but it's a major factor. There's a really good argument that a small number of nuclear bombs in the possession of the great powers prevents the great powers from going to war, but it is a gamble with history. The gamble is that some lunatic won't use one of those weapons, and the rest is indescribable.

Nuclear stockpiles aside, global spending on weapons and military increased to $1.8 trillion in 2018. That is an increase of 2.6% from 2017, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI. The world is stocking up with weapons and seems to be becoming a more and more dangerous place.

Is it really becoming a more dangerous place? It’s true the total amount spent on weapons has steadily increased as far back as we can measure, but the per capita spending on weapons is down over the last 25 years. Per capita, military expense in the world for 25 years has declined about 30%.

The key things that you see when we look around the world, is for roughly 25 years, the frequency and intensity of combat worldwide has been in steady decline. Now, it's only a 25-year-old period. 25 years may not be enough to be sure that the world's desire to fight itself is going down. I was born in 1953, there's been no great power war in my lifetime. Obviously, this makes me 66. Go back before my birth year, try to find any 66 year period when there was no great power conflict, no shooting war, good luck because you're not going to find one. We are better off than anytime in history. 

If it is true what you say, and the world is better than it looks, why do so many people feel so miserable and scared? Suicide rates are pretty high in many Western countries. In the United States, suicides have increased substantially over the past two decades.

It is actually true, the people are stressed out, the suicide rates are higher than we would expect them to be given that life is pretty good for most people. There isn't any doubt that people are experiencing fear. I think several things are happening at once. One is, the nature of the new media that everybody's obsessed with social media, which I view as a fad, it is a fad that's happening right now, that media emphasizes anger and discord over all other things.

You've seen social media mainly from these miniature computers that we carry in our pockets you perceive that anger and discord physically close to your face. That's a new psychological fact that the people haven't faced before. Our media are warming us to things to worry about. A century ago, if you live in Switzerland, why would you care what was happening in Pakistan? There is no chance at all it would have any impact on your life. Now you're worried that some lunatic in Pakistan is putting together a crude atomic bomb. He's going to somehow smuggle into the European Union and set it off. We live in a world that has all kinds of very intensely personal awareness of bad things that aren't likely to happen, but I can't promise you won't happen, and I think that leads to stress theory. We have politicians, opportunists who are picking up on this and trying to amplify that theory.

Those little computers you mentioned that we carry in our pockets — within all the fascinating tricks they can do, there lies a great danger. They pose a serious potential threat to our privacy. They collect data about our whole life. Governments and companies are using that highly personal, detailed data to track us. Perhaps, in this hyper Orwellian world, babies might soon be chipped after birth. Is the loss of privacy another doomsday theory that is exaggerated?

It's certainly a worry. I give you an example that happened to me a few days ago. I was traveling. I took my laptop, and I opened it. I really think I've turned off all the location service options on my laptop. I opened it to the front page of the New York Times. What did I see in the upper-right-hand corner? The weather forecast for the city that I was in. It was a city that I had ever been in before. It's like my computer knew what city I was in. It said, "Look, here's your weather forecast." Isn't that convenient? There was some loss of privacy there. I literally don't know how it happened.

I'll tell you on a larger scale, research into the sociological effects of social networks is showing that cell phone use is associated with depression. Looking at phone occasionally to check your email or find out what the weather forecast is, that's great, that's very convenient. People who look at their phones all the time, are much more likely to be depressed than people who don't look at their phones all the time.

There is a reason. If you measure their bloodstream, cortisol is the mediating hormone of stress. People who look at their phones all the time have far more cortisol in their bodies than the people who don't look at their phones all the time. Cortisol is the physical agent of stress. If there is a lot of it in your body, you feel stressed. You feel anxious. You feel nervous. You feel angry. Maybe all these things make you look at your phone and then Apple is happy. There has something to do with this perception of how are the people feeling terrible about themselves even when most of the material indicator is being pretty positive.

In this age of fear, you counter the widespread doomsday mentality with an impressive optimism. But critics say your optimism is merely complacency. What is optimism to you?

People think that when you say optimism, it means that you think everything is fine. That you're a Pollyana or a Panglosss. That's not what optimist means. Optimists can be angry. Optimists can be upset. They can be cynical. I, personally, am a cynical optimist. An optimist believes that problems can be fixed. A pessimist believes that we have to give up because problems cannot be fixed.

Historically, an optimist has been a much better predictor of the future than a pessimist has. Because, not in every single case, but in almost all cases, the optimistic view has prevailed, and the pessimistic view has failed. Optimism needs to be intellectually respectable again. If you look at the three great problems we've mentioned that face the current generation, climate change, inequality, and migration from poor places to the affluent ones, if you're a pessimist, you might as well just order champagne and give up because how are you going to fix all these problems? If you're an optimist, you think it's going to be hard, but all three of these problems can be fixed. That's the essence of optimism.

To fill your optimism with substance, please give our readers one example of how optimism in the past worked and how it paved the way to progress.

Air pollution is by far the most obvious one because it's incontrovertible, but it's also similar to the problem we face with greenhouse gases. In the 1970s, Los Angeles was almost uninhabitable because of the thickness of smog. They were having 125 Stage One ozone alerts per year in Los Angeles. Them and many other cities was really bad. Mexico City was getting bad and Europe. Today, it's been six years since Los Angeles had even one Stage One ozone alert. Smog has been, basically tested, not every single place in the world, but most of the Western World, a lot of the Central valleys of Mexico, some of the coasts of China, smog has already started to decline. It's terrible in Tehran. It's terrible in a few other places. Smog looked like a problem that was literally going to kill people 40 or 50 years ago.

In fact, when Richard Nixon was our President, here in the United States, he had the army draw up emergency plans to declare martial law and evacuate cities if smog got to be so bad that people were dropping dead all around.

In the state today, the air is clear. I live in Washington DC. The air is beautiful, it's clear, it doesn't cause any respiratory problem. It makes urban areas more valuable. Smog has been defeated as a problem almost everywhere in the world. That'll be worked on in a few other places actually. On a technical basis, smog can be defeated everywhere, and there's no international treaty that governs the management of smog. Nations have done it on their own. The technical means of control have been invented, and nations perceive that reducing smog to improve public health is a public good, so smog is disappearing from the human experience. We can do the same thing with greenhouse gases.

 

Gregg Easterbrook, 66, is the author of ten books, two of them New York Times Notable Books. He was a national correspondent for the Atlantic, and since then has been a contributing editor. He is a former visiting fellow of the Brookings Institution and a distinguished fellow of the Fulbright Foundation. Easterbrook often writes for the Atlantic (nine cover stories), New Republic (seventeen cover stories), and New York Times (thirty-three op-ed pieces). And he has written for the New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, Wired, Esquire, Washington Monthly, and Los Angeles Times.

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