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Optimism or pessimism?
The lesson of history is . . .
Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Do think the world is getter better, or worse?
I hear this question a lot as a teacher and historian. Sometimes I struggle with it, especially as a teacher. I help prepare young people to become adults with responsibility for themselves, their loved ones and the world around them. I feel bad on those days when the calamities of the present crowd upon us and make me think the world is going all to hell, and tempt me to tell my students to brace for the worst. But if the world really is going to hell, they don’t need me to tell them; the world will knock any optimism out of them soon enough. I can rationalize hiding my pessimism and conveying hope, even if I’m not feeling it.
But the longer I’ve thought about this question, the more convinced I’ve become that hope needn’t be feigned. Troubles indeed abound, but troubles have always abounded. We humans have always got past them, albeit not always quickly or easily.
I’ve concluded that the answer to the question—optimism or pessimism?—falls into two parts. The first part deals with the immediate future, the latter with the long term.
The immediate future might be better or worse than the recent past, depending on circumstances. The circumstances can be collective or individual. In 1928 most American investors thought the future would be better; they expected their stock shares to increase in value. The crash of 1929 proved them collectively wrong. But things can go the other way. In 1926 no one had heard of Charles Lindbergh; he himself didn’t think he was special. In 1927 he flew the Atlantic and became one of the most celebrated men on earth.
Yet there is a bias in near-term forecasts, toward pessimism. Reporting of news favors attention-grabbing events: crime, war, violent weather. Good news is often not reported, as being not news at all. So when we envision our world, we often paint a negative picture.
There’s another aspect to the negative bias. Recollections of childhood often are surrounded by a warm glow; adulthood, by comparison, seems harsh and severe. We tend to extrapolate to the world at large and expect the perceived decline to continue. (For more on this, see The golden age.)
If the immediate future often prompts pessimism, whether warranted or not, the distant future ought to elicit optimism—that is, if history is any guide. Over long stretches of time, the world of humanity has improved on nearly every measure of well-being. The most basic measure—mere existence—has risen dramatically over the last several thousand years. Three thousand years ago there might have been 50 million humans on earth. Two thousand years ago they numbered about 200 million. A thousand years ago, 350 million or so. A hundred years ago, maybe 1700 million, or 1.7 billion. Today, around 7.7 billion. Needless to say, there are disadvantages to having too many people, but we humans are collectively getting much better at simply surviving.
Most of the reason is that we live longer. Life expectancy has gone from less than 30 years to more than 70, as a world average. Most people would rather live longer than shorter; in this respect we’re doing better and better.
Why? Because we’ve been able to eradicate or reduce diseases that carried people off at early ages, or left them blind, deaf or paralyzed. Covid-19 notwithstanding, no generation of humans has ever been healthier than the present one.
We are wealthier, on average, than at any previous time in human history. Billions have been lifted out of poverty in the last hundred years. Famine, that grim specter in ages past, has been almost eliminated. More people have access to safe drinking water, to decent housing, to medical care, to education, to travel. Poor people still exist, but where they were long the norm, they are now the exception.
People are freer than in ages past. Slavery, enserfment, indentured servitude, peonage—all once practiced openly—have either disappeared or been driven into the dark corners of nations and economies.
Minds have been freed as well. Plenty of people still believe things for which little or no material evidence exists, starting with religion. But religion rarely provokes sanctioned violence on the scale of the Muslim conquest of the Middle East, the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition. And the superstitions that governed much of human life and produced witch hunts that weren’t metaphorical have dramatically receded.
Humans are still capable of terrible atrocities. The twentieth century produced two world wars and their scores of millions of deaths. Yet everyday life is more secure for more people than ever before.
Conceivably the progress that has carried humanity to where we are today has run its course. Possibly we stand on the apex of human development, and it’s downhill from here.
Possibly. But the burden of proof is on the naysayers to demonstrate that human ingenuity is drying up and that the human capacity for thinking beyond one’s self and immediate tribe is withering away.
I’m willing to be persuaded. But I haven’t been persuaded yet. Until then, count me an optimist—if not for next week, then for next century.