ANDREEA CAMPEANU / REUTERS Looking up: students at a public school outside Juba, South Sudan, April 2013.

Doomsday Delusions

The Case for Optimism in a Pessimistic Age

In This Review

It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear
By Gregg Easterbrook
PublicAffairs, 2018
352 pp.
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think
By Hans Rosling
Flatiron Books, 2018
352 pp.
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
By Steven Pinker
Viking, 2018
576 pp.

Anyone glancing at a newspaper these days finds a litany of woes: war, crime, disease, terrorism, and environmental disasters, all sandwiched between predictions of the coming collapse of market capitalism and liberal democracy. U.S. politicians on both the right, such as President Donald Trump, and the left, such as Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, warn that the United States and the world are sliding toward calamity. Pessimism rules the day.

The world does indeed face challenges. Yet by almost any measure, life for most people has been getting better in almost every way. Levels of war and conflict are near historic lows. People are living longer and healthier lives and are better educated than ever before. Incomes for most families are higher than at any time in history. One billion people around the world have been lifted out of extreme poverty in the last two decades, and although income inequality has worsened within many Western countries, across the globe, income is more equal than it has been in centuries. Far fewer people than ever go hungry, and the world now grows more food than it needs. Women have more opportunities, democracy has expanded, and basic human rights are more widely respected than ever before. Electricity, automobiles, the Internet, modern medicines, and simple conveniences have made most people’s lives far easier than their great-grandparents could have imagined. And after centuries of being largely confined to the West, since the 1980s, such benefits have spread across the world—not just to China and India but also to Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Ghana, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Mozambique, Peru, South Africa, South Korea, and dozens of other countries. 

Amid the prevailing pessimism, few people—especially in the West—are aware of the extent of this progress. That ignorance matters. For as three terrific recent books—Gregg Easterbrook’s It’s Better Than It Looks, Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, and Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now—make clear, continuing this progress is possible but not

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