In This Review

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

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 guaranteed; if people fail to appreciate the institutions and policies that have generated this success, citizens and policymakers are more likely to abandon them going forward. A full understanding of the unprecedented progress in human development is essential to ensuring that it continues.

ALWAYS LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE OF LIFE

Easterbrook, a writer for The Atlantic, focuses primarily on the United States, while also examining global patterns. He wants to explain why the country’s politics have gotten so gloomy at a time of such prosperity. In his view, Trump succeeded in 2016 in part because he convinced voters that their country was near collapse: its economy broken, its borders overrun by illegal immigrants, its cities rife with crime. That none of these things were true did not matter. Instead, these falsehoods won Trump accolades for “telling it like it is.” Easterbrook notes that Sanders played into some of the same sentiment by arguing that the country was getting worse for all but the wealthiest few. 

Easterbrook attacks this pessimism by documenting a series of crises that past commentators predicted but that never happened: humanity has not starved, nor has it run out of energy; there are no runaway plagues; pollution has not made the world’s air unbreathable or its water undrinkable; and dictators have not taken over. Just the opposite has occurred. Technology, far from bringing annihilation, has made nearly every aspect of human life safer and easier. Violent crime in the United States has fallen by almost 30 percent since 1993. More Americans, especially minorities and women, have greater freedom than ever before. Air pollution in the United States has fallen sharply over the last 50 years: levels of lead are down by 99 percent, carbon monoxide is down by 77 percent, and smog is down by 33 percent. The share of the world’s population that is malnourished has fallen from 50 percent to 13 percent since the 1960s. Between World War II and 1990, there were an average of ten military coups each year; since then, there have been about three each year as democracies have replaced dictatorships.

Easterbrook recognizes that not all is well. The United States and other countries must contend with climate change, inequality, and other threats. But his core argument is that to tackle those problems, the world needs to recognize its successes and draw the right lessons about how they were achieved. He pushes back against those who confuse optimism with naiveté. “Optimism,” he believes, “is the conviction that problems can be solved if we all roll up our sleeves and get to work.” He devotes a full chapter to addressing climate change and another to overcoming inequality.

Easterbrook is clearly exasperated by popular myopia. He lays a large part of the blame on the media, where “if it bleeds, it leads,” and part of it on politicians who demonize their opponents, cast nearly everything as a failure, and hark back to an idealized past. Research centers and government agencies, he says, “lean towards doom predictions because they justify more funding.” Demographic changes add to the pessimism: Western societies are getting older, and Easterbrook argues that older people tend to be gloomier. And he asserts that part of it is simple human nature: “People want to believe the worst about society.”

Easterbrook’s arguments are not always convincingly backed up by the data. For example, his contention that middle-class buying power in the United States has been rising faster than most analysts believe is not persuasive, and the citations he gives do not support it. In other cases, he provides data that look plausible but are not well documented, which weakens his analysis.

Easterbrook’s core conclusions are compelling, and he writes with a journalist’s flair. But convincing skeptics will require comprehensively documenting all the facts and figures.

A child receives polio vaccination drops during an anti-polio campaign in Kabul, March 2014.
Mohammad Ismail / REUTERS

KNOW-NOTHINGS

In Factfulness, Rosling steps in to fill this gap. He is as perplexed as Easterbrook is by the common misunderstandings of progress. How, he wonders, can so many people get the world so wrong? In the book, which was co-written with Rosling’s son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna, he draws on years of research he carried out during his career as a professor of international health in Stockholm, which was cut short by his untimely passing just before the book was published. “This book,” he writes, “is my very last battle in my lifelong mission to fight devastating global ignorance.” 

Rosling carried out surveys that asked thousands of people simple questions about global trends. The results show that people are not just uninformed but also systematically biased toward pessimism. In 2013, Rosling asked what had happened to the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty during the previous 20 years and provided three choices: almost doubled, remained the same, or almost halved. If people had guessed randomly, about one-third would have chosen the correct answer (almost halved). But only seven percent got the answer right. He asked what share of one-year-old children have been vaccinated against various diseases and again provided three options: 20 percent, 50 percent, or the correct answer of 80 percent. This time, 13 percent of respondents chose correctly. On question after question, people did not just guess wrong. They consistently demonstrated that they believed the world was much worse off than it actually is. 

Rosling’s goal is not just to provide the facts, although he offers plenty of them. He wants people to change the way they think so that they can see the world more accurately and better equip themselves to solve problems. He frames the book around ten human instincts that lead people to see disaster rather than progress. The “fear instinct,” for example, is an evolutionary trait that helps people avoid danger, but it also pushes them toward irrational fear of rare events, such as shark attacks and lightning strikes. That instinct also helps explain the constant crisis mode of the press, which profits from public anxiety: “Fears that once helped keep our ancestors alive, today keep journalists employed.” Another human trait, the “gap instinct,” pushes people to divide the world into “us” and “them” and to imagine much larger differences between themselves and others.

Rosling argues that people can combat these instincts by consciously learning to be “factful”: examining the data, being wary of stories of impending doom and skeptical of quick fixes, seeking to understand the reality that lies behind simple averages and extreme events. Pursuing a mindset of “factfulness,” in his view, will allow people to control their negative instincts, see the world more accurately, and act to improve it.

THE AGE OF MIRACLES

Although Rosling richly documents the world’s gains, he does not address the underlying question: What accounts for all this progress in the first place? Pinker, a psychology professor, aims to provide an answer. Enlightenment Now is the most comprehensive and compelling of the three books. In it, Pinker offers rich historical data on a wide variety of indicators of human development. On average, people are approximately 100 times as wealthy as they were 200 years ago. IQ scores have increased at an astonishing rate of three points per decade over the last century. Americans are more than 90 percent less likely to die in a fire or from a lightning strike than they were a century ago, thanks to better safety measures. Deaths in car crashes per mile driven have fallen by over 95 percent since 1921, for the same reason. Annual global deaths in battle have fallen by 75 percent since the 1980s (although they have recently increased due to the Syrian civil war). Pinker underscores how widely these gains have spread and the speed with which gaps in well-being between rich and poor countries are closing. For example, child mortality has fallen in every single country in the world since the 1950s. The share of the global population living in extreme poverty fell from 40 percent in 1980 to less than ten percent in 2015. And although income inequality has worsened within the United States and many other Western countries since 1980, globally it has improved: the global Gini coefficient, which ranges from zero (perfect equality) to one (perfect inequality), improved from 0.60 in 1990 to 0.47 in 2013.

Pinker argues that the progress has gone beyond material gains: individual and societal norms of behavior and morality are also improving. At the same time as technology has advanced, morals have, too. Tyranny, slavery, torture, violence, racism, and the subjugation of women were all accepted by past generations; today, most people understand them to be morally wrong.

In Pinker’s view, these gains stem from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the accumulation of knowledge and changes in thinking that it brought about. Pinker focuses on four Enlightenment themes—reason, science, humanism, and progress—and the accompanying belief that applying these ideas would lead to continuous improvement in the quality of life. It was these forces, he argues, that transformed a world of near-universal poverty, disease, illiteracy, and violence into one of healthy people earning middle-class incomes and with much greater personal security and freedom. “The Enlightenment has worked,” he writes. Its success is “perhaps the greatest story seldom told.”

Yet for 250 years, various counter-Enlightenment movements have tried to turn back the tide. Nationalism, authoritarianism, religious orthodoxy, antiscience campaigns, and various forms of “declinism” that predict impending global doom have all sought to supplant reason and a belief in progress. Pinker argues that Enlightenment values are once again under attack by those who denounce scientific knowledge, espouse nationalism and tribalism, and seek to erode trust in modern institutions. He sees these attacks coming from the political left and right alike. 

Pinker spares no criticism for antimodern intellectuals and those he terms “romantic Green” activists, who resist new technologies, and he jabs at the antiscientific beliefs of those who oppose the use of genetically modified organisms and nuclear power. But he sees the rise of authoritarian populism as the greatest threat to Enlightenment values. The central problem with these movements, Pinker argues, is that they focus on tribes rather than individuals and place no value on protecting the rights of those outside the chosen group or promoting human welfare in other countries. They disdain knowledge and diverse opinions, valorize strong leaders, and scorn rules-based governance, compromise, and checks on power. They look backward to the greatness of a fictionalized past rather than embracing progress. Yet despite the populist threat, Pinker believes that liberal democratic institutions will survive. Right-wing populism, he argues, is “better understood as the mobilization of an aggrieved and shrinking demographic . . . than as the sudden reversal of a century-long movement toward equal rights.”

DON’T STOP BELIEVING

One of the dangers of public pessimism is that it empowers political leaders who want to destroy the institutions that foster progress. In the United States, this is especially true when it comes to foreign policy. After World War II, Washington advanced an international system designed to ensure U.S. security and prosperity while spreading, however imperfectly, the ideals of freedom, opportunity, and the rule of law. The United States aimed to strengthen countries that shared those values so that they would become allies in promoting them, something that in turn would help secure the peace. 

These goals have been achieved far more fully than anyone in 1945 could have imagined. Germany and Japan, once sworn enemies of the United States, are now among its closest allies. Western Europe is at peace. Most countries around the world have signed on to the economic and political system founded by the United States. Even China has joined the club and is closer to sharing some of these ideals than it was in the days of Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution. China now has more economic opportunities, a slightly greater degree of personal freedom, and better rule of law.

Public pessimism empowers political leaders who want to destroy the institutions that foster progress.

The fact that there has been so much progress does not mean that all is well and that no changes are necessary—far from it. The very breadth of this progress means that the global institutions that produced it must change if they are to keep working to address the world’s problems. The structures, decision-making processes, and power balances that functioned well after World War II are no longer appropriate now that so many countries rightly demand a voice in the system. The United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, regional security pacts, and other institutions will all have to give developing countries greater influence. Only then will these countries be willing to work with the United States to fight the major challenges the world faces. The United States must be willing, once again, to share power rather than simply wield it. It needs to understand that doing so will strengthen, not weaken, its long-term security. 

The Trump administration is doing just the opposite. It starts from the false premise that the world is getting worse and the United States is losing from the current international system. As a result, Trump seems intent on taking a wrecking ball to the old order. He thrills in insulting U.S. allies, glad-handing dictators, starting trade wars, and loudly walking away from international agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Iran nuclear agreement, and the Paris climate accord. 

The liberal world order that has brought so much progress is not dead, nor is it doomed. But it is under threat, not from some outside hegemon but from within. The threat is aggravated by the widespread inability to recognize progress and people’s tendency to focus on only bad news. As all three authors point out, pessimism can be self-fulfilling: in countries where people believe the world is getting worse, they may dismantle some of the very institutions that made it better and thereby fulfill the predictions of decline. As has always been the case, the supporters of the liberal order will have to fight hard to keep it—and to improve it. Only that way will the world sustain the unprecedented progress in the human condition that the order helped create and continue to expand the reach of peace, prosperity, and freedom.

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  • STEVEN RADELET holds the Donald F. McHenry Chair in Global Human Development at Georgetown University.
  • More By Steven Radelet