WHEN it comes to religion and its secular twin, politics, it’s hard to change people’s minds.
(You don’t believe me? Try changing yours.) Even “facts” can be — and are usually — interpreted in a way that support one’s beliefs.
In their new book, “Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know,” libertarian writers Ronald Bailey and Marian Tupy are more focused on telling us about the good things happening around the world — despite Covid-19 — than converting us into their way of thinking.
“You can’t fix what is wrong in the world if you don’t know what’s actually happening,” they said. Their book, they added, is based on uncontroversial data taken from official and scientific sources. They also quoted Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker who said: “It’s essential to realize that progress does not mean that everything gets better for everyone, everywhere, all the time. That would be a miracle, that wouldn’t be progress.”
Bailey and Tupy noted that “manmade climate change arising largely from increasing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide released from burning fossil fuels could become a significant problem for humanity during this century.” Moreover, the “spread of plastic marine debris is a big and growing concern. Many wildlife populations are declining, and tropical forest area continues shrinking. In addition, far too many people are still malnourished and dying in civil and sectarian conflicts around the globe. And, of course, the world is afflicted by the current coronavirus pandemic.”
But they also want to remind us that global trends are already helping redress such problems. “For example, the falling price of renewable energy sources incentivizes the switch away from fossil fuels. Moreover, increasingly abundant agriculture is globally reducing the percentage of people who are hungry while simultaneously freeing up land so that forests are now expanding in much of the world. And unprecedentedly rapid research has significantly advanced testing, tracking, and treatment technologies to ameliorate the coronavirus contagion.”
Yet then and now, all over the world, many smart people are pretty sure that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Why? According to Bailey and Tupy, smart people “seek to be well informed and so tend to be voracious consumers of news. Since journalism focuses on dramatic things and events that go wrong, the nature of news thus tends to mislead readers and viewers into thinking that the world is in worse shape than it really is.”
This “ubiquity of mistaken gloom” also “derives from a quirk of our evolutionary psychology. A Stone Age man hears a rustle in the grass. Is it the wind or a lion? If he assumes it’s the wind and the rustling turns out to be a lion, then he’s not an ancestor. We are the descendants of the worried folks who tended to assume that all rustles in the grass were dangerous predators and not the wind. Because of this instinctive negativity bias, most of us attend far more to bad rather than to good news. The upshot is that we are again often misled into thinking that the world is worse than it is.”
Here’s another reason for our pessimism. “We are misled about the state of the world because we have a tendency to continually raise our threshold for success as we make progress, argue Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert and his colleagues. ‘When problems become rare, we count more things as problems. Our studies suggest that when the world gets better, we become harsher critics of it, and this can cause us to mistakenly conclude that it hasn’t actually gotten better at all,’ explains Gilbert…. Social, economic, and environmental problems are being judged intractable because reductions in their prevalence lead people to see more of them….”
Again, this is not to say that everything is great, that we should no longer worry or be concerned about anything.
“Some smart folk who acknowledge that considerable social, economic, and environmental progress has been made still worry that progress will not necessarily continue,” Bailey and Tupy wrote. They quoted Cambridge University political scientist David Runciman who pointed out that humans “still have the capacity to mess it all up. And it may be that our capacity to mess it up is growing.” Runciman added: “For people to feel deeply uneasy about the world we inhabit now, despite all these indicators pointing up, seems to me reasonable, given the relative instability of the evidence of this progress, and the [unpredictability] that overhangs it. Everything really is pretty fragile.”
For Bailey and Tupy, however, “if inclusive liberal institutions can continue to be strengthened and further spread across the globe, the auspicious trends documented in [our] book will extend their advance, and those that are currently negative will turn positive. By acting through inclusive institutions to increase knowledge and pursue technological progress, past generations met their needs and hugely increased the ability of our generation to meet our needs. We should do no less for our own future generations. That is what sustainable development looks like.”
That is their opinion, and others will have their own.
This, however, is a verifiable fact:
“In his 1968 book ‘The Population Bomb,’ Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich warned that overpopulation and overconsumption would result in the exhaustion of resources and a global catastrophe.” However, Bailey and Tupy wrote, “resources are not finite in the same way that a slice of pizza is finite. That’s because the totality of our resources is neither known nor fixed.”
Based on data collected by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund between 1980 and 2017, Bailey and Tupy found out that “resources are not being depleted in the way that Ehrlich feared they would.” Humanity “has not yet run out of a single supposedly nonrenewable resource…. Resources tend to become more abundant over time relative to the demand for them.”
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