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And now, the good news: Pessimism isn’t warranted. If you can take the long view, the world is getting better
At the beginning of a new decade when so many are feeling so glum, Matt Ridley comes up with the astonishing claim that the past decade was one of the best. “We are living through the greatest improvement in human living standards in history,” he writes in UK’s Spectator. “Extreme poverty has fallen below 10% of the world’s population for the first time… child mortality has fallen to record low levels; famine virtually went extinct; malaria, polio and heart disease are all in decline….”
We don’t notice these changes because we don’t take the long view of history. We are obsessed with headlines of the day and good news doesn’t make headlines; hence, we don’t notice the quiet but dramatic changes taking place in peoples’ lives.
The long view is fine, but what about the rise of authoritarian leaders during the past decade – Trump, Putin, Xi, Erdogan, Modi, Boris Johnson, etc – and the rapid decay in the ideals that we were brought up to believe? Closer to home, what about the unfair citizenship law against which students are protesting across India? How can one feel good?
Ridley argues that many of the good things that make the world a better place happen despite the state. They originate in scientific breakthroughs and are then spread quickly by market forces. Take for example, the cellphone, which has empowered the world’s poor in unbelievable ways and has helped achieve universal banking in India.
And what about the environmental crisis? Ridley argues unfashionably that forests are expanding, especially in rich countries, because productivity of agriculture is rising so fast that human needs can be supplied by a shrinking amount of land. We use 65% less land to produce a given quantity of food compared with 50 years ago. By 2050, he claims that an area the size of India will have been released from the plough and the cow.
As a result, the population of wild animals is growing again – wolves, deer, beavers, lynx, seals, sea eagles and bald eagles. This is a very different story from what the scaremongers have been telling us in newspaper headlines.
When it comes to India, aren’t there legitimate reasons to feel depressed at the beginning of this new decade? Our economy is in serious trouble and Prime Minister Modi has lost valuable time in fixing it, distracted as he is by a contentious social agenda that endangers the nation’s secular and democratic foundations.
Students across the country are protesting against an unfair citizenship law and there is fear of a national register of citizens. The lockdown in Kashmir continues after five months with even pro-India leaders still in detention.
Against this, there is the long view which shows that more Indians are free from poisonous indoor pollution because they now cook with clean gas. More Indians have access to toilets at home and no longer defecate in the open, and this will liberate them gradually from environmental pollution and many health hazards, including child malnutrition.
More Indians are connected with pukka roads from their villages, have access to electricity, and have a bank account in which they have begun to receive direct benefit transfers. Because India has achieved annual economic growth exceeding 7% over the last 15 years, extreme poverty has declined to 5.5%, according to a report by the respected Brookings Institution.
I began to take Ridley seriously after reading his The Rational Optimist, a fascinating history of trade and innovation. Once a talented science writer, he has shifted his focus to the economy. Even though his faith in the market seems one sided – even more one-sided than mine – his two key concepts, gains from exchange and specialisation, rank up there with important economic ideas of all time.
He believes that gains from trade in the market make possible gains from specialisation, which in turn makes technological innovation possible. Steven Pinker, another science writer, has reinforced his optimism. Pinker argues that life has been getting better for most people based on 15 different measures of human wellbeing. People live longer and healthier than ever before and our fear of terrorism is exaggerated – an American, for example, is 3,000 times more likely to die in an accident than in a terrorist attack.
Both gifted science writers offer a tonic against prevailing pessimism. In a similar vein, Nature, the science journal, reports that an artificial intelligence system can now match or outperform radiologists in detecting breast cancer. It can catch cancers that were originally missed and reduce false-positive cancer flags for patients who don’t have it. Of course, doctors still beat the machine sometimes.
So, is the world getting better? And who should one believe – optimists or pessimists? Obviously, both the long and the short views of history are valid. Unhappily, the world is polarised between two ideologies and both sides have the deepest contempt for the other.
Clearly, there are good and bad things going on and one has to find a balanced perspective. In the end, how one feels on a particular day may come down to whether one is happier or angrier with the world.
I happen to be an unashamed member of the former troop and prefer to focus on the soft drama unfolding quietly in the heart of society, barely visible to the naked eye, and which is more difficult to grasp than the changing fortunes of political leaders and parties that is so absorbing. That doesn’t mean i am right. You may have good reasons to feel miserable and depressed. But try and not inflict these feelings on your neighbour who prefers to whistle cheerfully in the wind.
Gurcharan Das, January 15th 2020