Is it all doom and gloom as we head into 2017, or is the future still bright?
After the near-cataclysmic events of 2016, it might seem naïve to express optimism that 2017 will be any different. Or is it all a simple matter of perspective? In an Intelligence Squared panel chaired by BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg, two optimists share their reasons to look on the bright side — and one pessimist does his best to bring us back down to earth.
1.Things Aren’t As Terrible As You Might Think
It’s hardly surprising that people are inclined to think the world is in dire straits, says author Matt Ridley. The way he sees it, the media is in no small part to blame. “We only tell the bad news,” he says. “When an airplane doesn’t crash, we don’t report it.”
There is an argument to be made that the bad things in the world happen suddenly, while the good things happen gradually, and that is why we see disasters and terror attacks being covered more frequently in the news, compared to, say, global poverty and child mortality reaching all-time lows.
Writer and documentarian Johan Norberg also believes the evolution of the news cycle has influenced how we see the world. We’re not just exposed to local or national news any more; we can see the terrible things being reported on all around the world, 24 hours a day.
The problem here, posits Ridley, is that a negative-skewing news cycle inevitably warps our perspective. “We tend to drown ourselves in pessimism,” says Ridley. “We take the good for granted.” He makes the assertion that while obesity is a very serious problem, it’s arguably a “better” problem than starvation.
“We’re bad at being content with life, but it’s not our fault,” says Norberg. “We’re problem-solvers, and therefore, we’re problem-seekers.”
2. In Fact, Things Have Never Been Better
The global average life expectancy has more-than-doubled in the last hundred years. The world economy has continued to grow, recovering from its dip in 2009 and resuming its upward trajectory. The latter half of the 20th Century saw a steep decline in war and torture on a global scale.
“Secretly, quietly, without us watching, the world has been getting better in all sorts of extraordinary ways,” says Ridley, who has seen child mortality go down by two thirds in his lifetime. “My optimism isn’t based on personality, but on data.”
“I wouldn’t dispute that progress in some places in the last 20 to 30 years has been mind-blowing,” says David Runciman, Politics Professor at Cambridge. “But what doesn’t necessarily follow, for me, is that our future is going to be better than our present.”
All three panelists, pessimist included, agree that in the life lottery, this is the best time to be alive. You would have to go to the very poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa to see the conditions that the very richest Europeans lived in just 200 years ago, says Norberg.
“If this is not the golden age, when was it?” He asks, referencing the popular tendency to romanticize the past. Generally speaking, people tend to point to the era when they grew up as the idyll, but this is hardly shocking. They’re thinking back to a time before they had jobs, and mortgages, and children, a time when the future was full of excitement rather than something to worry about. And now we have more older people in our population than ever before, so an explosion of nostalgia for the “good old days” is to be expected.
Let’s not forget, though, that the 1950s were only a golden age if you happened to be born white, male and cisgender, in a Western country — and even then, the economic scars of World War Two ran deep. The 1960s gave us the assassinations of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, race riots, and the threat of nuclear war. So perhaps the past isn’t really golden, but rose-tinted.
This is all relative, of course. In countries like China, where it’s more common for three generations to sit around the same table, dinner conversation will span a century, with stories ranging from living through famine to working in a service economy, and so notions of the past are less filtered, and views of the future tend to be brighter.
3. The Future Is Shaped By Optimists, Not Pessimists
It’s all well and good to show the upward trajectory of human development, you might say, but what about the immediate future? What about the four years, minimum, that we’re facing under Donald Trump? Or the economic uncertainty brought on by Theresa May’s thrown-together Brexit strategy?
Again, it’s a matter of perspective, Norberg suggests. Our current situation seems especially dire only by its immediacy, and that the problems of the past seem insignificant to us, simply because they’ve already been solved.
However, just because things have been getting better, doesn’t necessarily mean we can extrapolate that into our future — doing so wouldn’t work in a casino, and the same goes for life. “The future has always been impossible to predict, apart from in general trajectories,” says Ridley. “Nobody saw mobile phones or the internet coming. That stuff will always be there to ambush us.”
And it is conceivable that our current political climate will result in a temporary dip in humanity’s ascent. But that alone isn’t reason to be pessimistic, says Ridley. He points out that 2009 was the only year after the Second World War that the world economy shrank, dropping by 0.9 per cent. But it grew by 5 per cent the next year, and is now back on track. “There are bubbles, and there are crashes,” he says, “and yet in the end there’s always something marching us forward.”
“The future is unknowable; it might be great, it might be awful, it might be unrecognizable,” says Runciman. Human history has not been an upward slope, he argues, but rather millennia of bumping along the bottom, followed by a relatively sudden explosion of progress over the last few centuries.
And while he concedes that the chances of another world war are very remote, he believes the consequences would be graver now than ever before. “Our society may be fragile in ways we don’t even know,” he says. “And I would not be particularly optimistic about the future of a society full of optimists.”
The evidence does suggest, though, that innovation springs from optimism, and that worrying about a problem doesn’t solve it. Being an optimist isn’t about complacency and blind faith, then, but rather about believing that things can change, and then actually doing something about it. And Ridley is putting his money on optimistic innovators like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk.
“There’s no reason to think innovation is running down like a fuel,” he says. “We’ll run out of oil before we run out of ideas.”