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Down on the Upside

For the vast majority of human beings, life has never been better. We’re healthier, longer-living, less exhausted, and more nutrient-packed than any of our ancestors. Yet there’s an epidemic of pessimism. Barely a day goes by when we are not told that life was better in some distant, pastoral, pre-modern era, when men hunted for meat, women cooked it, and they spent the rest of their time banging drums and dancing around fires.

We’re forever being informed that as a direct consequence of our creation of a comfortable, convenient society, the world will come to an end. The technology-frying Y2K bug didn’t get us. Neither the avian flu nor swine flu outbreaks—which, we were warned, would spread like wildfire, thanks to the modern evils of manmade flight and globalization—killed anywhere near as many millions of people as the World Health Organization predicted. But climate change will surely finish us off. Brought about by our gluttonous exploitation of fossil fuels, designed to sustain our unsustainable lives of flying, city-building, and conspicuous consuming, the warming of the planet will be nature’s ultimate revenge against what the granddaddy of modern environmentalism, James Lovelock, labeled a “serious planetary malady.” That’s us: human beings.

Why are we so down on the spectacular world we have created—and so convinced that it could all come crashing down at any minute? Why do so many influential thinkers, who are surrounded by the kind of luxuries previous generations could never have envisaged—running water, fresh fruit out of season, constant light, telephones, mobile telephones—spend their days telling us how terrible everything is?

Matt Ridley, in his stirring new book The Rational Optimist, teases out the contradiction between our increasingly comfortable lives and the intellectual climate of deep, dark pessimism. With simplicity, clarity, and verve, he stands up for “the bright side of human endeavor” in a book that feels like an act of intellectual rebellion against the tyranny of misery gripping this young century.

Eschewing both the “don’t worry, be happy” self-help approach and the angry, graph-obsessed nitpicking of climate-change skeptics (who can be just as annoying as climate-change alarmists), Ridley’s “rational optimism” is based on an historic analysis of what is unique about human beings and why we have been able to improve our living standards so vastly. His contrast between how we live today and how people lived just a few decades ago should, by all rights, be enough to perk up even the most miserable of miserabilists. Yes, there’s still poverty, he writes, especially in Africa, but overall “this generation of human beings has access to more calories, watts, lumen-hours, square feet, gigabytes, megahertz, light years, nanometers, bushels per acre, miles per gallon, food miles, air miles, and of course dollars than any that went before.”

There are more people (or “mouths to feed,” as the pessimists insultingly refer to us) than ever, yet we are better fed and healthier than ever, too. Since 1800, Ridley points out, the world population of human beings has risen sixfold—from 1 billion to over 6 billion—yet in the same period, average life expectancy has more than doubled and average real income has risen ninefold. In just the past 50 years, the average human “earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried one-third as many of her children, and could expect to live one-third longer.”

Life expectancy—the surest measure that we are doing something right—has risen exponentially over the past 200 years. It was static for millennia. In classical Greece and Rome, average life expectancy was 28. In pre-Columbian North America, it was 25 to 30. In medieval Britain, it was 30. In the early 20th century, the global average life expectancy was 30 to 45. In the 1920s, Ridley points out, demographers confidently predicted that average life expectancy could never exceed 65 “without intervention of radical innovations or fantastic evolutionary change in our physiological make-up.” To those demographers, the thought of millions or even billions of human beings, worker and wealthy man alike, living into their 70s and 80s was unthinkable. But it has happened—and then some. Today, life expectancy in Japan is 82.6. In Iceland, it is 81.8. In Spain, it is 80.9, in Britain, it is 79.4, and in the U.S., it is 78.2.

Yet such is the depth of pessimism today that even mankind’s successful delaying of the Grim Reaper’s visit is seen as a Bad Thing. It has led to an “aging crisis,” we are told, or an “aging timebomb,” whereby Western societies will soon be packed with sick, feeble old people who drain social and economic resources. This is a mean-spirited and inaccurate generalization, says Ridley. For example, one American study found that disability rates in people over 65 fell from 26.2 percent to 19.7 percent between 1982 and 1999. The risk of cancer, heart disease, and respiratory disease still increases with age, but these illnesses now occur later in life—on average ten years later than they did in the 1950s—and they are not as necessarily fatal as they once were.

We are wealthier than ever before, too. “Stuff” might be a dirty word these days. Oprah Winfrey, billionaire, even talks about the disease of “stuff-itis.” But this stuff has made our lives more pleasant and fun. Even the poor have benefited. In 1958, when J.K. Galbraith wrote about “the affluent society,” he was mainly talking about the American middle classes with their cars, washing machines, maybe even TVs. Today, Ridley points out, among Americans officially designated as “poor,” 99 percent have electricity, running water, and a fridge; 95 percent have a television; 71 percent have a car; and 70 percent have air conditioning. Some people—usually well-off commentators, people like Oprah—scoff at the little guy’s desire for more and more stuff. Yet we underestimate how these things have improved human life. How much backbreaking female drudgery was wiped out by the invention of the washing machine? How many man-hours have been saved by the availability of cars for shopping, school-drops, and visiting relatives? How much healthier is our food, and longer-lasting, now that virtually everyone in the Western world has a refrigerator?

But, say the pessimists, these leaps forward have come at a high price: human happiness and environmental integrity. A “small cottage industry” of intellectuals now warns that increased wealth is making us sad and even sick, says Ridley. And today’s veritable army of Green activists never tires of telling us that we have raped Gaia and polluted the planet through our creation of this stuff that we’re all so desperate to get our grubby hands on. Ridley convincingly argues that both camps are wrong. With academic rigor, he picks apart the studies upon which the “affluenza” theories are based, with their small samples and contradictory findings, and cites larger, more thoroughly critical studies into wealth and happiness. He concludes, “All told, [there appears to be] an important relationship between economic growth and growth in subjective wellbeing.”

In short, being better off does, generally speaking, make us happier. And, says Ridley, while the environment might be taking some serious body-blows in China right now, in the longer developed West, it is improving. “In Europe and America, rivers, lakes, seas, and the air are getting cleaner all the time. … American carbon monoxide emissions from transport are down 75 per cent in twenty-five years.” And so on. The more developed a society is, the more resources that can be devoted to cleaning up the environment. Once China and India reach the West’s level of development, the better their air and water quality will become.

But what about those developing nations and the not-even-remotely developing nations in Africa—life hasn’t improved very much for them, has it? In fact, says Ridley, there has been improvement—not enough, but improvement nonetheless. Even in urban China, “90 percent of people now have electric light, refrigerators, and running water.” Today, life expectancy in India is 69.89—still way too low for the liking of anyone who considers himself a humanist, but better than the brutish, desperately short lives that many Indians lived a century or two ago.

And Africa? Ridley admits that for the “rational optimist,” African poverty is an “acute challenge.” So, he says, is climate change. But contemporary pessimism, with its profound disdain for the gains of human history, is possibly the biggest barrier to facing these challenges and overcoming them. He passionately argues that while aid has brought some benefits to Africa, it cannot possibly “start or accelerate economic growth”—and what Africa really needs is “better living standards, and these come chiefly from economic growth.” Yet today’s intellectual outlook is so hostile to growth that few would dream of arguing for industrial revolutions and economic breakthroughs in Africa, even those are the very things it needs if it is to become “more like us.” Likewise, the challenge of climate change requires more and better technology in order to offset those aspects of human behavior that have a polluting impact on the environment. Yet contemporary curmudgeons have a powerful anti-technology streak, which means that those wringing their hands over climate change are also likely to say dismiss techno-solutions.

Ridley’s important book shoots down the culture of doom that stands in such stark contrast to the generally optimistic arc of human history. Indeed, the biggest block to progress today might just be pessimism itself—the fashionable, self-indulgent, misanthropic mindset of the comfortable opinion-forming classes of the West. 

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked in London (www.spiked-online.com).

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