Hunger and poverty is increasing, people are working longer hours, crime is getting worse, and violence around the world is on the rise. In short, the world is going to hell in a hand basket. So goes the common wisdom. But the common wisdom is wrong. Long-time readers of the Kruse Kronicle who have read my series on American Social Indicators and World Social Indicators know that most social indicators show an improving world … in some facets, the improvements are nothing short of astonishing.
Now comes an excellent book by sociologist Brad Wright, Upside: Surprising GOOD NEWS About the State of Our World. Wright covers most of the issues I’ve raised at my blog plus many more. It is full of wonderful stats and charts but the narrative is in Wright’s characteristically engaging witty style.
Wright is not saying that everything in the world is getting better (think things like obesity and environmental challenges) but it is hardly a planet on the verge disaster. In fact, there are reasons for considerable optimism. Following Matt Ridley’s lead, he sees the coming to fruition of specialization and exchange as a key to the recent rise in human welfare. One area where I would like to have heard more, is why pessimism is so pervasive. He offers some insights. For one, our modern society is highly adaptive due to the rise of specialization and exchange. But it is incomprehensibly complex. Because of our inability to grasp complexity, we are prone to simply extrapolate present trends … particularly negative ones … indefinitely into the future. There is a radical underestimation of our adaptive ability. Furthermore, we seem programmed not to see incremental improvements in life. Once an improvement arrives it quickly becomes the new normal. But we easily fixate on negative news and trends that we experience as threats. And, of course, news sources are aware of the fixation and they highlight such news to attract readers. That is how we create a society where are large majority think there life is good or getting better but also think other people’s lives are going downhill.
The book is a gem. His data is documented in endnotes, most of it available through websites or readily available sources. I will be keeping this book on my reference shelf and you will know doubt see it referenced in future Kronicle posts. Pick up a copy today.