Things Are Looking Up

There’s a lot to be optimistic about, it turns out.

You’ve heard the news—global warming will kill us, if the current clash between the West and Islam doesn’t do us in first. Or maybe it’ll be an asteroid strike. Doom is right around the corner, and only a fool would believe otherwise.

Not so fast. I found 160 reasons to feel good about the future at Every year, this online think tank poses a Big Question to some of the world’s smartest people as part of its mandate “to promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic and literary issues.” This year’s question: “What are you optimistic about? Why?” To that, 160 people, all experts in their fields, replied.

The question appealed to me. We live in a time when it’s uncool to be enthusiastic about anything, unless it’s intentionally sardonic (Borat) or is enjoyed ironically (Neil Diamond). The smarter you are, or the smarter you want to seem, the greater the pressure to declare, “Everything sucks.” Well, let’s rebel for a moment, and consider the good news on, say, our dangerous fossil-fuel dependency:

“The Sun is providing 7,000 times as much energy as [our current world annual energy use], which leaves plenty for developing China, India and everyone else,” writes Alun Anderson, senior consultant and former editor-in-chief and publishing director of New Scientist. “We don’t have a long-term energy problem. Our only worries are whether we can find smart ways to use that sunlight efficiently and whether we can move quickly enough [to] the energy systems … we should be using. Given the perils of climate change and dependence on foreign energy, the motivation is there.”

photo: istock

… or on war:

“[T]he publication last year of a carefully researched Human Security Report received little attention,” writes Chris Anderson, curator, TED Conference. “Despite the fact that it had concluded that the numbers of armed conflicts in the world had fallen 40 percent in little over a decade. And that the number of fatalities per conflict had also fallen. Think about that. The entire news agenda for a decade, received as endless tales of wars, massacres and bombings, actually missed the key point. Things are getting better. … Percentage of males estimated to have died in violence in hunter-gatherer societies? Approximately 30 percent. Percentage of males who died in violence in the 20th century complete with two world wars and a couple of nukes? Approximately 1 percent.”

… or on cruelty in general:

“In 16th-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted on a stage and was slowly lowered into a fire,” writes Steven Pinker, psychologist, Harvard University, and author of The Blank Slate. “ … As horrific as present-day events are, such sadism would be unthinkable today in most of the world. This is just one example of the most important and under appreciated trend in the history of our species: the decline of violence. Cruelty as popular entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, genocide for convenience, torture and mutilation as routine forms of punishment, execution for trivial crimes and misdemeanors, assassination as a means of political succession, pogroms as an outlet for frustration and homicide as the major means of conflict resolution—all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. Yet today they are statistically rare in the West, less common elsewhere than they used to be and widely condemned when they do occur.”

See? Improvement and possibilities are all around us. The trick, or course, is to keep improving, a point that recurs in the 160 essays. There are no Pollyannas on this forum. Bad things are happening right now, even as I write these words about optimism. But it wouldn’t kill us, once in a while, to remember that life is better, for more people than ever, than ever before. It took a lot of work, for generations, for that to be true. And the work goes on.

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