The American Psychological Association reported on Friday that a majority of surveyed Americans cite the upcoming election as “a very or somewhat significant” source of stress in their lives. Contrast this sentiment with some of the findings that Swedish economic historian Johan Norberg celebrates in his new book, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future:
- In the last 50 years, world poverty has fallen more than it did in the preceding 500.
- In 1820, 94% of humanity subsisted on less than $2 per day (adjusted for inflation). In 1990, 37% did. Today, less than 10% do.
- 285,000 more people have gained access to safe water every day for the last 25 years – a total of 2.6 billion people.
- In 1980, 24% of the world’s population had modern sanitation. Now, 68% do.
- In 2009, scientists sequenced the genome of the swine flu virus within a day and were producing a vaccine in less than six months.
- Homicides in hunter-gatherer societies were 500 times more common than they are today. Globally, wars are smaller and less frequent. The only type of violence on the rise is terrorism, and we wildly overestimate its frequency. The average European is ten times more likely to die by falling down stairs than to be killed by a terrorist.
- Americans averaged 100 points on IQ tests just after World War II. By 2002, we averaged 118, achieving our biggest gains in solutions to the most abstract problems.
- The world may have already reached “peak farmland” thanks to more efficient farming technologies. One estimate predicts that by the end of the twenty-first century, an area twice the size of France will have been returned from agriculture to nature, a transition that will help to curb the impact of climate change.
In its review of Norberg’s book, which I shared at a recent Randolph faculty meeting, the Economist magazine notes that “people are predisposed to think that things are worse than they are, and they overestimate the likelihood of calamity. This is because they rely not on data, but on how easy it is to recall an example. And bad things are more memorable. The media amplify this distortion. Famines, earthquakes and beheadings all make gripping headlines; ‘40m Planes Landed Safely Last Year’ does not.” (In 2012 – also, as it happens, an election year – Teresa Amabile at Harvard Business School found that the negative effect of a setback at work was more than twice as strong as the positive effect of an event that signaled progress.)
Whether it’s just our human nature, or the current election season, or the relentless 24/7 news cycle – or a combination of all three – we are inclined to believe that life is getting worse when, in fact, life is getting better. Of course I do not mean to imply that life has become “easy,” nor to ignore the substantial challenges that face us as individuals, as communities, as a nation, and as a human race. But we are far more likely to discover solutions to our problems when we are healthier, safer, wealthier, and smarter than we ever have been before. Progress begets progress.
I heard a joke after moving to Huntsville that a glass at 50% capacity looks half full to an optimist, half empty to a pessimist, and twice as big as it should be to an engineer. At Randolph, we are committed to combining the optimist with the engineer. These are the best of times. Now how can we make them better?
We are investing in our students for the long term, equipping them with sound hearts and strong minds as they look to an uncertain yet exhilarating and ever brighter future. What a wonderful school!