My Story of Getting to “Better”

I grew up very, very privileged kid. I was born in a hospital, and a doctor was present at my birth. I had excellent neonatal care, vaccinations, and regular visits to a pediatrician. I had access to clean water and ample nutritious food. I attended elementary school and did not have to work as a child. There was physical safety: a house with walls, a locked door, a roof, heat. How many of you had a childhood like this?

Over the course of history, only a tiny percentage of humans have had these privileges. If you are like me, you won the human history lottery.

But for some weird reason, I took all this privilege for granted. As I moved into high school I obsessed about America’s hypocrisy and the evils of capitalism. Beneath the surface of affluence, I saw a rotten core to America–materialistic, expansionistic, superficial, gaudy…bloated both physically and metaphorically. I read a book called Ishmael that likened our civilization to a flying craft that has launched itself from a cliff. It is in the air, so there is the appearance of flight, but it is tumbling toward the ground, headed for the sharp rocks below.

I developed a declinist mindset, a belief that humanity is doomed. Like many millions of people throughout history, I thought that the end was near and closer than most people thought. I imagined we would all die in nuclear war or from overpopulation.

My view of the world mirrored my psychology: depressed, anxious, pessimistic. This view abetted my burgeoning addiction to alcohol. But thanks to my birth to extreme historical privilege, I had many routes out of my misery. The first was psychology. My father’s death–late at 59 by historical standards, but early by our modern ones–exacerbated my anxiety, depression, and alcoholism. My therapist helped me to recognize my addiction and seek help through a healing community of fellow recovering alcoholics. In recovery we emphasize an “attitude of gratitude,” defined as “the habit (of expressing) thankfulness and appreciation in all parts of your life, on a regular basis, for both the big and small things alike” (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/andrew-merle/how-to-have-an-attitude-of-gratitude_b_8644102.html).

This attitude of gratitude, this daily attention to big and small gifts in my life, made me see my prejudice against the world. Why did I think it was so screwed up, so bound for failure.

I began to see my life not as a suburban desert, but a rich heartland of assets and opportunities. I stopped seeing America as irredeemably evil and started seeing its dark and bright sides, its atrocities in Vietnam and Chile, and its Marshall Plan and the Peace Corps. It made me think, “What other good things am I missing?”

I started asking different questions. How are we doing in other ways? Is there less poverty? Are we getting dumber? Is the world more or less peaceful? In short, are we making progress?

This led me to read books like Desert Solitaire and Sand County Almanac, which saddened me about our relationship to our planet. But I also read The Better Angels of Our Nature and Abundance. The mountain of evidence these latter books presented convinced me that we have never been this peaceful, democratic, literate, safe, and free.

As I dug deeper, I saw that the pessimists focused on the problems, but the optimists focused on the problems and the progress. While the pessimists saw nothing good in the big picture, the optimists acknowledged the problems and the progress. It was the optimists who told the whole story.

Meantime, I noticed that my heart was being lifted. I became more optimistic, and I began to see all the things that are working in the world. When I looked around I observed the vast infrastructure of modern life as connective, not alienating. I also made sure to see the blue sky, birds, and mountains. I changed my view of humankind as parasites on the earth to a view that we’re the first species to try to decrease our impact and rewild the earth. I was heartened by our success stories, how the once-burning Cuyahoga River in Cleveland is today much cleaner and is again home to wildlife. I discovered that people from all over the earth had come together to make the world a better place. We were solving global problems like acid rain and the ozone hole. Maybe we can find a way to end global warming. Maybe there are reasons to be optimistic.

The best news I found on my search was about human life. As a child in the 1970s, we feared three doomsday forces: Communism, nuclear weapons, and overpopulation. The deadlock between East and West seemed perennial, and tensions ramped up when Reagan demanded that Gorbachev “tear down this wall.” The Day After TV program brought a post-nuclear world to screens across America. Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb prophesied massive famines and supported sterilization programs. The future looked bleak.

But instead of getting worse, things got better. The fall of Communism led to a massive reduction of nuclear weapons. With the undeniably frightening exception of North Korea, the likelihood of a nuclear war has decreased. We are not one international crisis away from Mutual Assured Destruction. Population growth has slowed, and the Green Revolution had meant that–contrary to Ehrlich’s predictions–we have never had so much food for all of humanity.

If we were wrong about these predictions, might we be wrong about global warming?

First, let’s acknowledge that there is ample evidence that global warming is happening, and it might  be catastrophic. Therefore, I believe it should be one of humanity’s top priorities.

That said, let’s look at our record at predicting global calamity.

Humans have always had a tendency to view the past as better and the future as worse. Hinduism had the doctrine of yugas, or ages, and our current yuga is the Kali Yuga, one of depravity. Hesiod, the ancient Greek mythologist, believed in five ages: Gold, Silver, Bronze, Heroic, and Iron. We live in the Iron Age of war and lesser men. Even the Bible saw humans as cursed, having started in the paradise of the Garden of Eden that we were kicked out of.

To these dismal views of the present are added an apocalyptic future, and end time when humanity will be destroyed. Often this is a Sodom and Gomorrah punishment for iniquity. Our current iniquity is pollution in the form of CO2. Will we change our wicked ways, or will we end in karmic self-destruction?

By one rough count, humans have been wrong about the end of the world at least 170 times. And some very impressive people have made these predictions, including Martin Luther, Isaac Newton, Cotton Mather, and John Wesley. More recently, Paul Ehrlich and other eco-pessimists thought that the world would be beset with global famines. Instead, hunger rates plummeted to their lowest of all time.

In short, we are poor predictors of Armageddon.

The way forward is to use the optimistic realists’ approach, which is to look at the broad picture. We are very good at looking at the threat, our negativity bias, but we also need to look at the assets. By looking at the whole picture, we are more likely to solve our problems.

I end by noting that there is a worldwide epidemic of anxiety, depression, and suicide. The causes are many and complex, but I propose an additional cause: pessimism. We are progressing rapidly on many fronts. Meanwhile, people see the problems but not the progress. I believe people think that the world’s fundamentally a broken place, and some even see humans as unwelcome parasites on an otherwise eco-eden of earth.

I don’t see the Earth as broken. I see a resilient planet that is home to a species that has reached intelligence and consciousness of itself. This species has produced the Pyramids and Angkor Wat, the Colosseum and the Forbidden City. We’ve composed The Iliad and The Tale of Genji. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the polyphonic songs of Pygmy music. We have been warlike and now are turning toward peace, democracy, and human rights. We are even advocating for expanded animal rights. Finally, humanity is waking up to the damage we are doing to our home. We have started to heal the wounds and change our relationship. From the creation of Yellowstone as the first national park, to the cleaning up of the Cuyahoga River, to the repair of the ozone hole, we have reasons to be optimistic. Global warming is our greatest current challenge, but I think humanity has a good track record. Let’s keep moving for≤ ward!

Finally, let’s cultivate a mindset of progress. The earth is a good place, our resilient home. We are capable of good and evil, but lately we have been mending our ways. We are working hard to repair the earth, and to bring more food, education, safety, peace, prosperity, and rights to all people. We can solve our biggest problems because we’ve done this in the past. Let’s be optimistic. Let’s get to work!

Are You Better Off Now?

Ronald Reagan famously asked this question during the 1980 presidential campaign. It was a winning slogan.

It’s a great question to ask yourself. Are you better now? Is life better now?

Well now you can check! Go to yourlifeinnumbers.org, which is part of the Cato Institute’s Human Progress initiative. Here’s what you do:

  • Step 1: Select your country of birth.
  • Step 2: Select your birth year.

So do you think life expectancy, infant survival, income per person, food supply, years of schooling went up or down. I think you know the answer. Of course these stats don’t portray the whole picture, but it gives you a sense. Crime’s lower. Civil rights are greater. Travel and communication are easier and better. And so on.

What was most interesting for me was doing Step 3, which you’ll find below the bar graph generated from your information. In Step 3 you can compare life in the United States to other countries (or if you aren’t an American, compare your country to the US). What you find is that most other countries have grown more than the US. This should not be surprising. Remember that the US possessed half of the world’s industrial output at the end of 1945 because much of it–think Europe and Japan–had been destroyed in World War II. There’s really only one way to go for most of the world, and that’s up. The developing world has gone up up up in the past half century since decolonization, the end of the Cold War, and globalization.

I’m an American who’s been to every state. I feel I know the country pretty well, though I’m sure I’m full of bias, incomplete information, and misinformation. But I don’t suspect that most Americans get that the US probably won’t grow like China, India, and the developing world. There’s not much slack in our system. So when people want to “make America great again,” I have a thought. America is greater than it’s ever been. Better educated, longer lived, healthier, freer, more affluent. But rosy retrospection makes many pine for bygone days that exist only in their reconstructed memories.

I’m fine with reconstructed memories. Just don’t vote or base public policies on reconstructed memories.

50 Years Ago. Better or Worse?

Compared with 50 years ago, life for people like you in America today is….

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“Worse” say most Trump voters in a recent Pew Research Center Survey. Eighty-one percent said as much (above). Only 19 percent of Clinton voters said that.

Trump’s biggest supporters were white men, nearly two-thirds of whom voted for him. Life for white men may have felt better because they had privileged access to higher education, social stature, political office, and good employment. These good things in life were limited for everyone else.

I argue that life’s better for even the privileged white men of the 1960s. To compare 1966 with 2016, let’s start with a sentimental journey. It feels worse in 2016, right? There were no mass killings in 1966, yes? …except for sniper Charles Whitman who killed 13 and wounded 31 at the University of Texas. And don’t forget Richard Speck, who murdered eight student nurses in their dormitory. And Valery Percy, a Senator’s daughter, was stabbed and bludgeoned to death in the family mansion on Chicago’s North Shore. And there were race riots in Lansing, Michigan. Oh, the simple days before wanton violence! We could also talk about the 6143 young men who died in Vietnam in 1966.

Okay, so maybe things were pretty sordid in 1966.

Here are some of the many ways that life is better in the US than it was 50 years ago:

Communications: Remember that thing called long-distance? You can call anywhere for free now. And communicate in most any way, to anyone, anywhere. For free.

Economy: Despite much fear, the economy is flying high. Unemployment is low, the stock market is high, home ownership is not far from its all-time high. The middle class is smaller than it used to be, but this is mostly due to growth in the high income category.

Education: In 1966 about 50% of whites and 30% of blacks graduated from high school. Today 87% of whites and 73% of blacks graduate. This is only one measure, but it reflects incredible educational progress in my lifetime. You can complain, with some justification, about the state of American education, but it has never been better.

Environment: 1966, nestled between Silent Spring and The Population Bomb, is about the time when the modern green movement took shape. The The Cuyahoga River was once the most polluted river in the United States, made famous because it caught fire in the 60s…that is, the 1860s. Over the next century it would catch fire at least 12 more times, leading to the infamous 1969 fire that launched the environmental movement. People think pollution is a new thing, but pollution was much worse in the 1800s and most of the 1900s when there were few environmental regulations. Today, across America, air and water quality are better than they were in 1966.

Food: Suffice it to say that food is so cheap and abundant that obesity, not starvation, is the bigger health threat. There’s no strong proof that legal pesticides or GMOs cause health problems. You can even get fruit in winter shipped from across the planet. People may complain about “food miles,” but maybe they should complain about “clothing miles” or “natural resource miles.” Just about everything is from everywhere else, and we seem to be doing all this trade with less and less pollution.

Transport: It’s easier, safer, and cheaper. The chart below shows how many commercial airplanes crashed around the world each year. The decrease in crashes is more than threefold, even though air travel has increased a great deal.Looking globally, the improvements are much greater. Here’s a comparison of then and now, from yourlifeinnumbers.org.

  • In 1966, average life expectancy was only 56 years. Today it’s 72. That’s an increase of 29 percent.
  • Out of every 1,000 infants born, 113 died before their first birthday. Today, only 32 die. That’s a reduction of 72 percent.
  • Median income per person rose from around $6,000 to around $16,000, or by 167 percent – and that’s adjusted for inflation and purchasing power.
  • The food supply rose from about 2,300 calories per person per day to over 2,800 calories, an increase of 22 percent, thus reducing hunger.
  • The length of schooling that a person could typically expect to receive was 3.9 years. Today, it’s 8.4 years – a 115 percent increase.
  • The world has become less authoritarian, with the level of democracy rising from -0.97 to 4.23 on a scale from -10 to 10. That’s an improvement of 536 percent.

Here and overseas, life is much better. It may feel worse, but that’s probably just your rosy retrospection calling the tune. We tend to think the past is better, especially as we get older and memories are recast in a glowing light. But it’s not, and making major political, economic, governmental, and social decisions based on false assumptions might just undo the progress we’ve made.

 

Earthrise at 48

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Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty.

The now famous Earthrise photo was snapped on Christmas Eve, 1968, as Apollo 8 astronauts Bill Anders, Frank Borman, and Jim Lovell orbited the moon.

Borman: Hey, don’t take that (picture), it’s not scheduled. (joking)
Anders: (laughs) You got a color film, Jim? Hand me that roll of color quick, would you…
Lovell: Oh man, that’s great!

Anders snapped the famous picture, and our perspective changed forever.

They read from the Bible that day: In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth. After four verses of Genesis, Lovell took up the reading: And God called the light Day and the darkness he called Night. At the end of the eighth verse Borman picked up the familiar words: And God said, Let the waters under the Heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear; and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters He called seas; and God saw that it was good.

Science and spirit came together in that cramped command module.

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The Russian and American astronauts in the 1960s were the first to experience a new phenomenon, the overview effect. It is the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, “hanging in the void”, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. From space, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide people become less important, and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this “pale blue dot” becomes both obvious and imperative.

In his 2008 book, Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth, Robert Poole contends that the picture was the spiritual nascence of the environmental movement, writing that “it is possible to see that Earthrise marked the tipping point, the moment when the sense of the space age flipped from what it meant for space to what it means for Earth.”

Like 1968, 2016 was a tumultuous year. Populist causes in Britain and America dealt body blows to liberal values: free trade, free migration, science, reason, facts. Brexit and Donald Trump demonstrated that many people in the UK and US want to reaffirm flag, nation, and Anglo identity.

That famous snapshot taken on this day 48 years ago reminds us that nations may come and go, but the earth is everyone’s home. Many on the right celebrate 2016 as a return to national identity and border walls. Earthrise and the overview effect prove that country, color, and cause don’t mean much when you see the big picture.

“The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.” ~ Jim Lovell

 

Ruby Slippers

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What if you could tap your magic slippers together three times, recite a treacly incantation, and everything got better just like that?

This metaphor explains that past 77 years. Really!

Skeptical? I would expect no less.

I know stories work better than statistics, but I’m going to give statistics a go. Let’s compare life in the US in 1939, the year the Wizard of Oz debuted, and 2016. Has life gotten better since then?

My comparison is VERY approximate; if anything, the gaps will be bigger than stated below, so round up. But approximate should be good enough for my purposes.

Life expectancy, 1939: 63     2016: 79

Income per person, 1939: $10,600     2016: $53,350 (inflation adjusted)

Newborn deaths, 1939: 16/1000     2016: 3.6/1000

Child Mortality (0-5), 1939: 61/1000     2016: 6.5/1000

White male/female high school completion, 1939:  24%/28%     2016: 82%/82%

Black male/female high school completion, 1939:  8%/9%     2016: 73%

I could go on about the decrease in crime, violence, teen pregnancies; and the improvements in health, education, civil rights…even animal welfare!

So in 1939 the greatest generation was about to be cast into the crucible of World War II. (Note that since the end of WWII we have had 70 years of increasing peace.) The year that panzers crossed into Poland, back here in America folks had five times less money than people do today. They also completed high school at much lower rates. Note that whites increased their high school completion rate more than threefold, and blacks realized an eightfold increase. For every 4 babies that died in 1939, only one dies today. For every nine children who died between birth and five in 1939, today only one dies. Today people have about 16 extra years to live.

What price would you put on 16 years of life? That should alone convince the skeptic that we’re making progress.

Back to Oz.

So it’s 1939. Let’s run the lines:

World: Oh, will you help me? Can you help me?
Henry the Protopian Fairy: You don’t need to be helped any longer. You’ve always had the power to make life better and better. You’ll be doing it for the next 77 years and beyond!
The Pessimistic Scarecrow: Then why didn’t you tell her the good news before, you evil imperialist industrialist!
Henry: I have been. No one’s listening. She didn’t believe me. She had to learn it for herself.
Scarecrow: What have you learned, World?
World: Well, I—I think that it, that it wasn’t enough just to want to read the papers — if I ever go looking for a better world, I should look at how the world has changed…use facts, not stories. Because it’s there, in the facts. Is that right?
Henry: That’s all it is! Life is getting better!
Scarecrow: But that’s so easy! I should’ve thought of it for you –
Henry: No, she had to find it out for herself. Now tap those magic slippers and watch the world get better!
World: Now?
Henry: Whenever you wish.

Meantime, just tap three times.

 

Why Is Literature So Bad?

It’s terrible! You can’t argue that it’s good.

Now it’s well written, thoughtful, insightful, and jam packed with meaning.

But it’s terrible!

I think you’ll agree. Hear me out.

What did you read in high school? I’m guessing some or all of the following (my nota benes in parentheses):

  1. Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare. (Death of title characters and sword wielding testosterony young men)
  2. Macbeth by Shakespeare. (Death of title character…and, nearly everyone else.)
  3. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. (Slavery, hypocrisy, hucksterism, family feuds)
  4. Julius Caesar by Shakespeare. (Death of title character and assorted Romans)
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. (Prejudice, Jim Crow, hypocrisy, death of Jim…and Bob Ewell thank goodness.)
  6. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (Adultery, puritanism, and all that jazz)
  7. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. (Death of Crooks’ dog, rabbit, Curly’s wife, and Lenny)
  8. Hamlet by Shakespeare. (Death of Hamlet, his girlfriend, his family, Rosencrantz and Gildenstern, and much of Scandinavia.)
  9. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Death of Jay Gatz[by])
  10. Lord of the Flies by William Golding. (Death of pilot, Piggy, and a bunch of public school lads)

This is the list of the top ten books taught in American high schools, according to the Center for Learning and Teaching of Literature.

Terrible!  Tragedy death suicide cruelty slavery Jim Crow prejudice regicide suicide demagoguery adultery. Well these books aren’t all bad. Huck stands up for Jim; Malcolm and Fortinbras set the states back in order. And of course there’s Atticus Finch.

Okay, I’ll admit, I love all these books…well maybe not The Scarlet Letter. I’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird at least ten times, having taught it to 7th graders for more than a decade. 

I think one reason we live in a time of unprecedented democracy, human rights, peace, health, and prosperity is because of the novel. Before novels were written and printed for home consumption, readers didn’t go deeply into the lives and heads of people unlike themselves. This is a very good thing, an idea shared by many scholars, including Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature.

I’m all for enjoying and studying literature. I love Fitzgerald’s writing in The Great Gatsby. I love Shakespeare. At my last teaching gig I had my fifth graders perform a shortened version of Macbeth every year. They loved it. Especially all the murder parts (i.e., the whole play). And To Kill a Mockingbird ends in sweet uplift as the gentle oddball saves Jem and Scout.

On the other hand, none of these books take place in a world you’d like to live in. My favorite characters from these works-Jim, Tom, Lenny, Boo, Piggy–are misfits in an unfeeling world mown down by the powerful. It’s good literature. It’s important to learn about this stuff. But I don’t think this is what happens to the vast majority of us; it does seem to happen in most of the great books we read.

If these are the books our children, read, read, read, and are taught to revere, what will they learn from the themes and (mostly) tragic outcomes? Weirdos are mistreated by society…always have, always will?

What I suggest is unreasonable, but I’ll propose it anyway: balance.

The website Goodreads posts 250 works of “uplifting fiction.” Like most aggregated web lists, it is spotty in parts but pretty helpful. The authors of the top nine books listed are women (interesting!). This fact may reflect who posts on Goodreads rather than any truism that “men write depressing books; women write uplifting books,” but it’s food for thought. Pride and Prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Jane Eyre, indisputable classics, were near the top of the list. There were some other nuggets sprinkled further down the list, including A Room with a View, The Princess Bride, and many of Shakespeare’s comedies, which got me thinking. Shakespeare’s tragedies are favored in high school book lists. I was assigned none of the Bard’s comedies in high school and college, but I read Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Romeo and Juliet. Is the literature of comedy underrepresented? We all use humor to draw closer to friends and make light of hardships. How many of us have been marooned with schoolboys on a desert island? Ever float down the Mississippi on a raft?

I’m not worried that we’ll suddenly chuck all the great, dark works of literature. Shakespeare will always have his place, and every kid (and adult) should read and reread To Kill a Mockingbird. But I think we should read more books that reflect our humanity, not just our inhumanity.

Optimism Bias: Good for Us, Bad for Humanity

The Optimism Bias is “a mistaken belief that our chances of experiencing negative events are lower and our chances of experiencing positive events are higher than those of our peers.” This bias makes us do wonderful things, like get married, have kids, and pursue goals. The flip side is we overestimate how good our life will turn out. A betting man would hedge his marriage with a prenuptial agreement. After all, if some 40% of marriages end in divorce, doesn’t a prenup make sense? But we don’t see ourselves as subject to the statistical laws that apply to everyone and everything else. I won’t get divorced.

While the personal pitfalls of the optimism bias worry me, I’m most concerned with how the optimism bias works against global civilization. The flip side of the optimism bias is that we are less optimistic about others, society and the world. After a terrible event the world tends to regress toward the mean just like everything else. If there’s a mass shooting–utterly unnecessary and always tragic–we forget that these are outliers as murder rates are at historic lows. We’re subject to the availability heuristic–what we see is all there is, and what we see is the news, not the stats.

But the big story is the opposite of the optimism bias: I should be more cautious–buy life insurance, drive safely, make a prenup, exercise, keep my will up to date–but the world is probably better than I think it is. And if I’m not sure I shouldn’t look at the news; I should check out Max Roser’s Our World in Data, Hans Rosling’s Gapminder, or Cato Institute’s Human Progress. These troves of data demonstrate the positive trends in agriculture, crime, education, human rights, democracy, health and safety that define our age much more than terrorism and other front page stories.

Optimism is great. It probably kept us alive in lean times on the savanna. But today’s world is complex, and if we misread reality–that things actually are progressing for most of humanity–and see a need to rejigger our economy and civilization, we may unwittingly dismantle the institutions that have brought the advances in agriculture, crime, education, human rights, democracy, health and safety that we have won since the end of World War II and the Fall of the Wall.