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!

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