The Case for Optimism

The arc of history bends toward progress—and 2016 was no different.

By David Rothkopf
The Case for Optimism

The average person, looking around the world today, might say things are very grim. It’s understandable. Headlines from Syria reveal devastation and human tragedy on an unimaginable scale. Billions of people suffer with too little, lacking basic necessities such as access to food, water, sanitation, or electricity. Terrorists wage their asymmetric wars not just against states but within our psyches. In the United States and Europe, right-wing leaders sell a tale of decline and civilizations at risk—and plenty of voters are buying it. Look no further than Donald Trump’s ascent to the White House on a wave of hateful sentiment.

It is the worst of times. And yet, reflecting on the 2016 campaign in his newest book—and in many ways his most personal and provocative yet—New York Times columnist and 2013 Global Thinker Thomas Friedman begins with a quote from Marie Curie: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

Friedman, who is a friend, goes further. His book is titled Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. So here is a guy who has covered the Middle East and the tribulations of the world for 30 years, and three Pulitzer Prizes later, he is embracing optimism. Why?

The title of the book gives a clue. “Thank you for being late” refers to the degree to which Friedman found himself grateful for the quiet moments each day that he was granted when people with whom he was to meet were delayed by the press of daily life, giving him time to reflect. The book represents an effort to look at what has happened in the world and, in particular, on the “accelerations” that have transformed it and left so many people run ragged, bewildered, and unable to process the meaning of recent changes. Those accelerations—in technological advancement, climate change, and globalization—have reordered the planet from top to bottom, and Friedman spent three and a half years exploring how and looking for meaning. The search brings him back to his hometown in Minnesota to contemplate how the shifting tectonics of modern civilization have altered that which seemed most familiar to him as a child.

The book is written with Friedman’s typically probing search for greater meaning, for big ideas, and for organizing principles. And, in the end, it leaves one with the feeling that while the changes that are remaking the planet pose great challenges—notably in the area of climate change—they really do offer even greater opportunities for the lives of everyone in virtually every corner of the world.

This raises a couple of questions. First, do the facts bear out the idea that things are really improving broadly and not just in terms of the gadgets or technologies we have at our disposal? Second, does history offer any clues about the nature and sustainability of step changes of the type Friedman’s book so engagingly focuses on?

To answer those questions, consider that Friedman is not the first to embrace optimism. Indeed, while declinists of every stripe sometimes seem to have greater access to the media, there has been a bit of a groundswell recently of people making the case that the present has a lot to recommend it and that the future looks even better. Furthermore, the current crop of optimists has not based views on the age-old triumph of hope over experience. Rather, to the contrary, their views are arrived at the old-fashioned way—through research, based on data. In fact, I count myself among them because, in my view, optimism is the most logical, sound, and defensible position to arrive at after a rigorous study of history.

We do not live in a perfect world. But we live in a perfectible one. History shows that, over the long run, we collectively have made progress work.

Steven Pinker of Harvard University blindsided a world weary of war stories and the fear of terrorism in 2011 with the publication of his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. In it, he argued and demonstrated through an analysis of available data that violence in human societies has dropped markedly throughout history and that we live in one of the most peaceful and safe times ever.

Pinker writes, “Believe it or not … violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era of our species’ existence.” If you lived in what he described as the “pre-state” era, you had a 1-in-6 chance of dying in conflict. In the last century, for all its horrific violence, that number fell to just a 3 percent chance. And the current period is the most violence-free in history. Pinker offers six major civilizing factors, ranging from the rise of institutions and the rule of law to our current respite from global conflicts, to help explain why.

Other data support this. Between 500,000 and 900,000 people died in battle in 1950. By 2008, according to PolitiFact, this number was down to 30,000. Independent researchers associated with the Human Security Project at Simon Fraser University have concluded, “Today there is broad agreement within the research community that the number and deadliness of interstate wars has declined dramatically since the end of World War II, and the incidence of civil wars has declined substantially since the end of the Cold War.” They conclude that the average number of interstate wars falling from six per year in the 1950s to just one per year now is significant because such conflicts usually are deadlier than civil wars. It also does not take a very sophisticated analysis to conclude that the threats we face today from the likes of the Islamic State, while real, are much, much smaller than the risk of global thermonuclear war or of world wars.

Other positive changes are equally clear. Nothing is more basic to quality of life than its duration. In the pre-modern world, life expectancy was about 30 years. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, with its huge leaps forward in public health and scientific progress, life expectancy has increased substantially, aided most notably by declines in child mortality rates. Average expectancy worldwide has more than doubled since 1900, and no country in the world today has a lower life expectancy than the countries in the world with the highest life expectancies in 1800.

The Industrial Revolution produced other massive changes in quality of life. Modern indoor plumbing was introduced to the rich in the United States only in the mid-19th century. Today, virtually every U.S. home has it. Worldwide, only 76 percent of people had access to improved water sources in 1990; that number is now around 91 percent. Only 1 percent of U.S. homes had indoor plumbing and electricity in 1920. Today, almost all do. Worldwide, while no one had access to electricity before the late 19th century, around 83 percent of the population does today.

In 1850, almost everyone in the world lived in an autocracy or a colony. Even the few democracies around were very unrepresentative. Today, the majority of the world’s people live in countries ruled by democratic regimes—more than 4.1 billion people—and only 1.7 billion live in autocracies.

Real gross domestic product per capita held steady at around $400 to $600 a year for most people in most places for most of the last millennium. It started to change in the developed world as the Industrial Revolution hit. But the real breakthrough came about as globalization gained traction about 50 years ago. According to the World Bank, it rose from a global adjusted average of $449.63 in 1960 to over $10,000 in 2015. The result is that the share of the world’s population living in poverty has fallen from 94 percent in 1820 to under 10 percent today.

In 1800, almost nine out of 10 people were illiterate. Today, almost the same proportion can read. In 1970, only 6 percent of the world’s people had a landline phone. In 2014, we passed the point where there were more cellular devices than people on the planet. According to the World Bank, by the following year, the average rate of cellular subscriptions per 100 people was 98.6.

History, then, offers an encouraging story. It is one of the reasons that those who study it and analyze current change anticipate that, while huge tests confront us now, great progress will continue. Dislocations of workers by new technologies pose a real challenge, note Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson in their important works, Race Against the Machine and The Second Machine Age. But they also point to the prospect of less backbreaking labor, shorter workweeks, and longer work lives. AARP has analyzed this in the United Sates and sees a change few could have expected or gleaned from the tenor of public debate just a few years ago: The older members of society, rather than being a burden, are likely to become a boon. Retirement is a concept that will have to be rethought as companies are able to tap into their most experienced workers for much longer, thanks to information technologies that enable them to remain relevant, active, and engaged in creating value. (AARP, it should be noted, is among several sponsors of Foreign Policy’s 2016 Global Thinkers issue and event.)

Estimates today are that, effectively, the entire world will have internet access—be linked together in a man-made system for the very first time in history—sometime between 2020 and 2030. We are beating cancer, with deaths down 23 percent in a generation. A cure may be far off, but as Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, has acknowledged, it’s possible that more people “are going to live [for a] prolonged high-quality time in peaceful coexistence with their disease.”

Progress like this has made benchmarks such as the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, which were adopted in 2015, seem not only achievable, but achievable in the near term. These include ending poverty, eradicating hunger, ensuring that, within a decade and a half, all girls and boys can complete primary and secondary education for free, ensuring clean water for all, and guaranteeing that everyone has access to affordable, sustainable, and reliable energy.

Perhaps this is why a recent study among 26,000 millennials by the World Economic Forum reveals something quite different from the snark and cynicism of political debates, which is often erroneously associated with young people. When they look at the world around them, 70 percent see it as full of opportunities, versus only 30 percent who see it as full of struggles; 86 percent see technology creating jobs, while only 14 percent see it destroying them.

Millennials are hopeful. They are hopeful for the same reason that Friedman and Pinker and the technolophiliacs of Silicon Valley are hopeful. They are hopeful because the story of human history is one of continuous progress, and we don’t just live in a moment in which this is ongoing—we live in a moment when progress is inexorably accelerating. Indeed, when you consider that living in one global community and in one single cultural ecosystem promises better understanding of one another, ubiquitous sensing, unlimited data storage, big-data analytics, and the ever-increasing capacity to connect the world’s best and most creative minds, the prospect of seeing the world in detail as it is and as it might be seems possible for the very first time. Optimism is not outlandish—it is required. Realism equals optimism.

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By Jason Holley