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Is Optimism a Progressive Stance?

Two of my very favorite people in the world, (one a senior citizen and one a millennial), both recently complained that there's more wrong with the world than right and, luckily for me, I was reading "Utopia for Realists" and "Humankind: A Hopeful History", two books by the optimistic Dutch writer Rutger Bregman. I did not have to foam at the mouth and blather in pained disagreement because I had the statistics at hand.


Here's why there is great reason for optimism:

  • "Where 44% of the world's population lived in extreme poverty in 1981, that percentage is under 10%.
  • The number of people suffering from malnutrition has shrunk by more than a third since 1990. This year of the world population that survives on fewer than 2000 calories a day has dropped from 51% in 1965 to 3% in 2005.
  • Between 1990 and 2021 the number of children with stunted growth went down by a third, child mortality fell an incredible 41% and maternal deaths were cut in half.
  • In 1962, as many as 41% of kids didn't go to school, as opposed to under 10% today.*
  • Worldwide, life expectancy grew from 64 years in 1990 to 70 in 2012 -- more than double what it was in 1900.
  • More than 2.1 billion people finally got access to clean drinking water between 1990 and 2012.
  • In the Middle Ages as much as 12% of Europe's and Asia's populations died violent deaths. But in the last 100 years -- including two world wars -- this figure has plummeted to 1.3% worldwide. In the US it's now 0.7% and in the Netherlands where [Bregman] lives it's less than zero point 1%. There's no reason to be fatalistic about civil society.
  • The past decade rating as the most peaceful in all of world history. According to the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, the number of war casualties per year has plummeted 90% since 1946. The incident of murder, robbery and other forms of criminality is decreasing, too. Last and best of all, we have entered the most peaceful age ever.
  • We've stamped out most infectious diseases. Vaccines now save more lives each year then would have been speared if we'd had world peace for the entire 20th century.
  • Slavery has been abolished worldwide [except for sexual slavery – JW]
  • All the while, we're only getting smarter. In most countries, the average IQ has gone up another three to five points every ten years, thanks chiefly to improve nutrition and education. Maybe this also explains how we've become so much more civilized.
  • By the year 2013, 6 billion of the globe's 7 billion inhabitants owned a cell phone. (By way of comparison, just 4.5 billion had a toilet.) And between 1994 and 2014, the number of people with Internet access worldwide have leaped from 0.4% to 40.4%.
  • And what about disease? History is number one mass murderer, the dreaded smallpox has been completely wiped out. Polio has all but disappeared, claiming 99% fewer victims in 2013 than in 1988.

The Mean World Syndrome


My dear ones are not alone, of course. Bregman writes that "a few years ago, people in 30 different countries were asked a simple question: 'Overall, do you think the world is getting better, staying the same, or getting worse?' In every country, from Russia to Canada, from Mexico to Hungary, the vast majority of people answered that things were getting worse. The reality is exactly the opposite! Over the last several decades extreme poverty, victims of war, child mortality, crime, famine, child labor, deaths in natural disasters and the number of plane crashes have all plummeted. We're living in the richest, safest, healthiest era ever. So why don't we realize this? It's simple. Because the news is about the exceptional..."


"First to open up this field of research, back in the 1990s, was George Gerbner (1919 - 2005). He coined the term to describe the phenomenon: mean world syndrome, whose clinical symptoms are cynicism, misanthropy and pessimism. People who follow the news are more likely to agree with statements such as 'most people care only about themselves.' They more often believed that we as individuals are helpless to better the world. They are more likely to be stressed and depressed."


Is Optimism Progressive?

And what does Bregman say about optimism, other than that when you voice it you will be open to ridicule? Does he consider optimism to be a radically progressive stance?

"For the powerful, a hopeful view of human nature is downright threatening. Subversive. Seditious. It implies that we're not selfish beasts that need to be reigned in, restrained and regulated. It implies that we need a different kind of leadership."





*What's so amazing to me is that most of these measurements are within my beloved/cynical boomer's adulthood. Not stats that are compared with the ancients, but numbers that prove that just in the last couple of decades, the world has made incredible strides toward universal health and prosperity.


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