In her current bestselling book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, Isabel Wilkerson compares America to Nazi Germany and says that the state of race relations in the U. S. today are about where they were in the 1880s. Yes, the 1880s, not the 1980s.
Elizabeth Kolbert in The Sixth Extinction argues that due to climate change we are facing the very extinction of the human race as we know it.
And surely you know -- as we do -- somebody's grownup kids who have said that they're not going to have kids themselves, because they don't want to rear children in a declining white nationalist nation, or bring children into an overpopulated world that's already choking on its own carbon dioxide and industrial waste.
It's enough to make you want to get away from it all and move to Mexico or Madagascar . . . or Mars.
But then I read How I Learned to Understand the World, a memoir by Hans Rosling, a Swedish doctor and bioethicist who spent several years taking care of poor people in Mozambique and later went back to Africa to help put out the fires of the Ebola epidemic. He died in 2017 at age 68, but even his early demise did not dampen his optimism.
Rosling is best known for his series of TED talks and the book called Factfulness. He says we hear about all the terrible things in the world from the media, and so we leap to the conclusion that the world is getting worse. What we don't hear about are the slow, ongoing improvements in health, longevity, education, non-violence, that go on year after year not just in the U. S. but all around the world.
None of this is wrong. It's just one-sided, looking at the problems not the progress. To get a more balanced -- and more accurate -- picture of the world today, Rosling tells us, we have to look at the facts. And the facts demonstrate that the world has improved dramatically over almost any time frame you consider.
So for example:
Life expectancy: If you were born in 1900, you would have had a 23% chance of dying before age 20 and a 38% chance of dying before age 45. Kids born today have about a 1% chance of dying before age 20 and a 4% chance of dying before age 45.
Modern Conveniences: When our grandparents were born, virtually no one had electricity ... or telephone or indoor plumbing. They didn't have a car and couldn't fly in an airplane. Today, 85% of the people in the world enjoy the benefits of electricity. And two-thirds have a cellphone.
Poverty: Twenty years ago 29% of the world population lived in extreme poverty. Today it's only 9% . . . and the rate is still falling.
Crime: Violent crime has been on a downward trend in the U. S. since 1990. Almost 14.5 million crimes were reported in the United States in 1990. By 2016, with a larger population, that figure was down below 9.5 million.
Retirement: Some 90% of 65-year-old American men who were still alive in 1870 were working. Today only about 20% of 65-year-old American men are still working ... and many of them are working by choice not necessity.
Safety: Americans became 95% less likely to be killed on the job over the last hundred years. Seat belts, air bags and other safety features have brought down auto fatalities from 50,000 a year in the 1970s to about 37,000 today, despite more cars on the road. The auto fatality rate per 100,000 people has dropped from 25 to 11 -- less than half what it was in the 1970s.
Disease: In the past century, vaccines and antibiotics have brought miracles to modern medicine. Just since 1990, the control of infectious disease has saved the lives of an estimated 100 million children. Or consider the development of the Covid-19 vaccine. They couldn't do it in 1918. But we did it in 2020.
Food. Between 1961 and 2009, the amount of land used to grow food increased by 12%, but the amount of food grown has increased by 300%.
Climate change. The world was getting dirtier and dirtier until the 1970s when the Environmental Protection Agency was established and people started to care about the environment. The world is still getting dirtier. But at a slower pace. And with the development of solar and wind energy, of geothermal and tidal and possibly hydrogen energy it is entirely possible that we will be smart enough to overcome even this latest and most serious problem.
If you don't believe Rosling, turn to Bill Gates, the computer wizard who now focuses on world health. He tells us: "Headlines are what mislead you, because bad news is a headline and gradual improvement is not." So next time someone corners you to drone on about how bad the world really is, tell them: "It's not as bad as you think."