It's good to remember that the World is better than ever!
January 10, 2019 6:02 AM   Subscribe

You may feel like sh**, but things are getting better. Childhood mortality is down, people are wealthier, terrorism is low outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, life expectancy is up by20% in Africa since 2000, etc.
posted by zeikka (50 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
Sure, some species are going extinct, but too often we forget that others, like chickens and cows, are seeing unprecedented success. Video games have better graphics than ever, there's more and more food and fuel to go around every year to feed the growing population, and Rick and Morty looks set to deliver a new season very soon. Verily, there is much to be thankful for. Sometimes it may not seem to be the best of all possible worlds, but at the rate professional optimists tell us that things have been getting continually better and better for centuries, we must be very near to it by now.
posted by sfenders at 6:30 AM on January 10 [32 favorites]


From the book I'm reading at the moment, Factfulness, by Hans Rosling, a short quiz:
Please find a piece of paper and an pencil and answer the 13 fact questions below.
  1. In all low-income countries [as defined by the World Bank] across the world today, how many girls finish primary school? A) 20%; B) 40%; C) 60%
  2. Where does the majority of the world population live? [Again, based on the World Bank definitions.] A) Low-income countries; B) Middle-income countries; C) High-income countries
  3. In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has... A) almost doubled; B) remained more or less the same; C) almost halved
  4. What is the life expectancy of the world today? A) 50 years; B) 60 years; C) 70 years
  5. There are 2 billion children in the world today, aged 0 to 15 years old. How many children will there be in the year 2100, according to the United Nations? A) 4 billion; B) 3 billion; C) 2 billion
  6. The UN predicts that by 2100 the world population will have increased by another 4 billion people. What is the main reason? A) There will be more children (aged under 15); B) There will be more adults (aged 15-74;) C) There will be more very old people (aged 75 and older)
  7. How did the number of deaths per year from natural disasters change over the last hundred years? A) More than doubled; B) Remained about the same; C) Decreased to less than half
  8. There are roughly 7 billion people in the world today. Which [breakdown] shows best where they live? [The book has images here: instead you get text] A) about 1 billion in the Americas, Africa and Europe each, 4 billion in Asia; B) about 1 billion in the Americas and Europe each, 2 billion in Africa, 3 billion in Asia; C) about 1 billion in Africa and Europe each, 2 billion in the Americas, 3 billion in Asia
  9. How many of the world's 1-year-old children today have been vaccinated against some disease? A) 20%; B) 50%; C) 80%
  10. Worldwide, 30-year-old men have spent 10 years in school, on average. How many years have women of the same age spent in school? A) 9 years; B) 6 years; C) 3 years
  11. In 1996, tigers, giant pandas and black rhinos were all listed as critically endangered. How many of these three species are more critically endangered today? A) Two of them; B) One of them; C) None of them
  12. How many people in the world have some access to electricity? A) 20%; B) 50%; C) 80%
  13. Global climate experts believe that, over the next 100 years, the average temperature will... A) get warmer; B) remain the same; C) get colder
As informed readers with a fact-based worldview, I'm sure MetaFilter will be able to do better than average!
posted by Merus at 6:45 AM on January 10 [3 favorites]


I'll give it a stab:
In all low-income countries [as defined by the World Bank] across the world today, how many girls finish primary school? A) 20%; B) 40%; C) 60% C
Where does the majority of the world population live? [Again, based on the World Bank definitions.] A) Low-income countries; B) Middle-income countries; C) High-income countries B
In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has... A) almost doubled; B) remained more or less the same; C) almost halved C
What is the life expectancy of the world today? A) 50 years; B) 60 years; C) 70 years C
There are 2 billion children in the world today, aged 0 to 15 years old. How many children will there be in the year 2100, according to the United Nations? A) 4 billion; B) 3 billion; C) 2 billion C
The UN predicts that by 2100 the world population will have increased by another 4 billion people. What is the main reason? A) There will be more children (aged under 15); B) There will be more adults (aged 15-74;) C) There will be more very old people (aged 75 and older) C
How did the number of deaths per year from natural disasters change over the last hundred years? A) More than doubled; B) Remained about the same; C) Decreased to less than half C
There are roughly 7 billion people in the world today. Which [breakdown] shows best where they live? [The book has images here: instead you get text] A) about 1 billion in the Americas, Africa and Europe each, 4 billion in Asia; B) about 1 billion in the Americas and Europe each, 2 billion in Africa, 3 billion in Asia; C) about 1 billion in Africa and Europe each, 2 billion in the Americas, 3 billion in Asia A
How many of the world's 1-year-old children today have been vaccinated against some disease? A) 20%; B) 50%; C) 80% C
Worldwide, 30-year-old men have spent 10 years in school, on average. How many years have women of the same age spent in school? A) 9 years; B) 6 years; C) 3 years B
In 1996, tigers, giant pandas and black rhinos were all listed as critically endangered. How many of these three species are more critically endangered today? A) Two of them; B) One of them; C) None of them C
How many people in the world have some access to electricity? A) 20%; B) 50%; C) 80% C
Global climate experts believe that, over the next 100 years, the average temperature will... A) get warmer; B) remain the same; C) get colder A

How'd I do?
posted by peacheater at 6:56 AM on January 10


1c 2b 3c 4c 5c 6b 7c 8a 9c 10a 11c 12c 13a

My biggest beef with this is the ambiguity of some questions. If you have to walk for an hour to the nearest electrical outlet which is out of service for 23 of every 24 hours, does that count as "some access" for question 12?
posted by DreamerFi at 7:04 AM on January 10 [4 favorites]


there's more and more food and fuel to go around

I talked to a geologist recently who was talking about how exciting it was to be working in his field now. See, fracking only gets 30-50% of the oil and gas from the ground, but there is new (technology? chemical slurries? both?) that will get us another 15-20% out, which means we have fuel to spare in the U.S.! And investigations into recylcing produced water have all been positive, so fracking may be able to use little to no fresh water to extract oil and gas from the ground!

It's good to hear about recycling produced water, but I definitely didn't share his happiness for the extensive quantities of oil and gas we can pull from the ground. I didn't ask him for his thoughts on the impact of burning petrol on climate change, but if we chat about this again, I might broach the topic (I see him, in passing, with frequency).
posted by filthy light thief at 7:09 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


DreamerFi's answers are all correct, according to the book. Apparently they ran this test with 12,000 respondents and no-one got 100% correct.

The source for that particular question is apparently the GTF, and "access" is defined differently in all their underlying sources. The GTF claim 85% access and they rounded down because of the issue you raise, that in some cases "access" means frequent power outages.

The book itself is about how frequently people can talk themselves into a narrative-based worldview that misleads them. The example they open with is the dichotomy between "developed" and "developing" countries, which obscures that most so-called developing countries have access to schooling, healthcare and infrastructure for most of their citizens, and that, unlike in the 1960s, there's no clear clustering dividing developed and developing countries any more. It's a model that doesn't have any descriptive power for us any more (just as the "First/Second/Third World" model no longer has any use to describe today's world) - there's still a lot of work to do, but it misleads us into massively overstating the amount of work required.
posted by Merus at 7:17 AM on January 10 [6 favorites]


Also, to nit-pick the OP links a bit, "people are wealthier" links to a graph showing that world poverty* is decreasing, which does mean that wealth is increasing, but at least in the US, income AND wealth inequality are both on the rise
There is no dispute that income inequality has been on the rise in the United States for the past four decades. The share of total income earned by the top 1 percent of families was less than 10 percent in the late 1970s but now exceeds 20 percent as of the end of 2012 (PDF). A large portion of this increase is due to an upsurge in the labor incomes earned by senior company executives and successful entrepreneurs. But is the rise in U.S. economic inequality purely a matter of rising labor compensation at the top, or did wealth inequality rise as well?
The advent of the income tax has made measuring income much easier for economists, but measuring wealth is not as easy. To solve the problem of not having detailed government records of wealth, Saez and Zucman developed a method of capitalizing income records to estimate wealth distribution. They write:
Wealth inequality, it turns out, has followed a spectacular U-shape evolution over the past 100 years. From the Great Depression in the 1930s through the late 1970s there was a substantial democratization of wealth. The trend then inverted, with the share of total household wealth owned by the top 0.1 percent increasing to 22 percent in 2012 from 7 percent in the late 1970s. The top 0.1 percent includes 160,000 families with total net assets of more than $20 million in 2012.
*qualified as people living with less than $2, $1.90 or $1 per day, adjusted for inflation over time and for price differences between countries (PPP adjustment) -- which itself is a pretty grim fact that this is the threshold for poverty.

Yes, wealth is increasing for everyone, but particularly in the U.S., it's the rich who are getting the richest.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:18 AM on January 10 [7 favorites]


I do think there is something to be said for the idea that living in the collapsing garbage fire that is the United States tends to distort Americans' worldviews about how well or how badly things are going across the world.
posted by Automocar at 7:22 AM on January 10 [16 favorites]




Imagine a culture of bacteria living on a petri dish coated in a growth medium that is not optimal for those bacteria. Over time, they evolve to become better and better at using and metabolizing that medium. This also leads to faster and faster doublings of their population. After a while, having consumed half of the growth medium, one bacterium says to another "Wow, we are doing so much better than our ancestors! Never before have so many of us been so well fed so efficiently, and we have as much food left as we used in our entire history! We are doing great!"

After the next doubling in population, all of the bacteria starve to death.
posted by jedicus at 7:28 AM on January 10 [29 favorites]




Sometimes it may not seem to be the best of all possible worlds,

beer is definitely better than it was thirty years ago, even ten, certainly in my corner of the world, and the internet seems to argue for a far wider swath than that.

also what Automocar just said about living in the US of A offering a skewed view of things. You're not the world, America, in spite of what that awful song (in aid of a good cause) proclaimed.
posted by philip-random at 7:40 AM on January 10 [4 favorites]


A 20% increase in life expectancy is pretty huge. Nice work, Africa!

Blind pessimism is at least as unproductive as blind optimism, in my view. (Consider: the AGW denial crowd is just as likely to say "we're off the cliff already, so why bother with supply-side carbon controls?" as it is to say "warming is a myth or if it isn't then it's not human-driven, so why bother with supply-side carbon controls?")

So while it serves nobody to pretend that everything is sunshine and roses, it's nice to have a little dose of perspective as well.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:06 AM on January 10 [13 favorites]



the whole Kristof-Pinker "best year in history" narrative just demonstrates the basic incoherence of a ideology that doesn't care if a train is heading for a tunnel or a wall as long as it's going fast


I generally agree with this comment. Given that, I think the constant drumbeat of doom and gloom over the course of my almost 50 years has left me jaded.

There has always been some new doom being promoted by someone to the general public. Here are three of the older ones, killer bees, acid rain, and Y2K. There were some problems, some action needed to be taken, but the world ending situations predicted turned out to be grossly overestimated. Then quickly forgotten once a new doomsday prediction appears.

So, it is understandable if people focus on only the positive and downplay the problems of today. Especially, if they have seen many good and bad predictions never come to pass.

As way of example, I have a co-worker who carefully reads all the company quarterly statements and CEO's emails. He gets very anxious about any bad or even neutral news. So, far he has predicated twenty of the last five layoffs over 10+ years. The most impactful changes in our job lives have come with little or no warning. I understand I could be laid off with little warning, but for now I like my job and concentrate of that. Of course, I also keep a rainy day fund.

* I do take climate change seriously and have taking steps to lower my footprint
posted by KaizenSoze at 8:07 AM on January 10 [6 favorites]


America’s Middle Class is Vanishing. Nearly Half of Workers Earn Less than $30,000

Sorry, I have a hard time taking seriously a page that says something like "48% of wage earners had net compensation less than or equal to the median wage.,,"

Yes, in general half of all things are below the median. Talk about wage inequality all you want, but please don't use bad mathematics to sell your story.
posted by fremen at 8:11 AM on January 10 [16 favorites]


For KaizenSoze.
posted by JanetLand at 8:19 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]


From the New Yorker last year, "Are Things Getting Better or Worse?: Why assessing the state of the world is harder than it sounds."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:24 AM on January 10


There’s a lot of money in being Dr. Pangloss I guess
posted by The Whelk at 8:33 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]


Sounds like a job for Steven Pinker: Certified Grief Counselor!
posted by yukonho at 9:22 AM on January 10 [6 favorites]


Sorry, I have a hard time taking seriously a page that says something like "48% of wage earners had net compensation less than or equal to the median wage.,,"

Gee, if only they'd gone on in the very same line to say"...which is estimated to be $31,561.49 for 2017". It's a pity that they didn't do that very obvious thing that would have entirely changed the intent of their statement away from some vacuous straw-brained ignorance of math and words.
posted by Etrigan at 9:27 AM on January 10 [4 favorites]


How about more good news of a completely different sort then: we are about to grow lots more food - like 40% more. Some folks at UIUC have engineered a solution to photorespiration. No, I didn't know what that was either - it turns out an enzyme grabs oxygen instead of carbon dioxide about 20% of the time, which reduces a plants photosynthetic efficiency and slows growth.

It gets better: this will contribute, along with global warming, to an increase in double cropping, which will significantly increase the amount ag output in the midwest. Right now double cropping is mostly limited in geography to the south and a limited number of plants.

Double cropping is where you take something like soybean or wheat and plant early and then race to harvest early so you can try to plant a second crop before the season ends. Your first crop take is typically smaller, 60-80% of your normal yield, but if you can fit another crop in you can take another harvest. Where before you might get 100 bushels in a year now you are getting in at 140, or as much as 180 bushels. Same land, more inputs, more outputs. One of the big limits on this method is that the plants need to grow fast in these much shorter time frames. Not all geographies can support this type of double cropping (there is others) - for example early plant growth still needs lots of water and that might not be available after spring season.

Regardless - a 40% increase in growth of a plant will translate to more double cropping, and the doubled up (but slightly smaller) yields should result in much more than just 40% more crops.

This likely represents the largest increase in ag productivity in our lifetimes.
posted by zenon at 9:33 AM on January 10 [10 favorites]


Gee, if only they'd gone on in the very same line to say"...which is estimated to be $31,561.49 for 2017

I didn't mention that because it adds nothing to the argument. So what? Is that number low? High? The entire article throws out numbers and expects me to be outraged, but it offers no insights with things like trends, purchasing power, or regional costs of living. My broader point is that this type of article is using math speak to create anger rather than understanding.
posted by fremen at 9:53 AM on January 10 [4 favorites]


To dismiss massive improvements in nutrition, access to clean water, disease, poverty, and life expectancy as being no more significant than a new season of Rick and Morty is nuts.

You don't have to agree that we live in the best of all possible worlds, but please, try to keep things in perspective.
posted by factory123 at 9:57 AM on January 10 [12 favorites]


I'm the kind of miserable bastard who thinks "Yeah, but how much better still do they have it over in the brighter timelines?"
posted by Enemy of Joy at 10:06 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]



Gee, if only they'd gone on in the very same line to say"...which is estimated to be $31,561.49 for 2017

I didn't mention that because it adds nothing to the argument.


It changes the meaning of the sentence that you truncated to make it look like they didn't know what "median" means. I mean, yeah, I guess that individual words taken out of context wouldn't add anything to "the argument" either, but that's probably why no one is doing that.

So what? Is that number low? High?

Are you actually saying that you don't know whether earning $31K in a year is high or low? That seems like an odd stance to take in a discussion of financial literacy. But okay, let me explain it to you:
The federal poverty level for a family of 4 is $25,100, which officials believe is the bare minimum needed to purchase subsistence food, clothing and shelter. To put this another way, our visualization indicates that enormous chunks of the workforce make a substandard wage, putting them at extreme risks if unpredictable financial problems occur.
Oh, wait. That's not me explaining it. It's from the article.

My broader point is that this type of article is using math speak to create anger rather than understanding.

As opposed to, say, intentionally misquoting and misreading this type of article.
posted by Etrigan at 10:17 AM on January 10 [7 favorites]


Here's the original statement: "48% of wage earners had net compensation less than or equal to the median wage, which is estimated at $31,561.49 for 2017."

The first half of that simply says that 50% of the thing is below the median. This is a useless thing to add, and it just makes people angry because nobody likes to see (gasp!) 50% of people lose at something. The second half tells me that the median is $31k, but that's meaningless without additional context. What was the median wage in 2010? 2000? 1990? Is it growing? Declining? What was the poverty rate in those years? Is that growing? Declining?

Here, let me write a more meaningful sentence. "The median wage in the United States is X% above the poverty line, a gap that's been [growing / shrinking] over the past 10 years."
posted by fremen at 10:32 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


What is the life expectancy of the world today? A) 50 years; B) 60 years; C) 70 years

I knew climate change was nearing irreversibility, but I didn't realize our world was going to be gone this soon!
posted by explosion at 10:38 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]



How about more good news of a completely different sort then: we are about to grow lots more food - like 40% more. Some folks at UIUC have engineered a solution to photorespiration. No, I didn't know what that was either .......-

posted by zenon at 9:33 AM on January 10

So you've just read about it - a topic and field you are utterly and self admittedly unfamiliar with - from a popular science reporting of (an admittedly excellent) proof-of-principle study, .......and you assume "we are about to grow lots more food" - by reformatting the vastly complex and inertia-driven worlds foodsystems?

JFC. Pangloss lives.
posted by lalochezia at 10:38 AM on January 10


I hate these kinds of arguments because they miss the point in the same way conservatives always miss the point. That things are better than they were by some (or even many!) measures has never been the point.

Yes black people and women can vote now. But that is not the point. Equality is the point.

Yes, the median income in some places has increased but that is not the point. Equity is the point.

Yes, the ozone hole has closed and the world is moving towards electricity and away from carbon, but that is not the point. The movement away from capitalism's exploitative, goldrush mindset and towards a more holistic, sustainable human- and nature-centered outlook is the point.

The the fact that the needle has moved on some specific measures doesn't mean that we're making progress towards those ideals. If anything, in some cases, they're evidence that we're moving away from them (e.g. the electrification of transport is not a green awakening.)

There's always one faction pushing towards the ideal, and another that's happy to say, "this is fine." The latter were happy with, say, race relations in Selma 1959 (go slow!) and they're happy with the way the world is now. Generally, because they're privileged and they don't want their boat to get rocked.
posted by klanawa at 10:54 AM on January 10 [7 favorites]


This argument is turning into a parody of itself.

The problem with this article is that it’s framed around the whole world getting better, which is what people are arguing about, when I think it should be enough to point out that not everything needs to be doom and misery all the time. There are undeniable advances, and those mean something, even if they don’t solve a problem completely. Is the world becoming a better place? Overall, I don’t know, but we also shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that many people are able to survive and live in ways that were until recently not possible for them.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 10:58 AM on January 10 [10 favorites]


It's useful to separate individual experiences from aggregate data. I do feel optimistic, in terms of decreasing overall human suffering. Because "childhood mortality is down" is a statistic that has to do with agriculture and technology, etc. etc., but more importantly, it means that a number of families are not currently mourning the loss of a small child.

A random sample of people around the world may tell you whether they've had better/cleaner/safer water and food than they did a few years ago. They may tell you if they've received an Ebola vaccine that prevented catastrophe in their family. They may tell you that they're 80 years old and doing really well, especially when they recall their parents dying in their fifties.

When fewer people are suffering, we should celebrate that.
posted by witchen at 11:01 AM on January 10 [14 favorites]


When fewer people are suffering, we should celebrate that.

Well put!

Thanks to zeikka for the original post, and I'm sorry I attacked it. I think this is a bit of the Good being the enemy of the Perfect. Celebrate successes, even when there is more work to be done, because those successes can bolster spirits for future work.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:04 AM on January 10 [3 favorites]


Here's the original statement: "48% of wage earners had net compensation less than or equal to the median wage, which is estimated at $31,561.49 for 2017."

The first half of that simply says that 50% of the thing is below the median. This is a useless thing to add, and it just makes people angry because nobody likes to see (gasp!) 50% of people lose at something.


It is very silly to get angry when an article briefly and economically explains, for the people who don't know, something (like the definition of median) that you already know.
posted by straight at 11:20 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]


"We're told the world is getting better all the time. In January, The New York Times' Nick Kristof explained "Why 2017 Was the Best Year in Human History." The same month, Harvard professor and Bill Gates' favorite optimist Steven Pinker lamented (in a special edition of Time magazine guest edited by - who else? - Bill Gates) the “bad habits of media... bring out the worst in human cognition”. By focusing so much on negative things, the theory goes, we are tricked into thinking things are getting worse when, in reality, it's actually the opposite."

On this topic, a Citations Needed (podcast) episode on the 'neoliberal optimism industry'.
posted by bigendian at 11:34 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]


In many ways and in many parts of the world, things are better. I'm thankful for the education, investment, research, vaccines, health care, good government, and maybe philanthropy that makes this happen. And since I don't know all the things that make this happen, feel free to inform me.

We need to put the same, or more, effort into Climate Change remediation. It has always sucked that colonisation and exploitation skimmed so very much from people that didn't have very much, and to screw it all up for everybody with wasteful practices is just a kick in the teeth. It's as urgent as wealth equality, and it's the greed for wealth and consumerism that drives both.
posted by theora55 at 11:48 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]


Let's do an A/B test.

Headline A: It's Not All Bad News: Some of the Ways the World Improved This Year.
Headline B: 2018 Was the Bestest Year in All History!!!!!!
posted by sfenders at 12:13 PM on January 10 [4 favorites]


When fewer people are suffering, we should celebrate that.

One could of course argue that for fewer people to suffer, fewer people need to exist . . .
posted by aspersioncast at 12:26 PM on January 10


I must say, I am delighted by the soft comfort and aesthetically pleasing arrangement of these deck chairs...
posted by PhineasGage at 12:47 PM on January 10 [4 favorites]


Another critique of Rosling's book:
Factfulness presents a highly biased sample of statistics as the true perspective on global development, avoids analysis of negative trends, and refrains from discussing difficult issues, such as the ecological consequences of the current type of growth and the risks related to the continued global population growth. A critical analysis of these shortcomings is the subject of this essay.
And the tl;dr:
My criticism concerns three major problems in the book:
- Its selection of statistics does not do justice to the complex and contradictory trends in global developments.
- Its silence on the preconditions and ecological consequences of the current techno-economic regime makes its analysis of the positive trends superficial and inconsequential.
- Its view on global population growth as unproblematic and impossible to influence is flawed and has potentially serious political implications.
posted by PhineasGage at 12:53 PM on January 10 [2 favorites]


When fewer people are suffering, we should celebrate that.

Flagged as fantastic. (My first Fantastic flag!)

Of course I am terrified about climate change and aghast at the popularity of certain fascists and infuriated about obscene income inequality. But as someone who really tries to put in some time and money and effort to make a difference on all of these, I NEED evidence that something, somewhere, has made a difference.

Yes, obviously, we need to do everything we can to fix the damage we've done to the planet. But seriously: in 1990, 37% of the entire population of the world was living in absolute poverty, and since then it's dropped to well under 15%? I mean, not only does that mean a HUGE difference in the lives of millions of people, but it also means more people who are not literally starving every day, who might now have more energy to organize, to keep their families a little safer from the diseases that come with horrific poverty, to send one more kid to school, to maybe produce a few more properly-fed young activists who can come up with and work toward the best local solutions to the problems we have brought upon them, upon all of us.

One reason I'm continually drawn back to reading about civil rights activists is this: I need to know how they kept working for change in the face of certain defeat. For me, celebrating every victory is essential to keeping up the work of changing things.

Thank you so much for this post, zeikka, and thanks to witchen and other posters who also see the great value in it.
posted by kristi at 1:43 PM on January 10 [6 favorites]


I must say, I am delighted by the soft comfort and aesthetically pleasing arrangement of these deck chairs...

Fewer infants shitting themselves to death from preventable disease is not rearranging deck chairs. C'mon. These statistics do not prevent the negative prognoses for the future, but they are good (and more life-affecting than any of the potus45 junk we all /so/ love to focus on.)
posted by mosst at 2:56 PM on January 10 [11 favorites]


It's possible that "actually the world today is better than it was 50 years ago" and "we are on an unsustainable trajectory that will produce untold suffering and death if we don't change direction" are not mutually exclusive.

The problem, of course, is that we are not especially good—just as a species—in dealing with problems that aren't right on top of us, even if they are pretty fucking obvious. I'm not sure why, exactly this is—maybe there's some evolutionary reason, or it's something to do with terror management theory that causes us to just ignore stuff that seems Really Bad, else we'd just lie in bed quivering with existential angst—but we sure do love to run right up to the very brink of disaster and sometimes even peek over the abyss a bit, before we do anything significant about it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:54 PM on January 10 [3 favorites]


Seems to be that the progress made in the infant mortality rate will lead to a lower population and will lead to less demand for fossil fuels and more people with disposable income able to divert some of their resources to doing something about climate change.

You know the debt snowball method of getting out of debt. The more critical problems we make progress on the more resources we will have for the other critical problems. It's REAL hard to encourage people to stop buying and burning fossil fuels if they need to do that in hope that at least one of their children will survive. But if they are pretty sure that their children will survive better without burning fossil fuel than if they burn it, they are more likely to curtail their use.

This isn't good news about climate change or the US economy and if those are the only two things that concern you I can see why you would be unenthusiastic. But I can assure you, I believe it's bedrock good change that makes coordinated world action and human survival just a little more likely.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:38 PM on January 10 [3 favorites]


Ahh, Metafilter, never change.
posted by liquorice at 4:54 PM on January 10 [2 favorites]


What's odd about this type of argument in my personal experience is that large bodies of facts and statistics are mustered to promote what is essentially an affective reaction. "When fewer people are suffering, we should celebrate that." I think we can all agree that smaller percentages of people are suffering in many domains (and perhaps fewer total as well), but what's odd is how this claim is coupled to the demand that this information be met with some sort of joyful affect, which seems orthogonal to the data and is essentially a non-rational and normative demand. Some people can recognize that (a) fewer individuals dying horribly is an improvement, while also (b) feeling terrible about all those individuals still dying terribly, with a net affect that is still quite negative. If you tell one of these "optimists" you won't feel happy until no one is dying horribly, in my experience many of them get actively angry at you, as if you are refusing to acknowledge their facts and logic. But that's not it: the fact and logic are correct (fewer percentages are dying) but the affect is not a function of that: watching even one person die horribly can be horribly depressing, even if you watched two die that way yesterday. So it would be useful to disentangle the affect question from the fact question, at which point the whole demand that we come up with some sort of aggregate score for how much total better thing are ("be more optimistic!") seems a little silly. Many things are better, some things are worse, but it's still the case that the world is full of horrors; and whether, in toto, your affect depends more on the derivative or absolute level of suffering isn't really something that's very arguable either way.
posted by chortly at 5:20 PM on January 10 [6 favorites]


Factfulness presents a highly biased sample of statistics as the true perspective on global development, avoids analysis of negative trends, and refrains from discussing difficult issues, such as the ecological consequences of the current type of growth and the risks related to the continued global population growth.

While an interesting essay, it doesn't actually address the core argument of the book. Humans naturally cherry-pick facts and statistics that suit their worldviews and ignore the existence of inconvenient facts, which means that if you ask people about actual, verifiable facts, often they'll get them wrong, and usually in a more pessimistic direction. Put another way, there's no reason to believe that Berggren's narrative about overpopulation is any less misleading than Rosling's. (For one thing, it notes a correlation between resource use and economic growth and then implies causation, even though a increasingly large chunk of the wealth created over that period is in tertiary industries, and thus is far far less coupled to resource use than primary and secondary industries. "An intellectually credible analysis of global trends cannot build on selective extrapolations," as he cheekily claims.)
posted by Merus at 7:20 PM on January 10


We should probably do a MetaTalk about dead goating in these threads, but judging by the favorites it's what the community craves.
posted by Going To Maine at 8:38 PM on January 10 [2 favorites]


I also had to look up what pangloss is. Fair. The actual paper is in the peer reviewed journal Science and locked behind a paywall and no, plant bio is not my field. But the findings were robust and the mechanism is near universal and this is why this work is causing some waves in the field. It may be that this does not scale or there are yet unknown problems, or they may have even cooked the books or used a biased sample. And there may be other tech that turns out to provide greater gains, but I have worked in the field and understand that most avenues of crop yield improvement will only result in marginal gains. This work is at the spear tip of science, and this is not the first attempt at improving photosynthesis.

My focus on double croping is because that was the primary driver of crop yield gains in the southeast for several decades and the prospect of similar gains in the midwest would simply be staggering. So even if improving photosynthesis doesn't pan out, my argument is that significant growth gains will lead to compounded crop yields.
posted by zenon at 9:59 PM on January 10


If you tell one of these "optimists" you won't feel happy until no one is dying horribly, in my experience many of them get actively angry at you, as if you are refusing to acknowledge their facts and logic.

Well, if you say that it's impossible to be happy as long as there's any suffering in the world, then you're saying happiness is impossible. That doesn't jibe with most folks' experience, and it amounts to shaming people for joy.
posted by factory123 at 10:18 PM on January 10 [3 favorites]


Apologies for being unclear, since I was attempting to say the opposite: far from shaming people for how they feel, the whole point was that people feel differently in response to the same information, and it's misguided for someone to argue that one should necessarily feel one way or the other in response to mixed data. And insofar as I was trying to describe the affect of some of those who are not filled with joy by these data, it's not so much about overall feeling or the im/possibility of happiness, but rather the specific component of feeling that is in response to data about the suffering of those one doesn't know. One may have a happy life filled with friends, family, etc, but still on top of that have emotions relative to surveying the state of the world. That component, when thought about, can be joy if you rejoice in a positive derivative, or sadness when you think of the millions still suffering, and both responses seem reasonable and equally defensible in reaction to the same data. My only pointed claim was that many folks behind these "optimistic" essays seem actively invested in a specific emotional reaction -- happiness in the goodness of improvement -- and ill-disposed towards those whose primary reaction remains less cheerful.
posted by chortly at 10:53 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


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