The New Optimists
Are you happy today? Or are you mildly depressed by the state of the world? If you read a newspaper before this article, you’d be forgiven for choosing the latter option. But I am here to tell you that the world is a better place than ever before. Seriously, hear me out. Actually, you’d better hear the New Optimists out; a group of people arguing that the world has never been a better place to live. Sceptical? I don’t blame you because you’ve been over-exposed to the world’s media which feeds off misery and despair. Before I become too over-dramatic, let me introduce you to the New Optimists.
Around the world there are an increasing number of academics, pundits and thinktank operatives who are being labelled New Optimists. These highly educated, politically aware and socially active individuals are calling for others to take a more positive view of humanity. Some even consider our obsession with depressing news stories to be self-indulgent when it comes to ignoring the vast amount of good humanity has achieved. They acknowledge that these ‘positive’ news stories don’t make for eye-catching headlines but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve attention nor does it mean that, according to the New Optimists, we are living through the best period of human history.
One of these New Optimists is Swedish historian Johan Norberg. He points out that the human survival instinct employed by our cavemen and cavewomen ancestors encouraged us to worry. By identifying everything that could go wrong, early man was best able to prepare themselves and then survive as and when the worst did happen. So it’s human nature to focus on the negatives; we’re innately drawn to them. The problem now is, rather than saving our lives, the never-ending delivery of bad news simply makes us depressed and pessimistic.
So why is the news so filled with doom and gloom if there’s so many good things happening in the world? Well, the fact that the number of people worldwide living in poverty has fallen by 137,000 people every day for the past 25 years is great … but it isn’t news, so pointed out Oxford economist, Max Roser, another New Optimist. Equally, we should be happy that World War Three hasn’t broken out but that would mean reporting on something which hasn’t happened, a notoriously difficult feat. The media receives the most interest when delivering sensationalised, shocking and anger-inducing stories. It sells more papers, gets more viewers and engages a wider audience than the ‘good’ news which, often, is something either happening gradually or the news is its absence.
Many New Optimists put things into perspective using numbers. Yes, there’s ISIS and Trump and North Korea in 2017, but the world life expectancy is also 71. In 1900, there was no ISIS nor Trump nor North Korea, but few of us would live beyond 31 years of age. 4,486 US soldiers died during the 2003-2011 Iraq War (although admittedly Iraqi casualties hover around half a million). On 1st June, 1916, during the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the British army sustained casualties of over 50,000 men. The battle raged for five months and over 1 million men were killed or wounded during that time. That was one battle in the bloodiest war in human history. Comparatively, we have never lived in a safer, more peaceful time. I know; it’s hard to believe if you pick up a newspaper.
Society’s views have changed too. These days, stories of prisoner treatment in Guantanamo Bay and CIA tortures make headlines and cause outrage around the world. But on January 30th 1649, crowds of thousands turned up to watch the beheading of Charles I in London. Child abuse cases lead to shock and criticism levelled at people considered unfit to be parents. From the seventeenth century in England, poor families sent their children to the workhouse because they couldn’t afford to feed them. Many children endured brutal treatment by ‘employers’ and died of starvation. We simply have a different idea of what is acceptable today. I’m not, for the record, saying I agree with past practices but it is important to note that what we consider right or wrong these days is markedly different from views held by our ancestors.
The main crux of the New Optimists’ argument is that things will continue to get better. Look at how much the world has improved in the past one hundred years (think World Wars, think life expectancy, think poverty levels, think infant mortality). If we’ve made so many incredible advancements, why on earth would this progress stop now? The world is going to get better. Every single day the world becomes a better place. Every single day 137,000 people are lifted out of poverty. Every single day we make medical advancements which will save thousands if not millions of lives. Every single day scientists are working on renewable energies which will, eventually, stop and then reverse climate change. Be optimistic about our future. Humans are incredible and we’ve done some phenomenally good things. Ok, there’s the occasional bad apple and yes, they sometimes get elected to run the countries complete with questionable hairpieces and terrible fake tans or become the dictator of a nuclear-obsessed territory. But for decades now we have collectively been improving the world we live in. Why would that progress become reversed?
Move through life as an optimistic person; take up the mantel the New Optimists throw down to seek out the good things in life. In fact, at More Good Deeds, we think each of us has the power to spread a little bit of good through our own acts of kindness. Maybe they’ll even make those recipients more optimistic about the future too.
I am indebted to The Guardian and their morning news round-up for inspiring me to write this blog and introducing me to the New Optimists, a group I very much want to be a part of.
Go, do, experience. More Good Deeds.