Media, Politics, recent, Social Science

Reasons to be Hopeful

If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were going to be — what nationality, what gender, what race, whether you’d be rich or poor, gay or straight, what faith you’d be born into—you wouldn’t choose 100 years ago.  You wouldn’t choose the fifties, or the sixties, or the seventies.
You’d choose right now.

~Former President Barack Obama, 2016

We are living through the healthiest, wealthiest, best-educated, and most abundant time in the history of human civilisation. No age has seen more humans experience a higher standard of material, physical, and mental well-being than the one in which we are now living. If that statement strikes you as counterintuitive, uncomfortable, or even offensive, then you are not alone. Many people dispute or outright reject the positive indicators of global progress, expressing a vivid scepticism or wholesale rejection and even hostility to this news. A great many others see the human progress around them and feel ashamed or embarrassed to promote it, incorrectly assuming that only the rich countries are flourishing, often or entirely at the expense of developing and poor countries.

However, around the world vast numbers of people are escaping poverty, gaining access to advanced healthcare, paid work and banking, clean water, cleaner air, more nutritious food, electricity, education, and much more. Today the life expectancy, healthcare, nutrition, available resources, and standards of living in the world’s poorest countries largely exceeds that of the world’s wealthiest countries at the onset of the Industrial Revolution. On the morning of January 1, 1800 in Britain, life expectancy was 36.6 years and GDP was just $3,430 per capita. Today, life expectancy in Zambia, one of the world’s poorest countries, exceeds 50 years, and GDP per capita is greater than $3,800.

And yet, some still maintain that it is insensitive, or even insulting, to acknowledge the astonishing achievements of human progress and growth. So here are three easy steps to ditch progress shame and change your way of thinking.

Know The Data

I want people, when they realize they have been wrong about the world, to feel not embarrassment, but that childlike sense of wonder, inspiration, and curiosity that I remember from the circus, and that I still get every time I discover I have been wrong: “Wow, how is that even possible?”
~Hans Rosling, Factfulness

Across our modern civilisation, a figurative army of government agencies, NGOs, scientists, statisticians, historians, and researchers have been collecting astonishingly accurate and abundant data on the health, wealth, science, production, growth, education, prosperity, and the well-being of our species since at least circa 1800. These data have provided a clear window into the improving standards of living for our civilization. Websites like Our World In Data, Gapminder, Human Progress, The World Bank Data, the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, and The Gates Foundation, amongst others, help to cast light on the nature and scope of our collective progress.

With these data, civilisation can make educated and effective decisions about how best to drive positive indicators forward. Knowing and understanding the data, our collective accomplishments, and our opportunities for improvement, is the key to an accurate worldview, which in turn is the foundation for further progress.

Progress Forward Isn’t Progress Completed

For over 200 years, humanity has made incredible leaps and bounds in improving economic growth, material abundance, and human health, driving up many of the key factors in human well-being, while simultaneously driving down child mortality, violence, war, poverty, ignorance, immiseration, and a plethora of other negative indicators. However, progress forward isn’t progress completed. As Max Roser notes, “The world is much better; The world is awful; The world can be much better.”

The best cure for progress shame is a rationally optimistic attitude with which we can then push civilisation further forward: “The world can be a much better place, and it’s our job to do something about it.” Understanding the fundamental factors that influence the positive indicators of human progress, and the repression of negative indicators, and doing what we can to influence them in the right direction, is an important individual strategy for advancing further progress. Human progress is not an inevitable forward march, it takes an enormous amount of energy, competent policy, innovation, and dedication.

Progress Needs a Voice

We’re awash in despair, bombarded by negativity, and drowning in a punishing sea of pessimistic media, so it’s little wonder that so many people think the world is in worse shape than it has ever been. It’s time we asked, in the words of Thomas Babington Macaulay, “On what principle is it, that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”

The media provides one side of the story, which is not only mentally and emotionally dispiriting, but also a primary driver of a cultural temptation to throw in the towel. The technical problems which currently challenge our modern civilisation—from energy production to climate change, and from reducing poverty to feeding the hungry—require a culture that sees technical problems as surmountable obstacles to be met with technical solutions. The story of progress, if told correctly, can help to motivate and inspire modern civilisation to overcome the challenges we face.

Global child mortality in 1950 was 22.5 percent, today it’s less than 4.5 percent. In the most advanced countries it is just 0.2 percent. If science, technology, progress, and growth can drive down child mortality from 43 percent in 1800 to less than 4.5 percent today, then we can drive it down still further. A prosperous future is a choice, and it’s a future we must work to bring about. This process starts with understanding the historical past, the nature of human progress, and just how much more prosperous we are today than we were 100 years ago.

It’s time to abandon progress shame and embrace a fact-based and rationally optimistic worldview. This will help encourage and foster a more prosperous future. The world can be a much better place, and it’s our job to help make it so.


Tony Morley is a freelance writer, energy project manager, and progress and growth exponent based in Sydney Australia. You can follow him on Twitter @tonymmorley

Photo by Stephen H on Unsplash


  1. It’s time we asked, in the words of Thomas Babington Macaulay, “On what principle is it, that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”

    Because there are limits to growth. Resources are finite. We are burning through 300 million years of fossil fuels in 300 years. Much of our prosperity comes from this huge, fungible and easily-transported energy surplus. But the energy return on energy invested in this is declining, and as time goes on we consume more fossil fuels than we discover new reserves.

    Much the same applies to many other resources. Musk’s proposed 500,000 vehicles a year would use the entire world’s current production of lithium, and would cover only half the new cars purchased annually in Australia, let alone worldwide. There are many bottlenecks like that. “Our technology will improve, and -” is a statement of faith, not fact.

    There are limits to growth.

    This does not mean doom lies ahead. For example, the statistic of infant mortality; good nutrition, sanitation and vaccination take us from 20-25% to under 2%, advanced medicine is what takes us to 0.2%. Nutritional knowledge is not hard to keep going, sanitation was built in cities long before even the germ theory of disease and is at most a 19th century technology, and vaccination can be done with technology from around 1900, though we need about 1950s technology to make it really widespread.

    In energy, technology and so on, there is as in so many other things the good old 80/20 rule, with most of the improvements coming from relatively few things. A downsizing lies ahead, but a downsizing is not doom. Between the fusion-powered flying car utopia and Mad Max there is a middle ground.

  2. "A downsizing lies ahead, . . "
    You phrase it as a fact, but it looks like a statement of faith.

  3. It’s a fact that resources are finite. It’s a fact that energy return on energy invested is declining. These are connected to basic laws of physics, such as conservation of mass and energy, and ordinary entropy. And Liebig’s law of the minimum is relevant here, too.

    I’ve always found it interesting how ideologues deny science. Communism had Lysenkoism, fundamentalist Christians deny evolution and geology, modern progressives deny biological sex and vaccination safety and effectiveness and modern conservatives deny climate change. When facts contradict your ideology, deny the facts.

    Ah well.

  4. I think we should be wary of citing climate change - from either side of the debate - as a reason to despair of the future. There are simply too many unknowns in the equation, and all known models and forecasts ignore significant, and probably dominant, factors. Let’s just rejoice in the fact that, thanks to carbon dioxide, the world is getting greener.

  5. I rejoice in the fact that the planet is not cooling.

  6. Quillette is indicative progress. Read, Listen and learn about things that I could not imagine having access to a few years ago.

  7. @Kiashu, I don’t agree with your premise. In my opinion, your error is assuming the technology stays stable while the resources diminish. No one predicted this relative global well being with 7 billion plus people on the planet–not that long ago (in my own living memory), people were asserting that we couldn’t possibly support more than x people on the planet and we’d all die of starvation and disease. That was, in retrospect, because they had no way of predicting computers and other technological inventions and assumed that, say, the tech level of the 1920s would stay stagnant while the population soared. I believe this is your error as well.

    As far as denying science, I think you’re doing some straw-manning, although I do agree with your overall thesis that ideologues deny science when it suits them (because their ideology is primary, not facts). Most modern conservatives don’t deny climate change; they question the predictive value of the data and the solutions. The problem is many liberals confuse the solution with the problem (on many topics), so if you don’t agree that, say, the US should go to the Paris accords, you are ipso facto a “climate denier,” but it’s totally ok to reject nuclear energy out of hand. But in general, yeah, people are irrational.

  8. as time goes on we consume more fossil fuels than we discover new reserves

    I suspect that you threw this out as a simple example of something that is “of course” true, when it is not, in fact, true.

    Earth’s resources are finite, of course, since the Earth has only so much mass and potential energy, but as to fossil fuels, your statement is false. Each year, more reserves are discovered than are used. We have not yet reached “peak oil”, as you have incorrectly stated.

    What does that mean to the rest of your argument? Nothing. Someone can be right about some things, and wrong about some others.

    But in this one specific aspect, your statement is wrong. At current rates of energy use, and expected increase in energy use, humanity has enough oil, from shale reserves alone, for 50,000 years.

    A woman once asked Carl Sagan if our sun would burn out in 8 million years or 8 billion years, and was relieved when he answered that it was the higher number. I propose to you that whether oil will run out in 5,000 years or 50,000 years matters not to those of us alive today.

    Here is a neat little video showing oil reserves over time. It is split out by country, but for our purposes, the running total shows that each year, our proven oil reserves are increasing.

    Oil Reserves Over Time

  9. I don’t buy Obama’s premise. The past was and was not better than the present. It depends what you’re measuring, depends on what’s most important to you. If you’re an Iranian woman who fondly recalls wearing a miniskirt and feeling a cool breeze on her bare head, you wouldn’t pick now. If you’re a fisherman who remembers clean waters and fish without mercury and full nets, you wouldn’t pick now. In my case, if there was any chance I might end up a dumbed down SJW pussy hat wearing Bernie Sanders supporter, I would definitely not pick now. I’d take my chances on the 1950s. Maybe I’d end up black, but who cares. I’d march to Selma and know I was part of something authentic. Even if I ended up in Iran, at least those were the miniskirt days.

  10. I am a creature of the Right. I would classify myself as a conservative. I have been fortunate to have many friends, colleagues and associates who were members of the Left. I am not an extremist nor are my friends on the Left. I have always been intrigued by the persons I have known on the Left. What fascinates me is these are people with whom I enjoy laughing, hunting, fishing, playing golf, working, attending church and drinking beer. We cheer for the same sports teams, listen to the same music and attend similar events. Yet we consistently vote differently. One commonality I have noticed among my white Leftist friends is they tend to come from a family with a strong union or a railroad back ground. My black friends on the Left tend to be invested in their church, though lately I have noticed this group becoming more conservative. The point I’m attempting to make is despite our differences in voting patterns we have more in common than we differ. Imagine riding in a car with three others to a restaurant when the driver asks, “which is the best route?” “Take Lexington Avenue “ you respond. Suddenly one of the other passengers replies, “Church Street is faster.” This difference of opinion between the passengers is analogous to the level of disagreement between most members of the Right and Left. We both want what is best and we both are equally passionate about how to achieve it. We are in the same car, both want to get to the restaurant and are certain we each know the best route. Neither side is evil and neither side is pure. Both sides are capable of dredging up disreputable associates in order to try to ascribe those heinous motives to the other side. As an American I have lived through several incarnations of Republican and Democrat administrations. President Obama did not destroy the United States and if re-elected President Trump will not either. The country and its people are too strong. The same is true for Boris Johnson and the U.K.

    My New Year’s resolution is to argue my positions passionately while being mindful that I am not anointed to slay thine enemies. My political opponents are like my Leftist friends, people with whom I probably have much in common. They too are equally convinced they are correct and I should admire their passion and dedication while disagreeing with them. My New Year’s resolution is to be more agreeable while disagreeing. Lastly I am glad that there exists an open site like Quillette where we can exchange ideas and even spar a little. So HAPPY NEW YEAR to all. I am counting on you to remind me of my resolution and help me to keep a civil tongue. Regardless of what side of the aisle you may hail from do not stay woke, stay positive.

  11. You haven’t proven anything. You made a vague assertion that there will be “a downsizing in the future,” you listed off a handful of scientific laws you know without providing any explanation for how they support your assertion, and then you proceeded to declare any disagreement with your unsupported assertion as ideologue driven science denial. You went on a few weird rants for no apparent reason about climate change denial and whatever it is you think progressives deny. You dismissed technological progress as a naive fantasy which is an odd thing for someone who hates science denial to say, and then you repeated your assertion that Western Civilization is wasteful and will run out of resources with, still, no proof.

    But at least you already know how you will disregard this comment. I’m obviously in denial about something.

  12. Lol. When the GW alarms were first going off, they promised the climate here would increase by 2 to 3 degrees C. That would give Nova Scotia about the same climate as Cape Cod is now. I’m still waiting :frowning:

  13. The shifting goal posts and failures of Peak Oil predictions:

  14. But this is precisely the mistake made before. Should have ridden horses less when our streets were full of poop that caused disease? The solution wasn’t in deprivation.

  15. The article cited by Kiashu above and a portions of that author’s bio below.

    “John Michael Greer(born 1962) is an American author who writes on ecology, politics, appropriate technology, oil depletionand the occult. He wrote the training program for his group, the Druidical Order of the Golden Dawn, which he founded in 2013.”

    My mistake for attempting to debate a Druid. Doomsayers are their own worst enemy.

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