The Doom Delusion: Overcoming Pessimism in a Prosperous Age

Why do we have so much pessimism in an age of such pronounced prosperity?

“Bad news now travels a lot faster. Just a few decades ago, you would read that an Asian city with 100,000 people was wiped out in a cyclone on a small notice on page 17. We would never have heard about Burmese serial killers. Now we live in an era with global media and iPhone cameras every-where. Since there is always a natural disaster or a serial murderer somewhere in the world, it will always top the news cycle — giving us the mistaken impression that it is more common than before.”

 

Global poverty is on the decline. Technological progress is pacing at break-neck speed. Freedom and opportunity are spreading across the world. And yet our political classes and popular masses continue to preach of impending doom.

Why do we have so much pessimism in an age of such pronounced prosperity?

In a splendid essay for The Spectator on the “doom delusion,” Johan Norberg argues that, on the whole, there is actually great cause for optimism. Writing in a vein similar to thinkers such as Matt Ridley and Deirdre McCloskey, Norberg reminds us that, according to a range of data about poverty alleviation, economic growth, scientific discovery, and population growth, the present looks great and the future looks even brighter.

But alas, as Norberg explains, only 5% of Britons and 6% of Americans believe the world is improving:

If you think that there has never been a better time to be alive — that humanity has never been safer, healthier, more prosperous or less unequal — then you’re in the minority. But that is what the evidence incontrovertibly shows. Poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, child labour and infant mortality are falling faster than at any other time in human history. The risk of being caught up in a war, subjected to a dictatorship or of dying in a natural disaster is smaller than ever. The golden age is now.

Norberg goes on to explain precisely what has improved and why, as well as the dangers of forgetting it. “When we don’t see the progress we have made, we begin to search for scapegoats for the problems that remain,” he writes. “Sometimes, in the past and perhaps today, we have been too quick to try our luck with demagogues who offer simple solutions to make our nations great again — whether by nationalising the economy, blocking imports or throwing out immigrants.”

As for what drives such pessimism, Norberg outlines the following drivers, which I’ve tried to boil down to a quick, bulleted (bold words are mine, quotes are Norberg’s):

  • Biology makes us this way: “We’re hardwired not to believe this. We’ve evolved to be suspicious and fretful: fear and worry are tools for survival. The hunters and gatherers who survived sudden storms and predators were the ones who had a tendency to scan the horizon for new threats, rather than sit back and enjoy the view. They passed their stress genes on to us.”
  • Prosperity changes our tolerance level: “Part of our problem is one of success. As we get richer, our tolerance for global poverty diminishes. So we get angrier about injustices.”
  • Mass communication paints a lopsided picture: “Bad news now travels a lot faster. Just a few decades ago, you would read that an Asian city with 100,000 people was wiped out in a cyclone on a small notice on page 17. We would never have heard about Burmese serial killers. Now we live in an era with global media and iPhone cameras every-where. Since there is always a natural disaster or a serial murderer somewhere in the world, it will always top the news cycle — giving us the mistaken impression that it is more common than before.”
  • Nostalgia taints reality: “As we get older, we take on more responsibility and can be prone to looking back on an imagined carefree youth. It is easy to mistake changes in ourselves for changes in the world. Quite often when I ask people about their ideal era, the moment in world history when they think it was the most harmonious and happy, they say it was the era they grew up in.”

With the exception of his extended bit on biology — which has some merit, but is greatly overstated — Norberg’s analysis strikes me as pretty persuasive.

What’s missing, I think, is a discussion about the distorted view of the human person that pervades modernity. We are fretting, in part, because our economic and technological success has routinely been paired with a humanistic, materialistic ethos, leading us to zero-sum perceptions of human capacity and relationship and bleak visions of the future. Even as we enjoy the fruits of human freedom and exchange, we somehow retain the view that humanity is a drain to be constrained.

The temptation to relish in our own power and designs is real, drawing us toward supreme confidence in our abilities to predict an apocalyptic future, even as we exhibit severe skepticism about the aspects and prospects of personhood — love, relationship, creativity, collaboration, innovation, exploration, and beyond. Rather than viewing humans as creators and co-creators made in the image of God, we see mass consumption and pollution.

Such views and attitudes have always existed, of course. But when paired with the new economic realities and drivers that Norberg highlights, it’s a poison that makes all the difference, sticking readily to a primed populace. Instead, we should stay attentive to affirming what Julian Simon famously observed: humans are the “ultimate resource” — valuable assets to our families, neighbors, distant strangers, and, yes, Planet Earth herself.

When we grasp our creative design and God-given calling here on Earth, not to mention the transcendent purpose that intersects and stretches on into eternity, hope and optimism move far to the front. With that sort of fire driving our philosophy of life, the fear of man will be replaced quite handily.

Joseph Sunde is project coordinator of the On Call in Culture community for the Acton Institute. This article first appeared on the Acton Institute Power blog and is used with permission.