2020 was not the best year for many, leaving us feeling less hopeful and uneasy about the future. Aside from the health toll of the pandemic, lockdowns left students in the cold, and crushed businesses, leaving people jobless and struggling to survive. The destruction was real, but is our despair about the future objectively merited -- or are we ignoring evidence that suggests hope is a more realistic attitude?
In a recent conversation with The Atlas Society, John Tierney, author of The Power of Bad, observed how negative events have more impact than positive ones. According to Tierney, journalists and politicians, so-called “merchants of bad,” profit by pandering to peoples’ negativity bias or humans’ inclination to focus on things that go wrong rather than things that go right.
While Tierney outlines “the power of bad,” another recent guest on The Atlas Society Asks, Marian Tupy, points to the overriding reality of positive trends in the world.
“You can approach this from two different perspectives,” Tupy says. “You can either compare the present with the past, in which case there is a lot of ground for optimism. We are richer, we are healthier, we are freer. Slavery was abolished, women have the right to vote...all sorts of things that show us that the present is better than the past.” The other option compares the present to an imagined utopia that might lead to disappointment about the current state of the world.
Tupy co-authored Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know: And Many Others You Will Find Interesting with Ronald B, in which he showcases example after example of how the world is getting better. Backed by data from experts and global institutions, they talk about how humans have gone from living short, brutish lives thousands of years ago, to living in a freer world full of innovation and technological advancements, and a significantly higher standard of living among other achievements. A few striking statistics illustrate the trend:
Here are some examples of amazing achievements that inspire us.
India’s forest man
One of the trends Tupy and Bailey mention is that at present, humans’ higher agricultural productivity means more land can be returned to nature and more care can be given back to the environment. Jadav Payeng known as the “Forest Man of India” is a forestry worker who spent 30 years of his life creating a 550-hectare man-made forest on the Majuli Island in Assam, India. Payeng started by planting bamboo, then cotton, and eventually planting different types of trees. Today, the Molai forest, renamed after Payeng, is home to innumerable tree species and the wildlife that live among them.
From the first recorded vaccination by Edward Jenner in 1796 for smallpox immunity, to Louis Pasteur who developed the first rabies vaccine in 1885, to Albert Calmette and Camille Guérin who developed the tuberculosis vaccine in 1921, to the polio vaccine by Jonas Salk in 1955, to the mumps vaccine in 1967 to the most recent vaccines developed against the COVID -- the scientific progress in preventing diseases has dramatically reduced illness, disability and death.
Technology and beyond
From stone tools made about two million years ago, to the invention of the wheel several thousands of years after, to the first use of metal to create tools and other structures, to the creation of different modes of transport, to the discovery of the internet, to using anything powered by artificial intelligence like manufacturing robots, self-driving cars, digital assistants, and even AI technology skincare; the way humans have used technology has evolved to more than just accomplishing simple tasks tied to daily survival. Tupy and his co-author Ronald Bailey observe that with the improvement of technology comes the abundance of resources; resources that not only allow people to live comfortably but also allow people to explore what else the universe has to offer.
That passion for exploring the universe motivated Peter Diamandis, founder and chairman of the XPRIZE Foundation, and co-founder and executive chairman of Singularity University, whose rational optimism manifests in his book Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think. In accepting the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Atlas Society Gala in October 2020, he observed: “We’re living in a world today that is a fundamental miracle and we forget the extraordinary world we live in.” He talked about how technologies in computation, sensors, robotics, synthetic biology, augmented and virtual reality, and blockchain are unleashing the human mind and that imagination is the only limitation.
Diamandis believes that nothing is impossible and that the questions people should be asking are “What do we want? What do we want to create? What is the future we desire? Not the future we’re getting, but the future that we want to actively fundamentally create,” and that in the end, the human mindset prevails. He says it’s peoples’ mindsets that dictate decisions they make, what to do with their life, and that despite everything going on in the world, people still have the power to create a world they desire.
It’s a celebration of human ingenuity, freedom and creativity that Ayn Rand immortalized in her literature, symbolized in the paraphrase of Howard Roark, hero of The Fountainhead: “The question isn’t who’s going to let me, but who’s going to stop me?”
When we default to our negativity bias, when we let ourselves be manipulated by the constantly negative stream of news, it’s we ourselves who limit our mindset, who distort our worldview, and who fail to accomplish our potential. So take a moment to take stock of the tremendously positive trends that have created so much abundance, and take action to progress further still.