The headlines have never been worse. But an increasingly influential group of thinkers insists that humankind has never had it so good – and only our pessimism is holding us back.
By the end of last year, anyone who had been paying even passing attention to the news headlines was highly likely to conclude that everything was terrible, and that the only attitude that made sense was one of profound pessimism – tempered, perhaps, by cynical humour, on the principle that if the world is going to hell in a handbasket, one may as well try to enjoy the ride. Naturally, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump loomed largest for many. But you didn’t need to be a remainer or a critic of Trump’s to feel depressed by the carnage in Syria; by the deaths of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean; by North Korean missile tests, the spread of the zika virus, or terror attacks in Nice, Belgium, Florida, Pakistan and elsewhere – nor by the spectre of catastrophic climate change, lurking behind everything else. (And all that’s before even considering the string of deaths of beloved celebrities that seemed like a calculated attempt, on 2016’s part, to rub salt in the wound: in the space of a few months, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Carrie Fisher and George Michael, to name only a handful, were all gone.) And few of the headlines so far in 2017 – Grenfell tower, the Manchester and London attacks, Brexit chaos, and 24/7 Trump – provide any reason to take a sunnier view.
Yet one group of increasingly prominent commentators has seemed uniquely immune to the gloom. In December, in an article headlined “Never forget that we live in the best of times”, the Times columnist Philip Collins provided an end-of-year summary of reasons to be cheerful: during 2016, he noted, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty had fallen below 10% for the first time; global carbon emissions from fossil fuels had failed to rise for the third year running; the death penalty had been ruled illegal in more than half of all countries – and giant pandas had been removed from the endangered species list.
In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof declared that by many measures, “2016 was the best year in the history of humanity”, with falling global inequality, child mortality roughly half what it had been as recently as 1990, and 300,000 more people gaining access to electricity each day. Throughout 2016 and into 2017, alongside Collins at the Times, the author and former Northern Rock chairman Matt Ridley – the title of whose book The Rational Optimist makes his inclinations plain – kept up his weekly output of ebullient columns celebrating the promise of artificial intelligence, free trade and fracking. By the time the professional contrarian Brendan O’Neill delivered his own version of the argument, in the Spectator (“Nothing better sums up the aloofness of the chattering class … than their blathering about 2016 being the worst year ever”) the viewpoint was becoming sufficiently well-entrenched that O’Neill seemed in danger of forfeiting his contrarianism.
The loose but growing collection of pundits, academics and thinktank operatives who endorse this stubbornly cheerful, handbasket-free account of our situation have occasionally been labelled “the New Optimists”, a name intended to evoke the rebellious scepticism of the New Atheists led by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. And from their perspective, our prevailing mood of despair is irrational, and frankly a bit self-indulgent. They argue that it says more about us than it does about how things really are – illustrating a certain tendency toward collective self-flagellation, and an unwillingness to believe in the power of human ingenuity. And that it is best explained as the result of various psychological biases that served a purpose on the prehistoric savannah – but now, in a media-saturated era, constantly mislead us.