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The European Journal
The European Journal
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Matt Ridley

The End of the World isn’t Nigh

In the future, the only thing we have to fear is doomsday fear itself

The world is a terrible place getting rapidly worse. That is what most young people are told by most journalists, many scientists and plenty of politicians. “I am talking about the slaughter, death and starvation of six billion people this century–that’s what the science predicts,” says the founder of Extinction Rebellion, Roger Hallam. His line, and Greta Thunberg’s that we have stolen her future, may be a little more extreme than the average view, but they are in tune with the general pessimism of the age.

Material progress is not everything. But it is something.

Those of us who take the opposite view - that things have been getting better for most people in most places at an unprecedented rate, and are likely to continue to do so - face not just disbelief but cynicism about our motives and suspicion that we do not care.

Here are six reasons that you should shake free of the prevailing gloom and join the optimists…

1

There is nothing new about pessimism. When I was young, the grown-ups were just as gloomy about the future as they are today. They told us that the population explosion would accelerate and resources would run out, resulting in mass famine, while pollution was going to shorten our lifespan through an epidemic of cancer. The deserts were advancing and the forests vanishing. Acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer and falling sperm counts would add to our woes. Nuclear wars were getting ever more likely and with them would come devastating multi-year winters. Here’s a typical quotation from a best-selling book by an economist, Robert Heilbroner, writing in 1970: “The outlook for man, I believe, is painful, difficult, perhaps desperate, and the hope that can be held out for his future prospects seem to be very slim indeed.”

And pessimism was not new then. Fifty years before that, the deterioration of the human race was the universal obsession of intellectuals; anybody who thought eugenics was a bad idea was regarded as irresponsible. A century before that, the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, exasperated by the gloom of fellow intellectuals, asked “on what principle is it that with nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?” Go right back to 700BC and you will find the poet Hesiod lamenting the coming of the Iron Age: the Bronze Age was better.

Most young people are unaware of this history.

2

Human living standards have improved dramatically. Over the past half century, the income of the average person in the world has trebled in real terms, average lifespan has increased at the rate of about five hours per day, and child mortality – the greatest measure of misery I can think of - has fallen by more than two-thirds. The number of people living in extreme poverty, on less than about two dollars a day, has gone from over 60 per cent to less than ten per cent, a wholly unprecedented change that nobody forecast would happen. Yet these facts are almost unknown: in one poll, only five per cent of British people think that the percentage of people in extreme poverty has halved in 20 years; 65 per cent think it has doubled. The five per cent are right.

Even these numbers understate what has happened. The cost of most goods has fallen steeply while the quality has improved. It takes less than half a second on the average wage to earn enough money to switch on a lamp for an hour. In 1880, it would have taken 15 minutes of work on the average wage to afford that much light from an oil lamp. It is neither as common nor as acceptable to discriminate against women, gay people, people of colour or people with disabilities as it once was.

Material progress is not everything. But it is something.

3

The problems we worried about in the past have mostly faded or been solved. The rate of growth of the human population has halved since the 1960s as people plan smaller families, and even the absolute number of people added to the world each year has been falling for 30 years. The world population will probably start falling towards the end of this century (bringing a different set of problems). The number of people dying from famine has collapsed to very low levels never before seen in history. The chances that anybody anywhere in the world will be killed by storm, flood or drought are 99 per cent smaller than they were in the 1920s. As countries become richer, so their inhabitants report that they are generally happier – it is a myth that the poor are happier than the rich.

Throughout the western world mortality from war and domestic violence has fallen to the lowest levels on record – despite these things still dominating the news. The age-adjusted death rate from heart disease, cancer, stroke and suicide is falling steadily. Infectious diseases are in full retreat. Smallpox is extinct, polio almost. Malaria mortality, which increased sharply in the 1980s and 1990s, has fallen steeply since. Deaths from HIV, once the cause of an incurable illness, are falling. Most resources, far from running out, are getting cheaper.

The amount of oil spilled in the ocean each year is 95 per cent less than it was in the 1960s. The hole in the ozone layer is healing. Acid rain is mostly a distant memory. There is more forest cover on the planet every year, a fact that most people find hard to believe: admittedly, this is because northern forests are expanding faster than tropical forests are shrinking, but even tropical deforestation is slowing down.

The number of humpback whales has increased from 5,000 in the 1960s to 80,000 today. Otters, beavers, lynx, wolves, deer and birds of prey have expanded their ranges and increased their numbers throughout Europe and North America. Tiger numbers in India are slowly increasing. Species are still dying out but at a declining rate: among the 529 species declared officially extinct by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the rate of loss peaked at about 50 per decade around 1900 and is now running at less than ten per decade – thanks to the efforts of conservationists and stricter rules about releasing invasive species on to islands, mainly.

Despite the continued increase in human numbers, the total footprint of agriculture is beginning to shrink, and the amount of land needed to produce a given quantity of food is 68 per cent less than it was in the 1960s, sparing land for nature.

The one thing we are running out of is reasons for pessimism.

4

The things that are getting worse are mostly the consequences of abundance and prosperity: first-world problems, we call them. We face more traffic congestion because more people have cars, growing obesity because food is cheap, an addiction to social media because social engagement no longer depends on distance, and an epidemic of allergies, because we are no longer infested with parasites such as worms. Housing has become far more expensive, relative to income because not enough houses are being built. We complain about the irritations of budget airlines, but forget that the average flight is now much cheaper, much safer and much less likely to be delayed (or hijacked) than in the past. Take safety: fatalities per trillion revenue-passenger-kilometre were 3,218 in 1970. In 2018: 59.

Human beings do seem to have a sort of mental thermostat for complaint. If you are not losing children to malaria, malnutrition and trampling by mammoths, you get just as upset by your broadband going on the blink for a few hours.

5

Climate change is happening but slower than expected. Greens get furious when you say this but it is true. In 1990, the first Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change predicted that the average temperature of the world would rise by about 0.3 degrees per decade. It might be as much as 0.5 degrees per decade, or as little as 0.2, but it would be in that range. Today, 30 years later, how fast has it risen? Based on satellite and ground-station data, the best guess is about 0.15 degrees per decade, or half as fast as forecast.

Hot days have become more frequent and cold days less frequent but apart from that, the predicted effects of warming have not shown up. There has been no increase in the frequency or strength of tropical cyclones (also known as hurricanes and typhoons depending on which ocean they are in). There has been no increase in the frequency or intensity of flooding. There has been a slight decrease in droughts. Tornadoes have not increased in frequency or strength. The area burned by wild fires is lower than in the 19th century. Arctic sea ice cover has retreated in late summer, though not as much as it used to do a few thousand years ago. The sea level is rising, as it did throughout the twentieth century, but not at an accelerating rate. The best guess is that it is rising at about 3.2 millimetres a year, or about a foot per century.

Climate change is a real problem that we must tackle, but not an emergency requiring the dismantling of civilisation.

6

Innovation is about to deliver extraordinary opportunities. A century ago the car and the aeroplane were hopelessly dangerous, inefficient and expensive; today everybody uses them all the time in comfort and safety. Half a century ago, computers were the size of houses; today there is more power in your mobile phone. What glories of technology await us over the next century?

Nobody knows, by definition, but it is highly unlikely that innovation will cease, because it comes from the exchange and recombination of ideas, a process that is speeding up. Take biotechnology as an example. In 1950, we did not know what a gene was. In 1960 we did not know the genetic code. In 1970 we did not know how to alter a gene. Today we can precisely edit a sequence of DNA to remove a mutation that causes suffering, or to direct the immune system against a tumour, or to render a rice plant richer in vitamins. This technology is in its infancy, but already it is transforming medicine and agriculture for the better, while worries about its down-sides, from designer babies to biological warfare, have generally proven exaggerated.

Teaching the young that cataclysm is inevitable is a counsel of despair. Telling them that the world has got better and can get better still if we all try to make it so is more likely to inspire them. It also happens to be true.

Meanwhile artificial intelligence has arrived, even though we often don’t call it that. If you don’t believe me, explain how it is that your mobile phone can tell you not only that there is a traffic jam ahead, but that you would be better turning right at the next junction to avoid it. From defeating the world champion at the game of Go without ever having been taught by a human being how to play, to delineating a tumour on a CT scan, learning algorithms are starting to do things that are indistinguishable from intelligence – albeit without our consciousness or imagination. All the evidence suggests that this is not going to displace human beings but augment them.

From vaping to LED lighting, from insecticide-treated bed-nets to combat malaria to nuclear fusion, the technologies under development today promise utterly to transform the human experience for the better. They won’t cause unemployment (innovation never does), but they might make us so much more productive that we do not have to work so hard to enjoy a rewarding lifestyle.

Teaching the young that cataclysm is inevitable is a counsel of despair. Telling them that the world has got better and can get better still if we all try to make it so is more likely to inspire them. It also happens to be true.