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The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (book review)

by David Brin, Ph.D.

Yes, trends are fantastic. The can-do spirit of Verne, Astor, Marshall, King, both Roosevelts — and so many millions who strove to get us here — has not been betrayed. But success is frail, partial, inefficient, unconscious, and deeply threatened by those who want us to fail.

book review for The Progress Paradox

been up so long, it looks like down to me

In 1894, philanthropist John Jacob Astor IV wrote a best-seller about the year 2001 — a future transformed by science, enterprise and human good will. Keeping with the can-do spirit of his era, when men used rails and canals to subdue continents, Astor foresaw progress vanquishing inequity, reducing poverty to vestiges, conquering ignorance and offering average folk privileges undreamt-of by his millionaire peers. Why not? At the end of the 19th Century, waves of immigrants shared those hopes, eager to feed, educate and advance their children as never before. Projecting this momentum to a time of future plenty seemed credible, not arrogant or silly.

Astor died with a famed flourish of noblesse oblige aboard the sinking Titanic — first of many garish calamities that began quenching this naïve zeal for progress. Soon world war taught millions a brutal lesson — the first use of new technology is often its horrid mis-use. Survivors of Flanders battlefields returned disenchanted with the Machine Age. Intellectuals, from Tolkien and Lewis to Eliot, veered toward romantic nostalgia while writers of the Lost Generation prescribed a compulsory literary template. Blend stylish cynicism with brooding suspicion of tomorrow. Never show enthusiasm, or admit hope for progress.

That seemed accurate. The 20th Century spent its first half wallowing in horror — the second teetering at an abyss. Television brought countless tragedies right into our homes. Vague Sunday sermons about apocalypse were replaced by hourly talk of a civilization, a species, a planet imperiled by our cleverness, doomed by our own skilled hands.

What's the most widely shared truism — or eternal verity — provoking sad nods from all, conservative or liberal?

"Too bad wisdom hasn't kept up with technology."

This dour cliché was ripe for the contrarian riposte Gregg Easterbrook supplies in The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, arguing that modern civilization has accomplished not one, but two, bona fide miracles. We seem verged on saving the world. And we seem incapable of noticing.

Take poverty in America. While they grudgingly admit some gains, activists decry our slowness — after generations of public and private effort — at reducing the ratio of those in need. But Easterbrook points out: "...the period of slow growth in median income coincides with the second great wave of immigration... for each of the last twenty years, the U.S. accepted more legal immigrants than all other nations combined." And while we should help newcomers strive and rise, it's no surprise or outrage that many start climbing from the bottom. "Factor out immigration, and the rise in American inequality disappears; median income trends are quite healthy."

Much progress comes similarly disguised. Average household incomes seem to rise sluggishly, till you factor in a declining number of people per household, from four to 2.6 in a generation. (Though the number of workers per household has gone up, so it goes back and forth.)

An average person in 1956 needed sixteen weeks to pay off 100 square feet of his or her home. Today's fourteen weeks may seem just a slight improvement, till you consider the quality and contents of that 100 square feet, which have skyrocketed. Using number of hours worked, Easterbrook shows steep declines in the cost of everything from gasoline to cheeseburgers, until the chief malnutrition problem of the poor is obesity.

"Of important goods and services, only health care and college education now cost more work-hours than they did in the 1950s." And while we should urgently fret affordability in those last two areas, are we required to ignore their fantastic advances in quality? (Is progress automatically the foe of urgency? Many believe this, reflexively, without offering any evidence.)

Yes, living well could use up the planet. Yet efforts to save Earth have not been futile. "Total American water consumption has declined 9% in 15 years... wooded acreage has been expanding. Appalachian forests, expected to be wiped out by acid rain, instead are now the healthiest they have been since before the industrial era." Moreover — "the ability of Los Angeles to make fantastic strides against pollution, during a period when population was shooting up... is a remarkable success story. This is why you never hear anything about it."

It's not just an American story. Raw numbers of people suffering in the world are far too high. But as percentages, fewer have known war or privation than at any time in history. Africa is a hellish maelstrom, and yet who imagined that India and China would be self-sufficient in food by 2001?

Easterbrook wasn't first to enter this contrarian field. Stephen Moore and Julian Lincoln Simon wrote It's Getting Better All the Time while Bjørn Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist blasted ecological doomsayers. But these works carry an aroma of tendentious right-wing bias that Easterbrook — an editor of The New Republic — avoids. And he draws a more cautious lesson from all this progress.

Easterbrook's flood of facts, examples and statistics converge toward what I have called the 'diamond' metaphor. Nearly all societies that moved beyond simple agriculture adopted a pyramid-shaped social structure — armed elites lording over ignorant, sweating masses. In our commonwealth, several factors — education, skill, liberty and good-will — combined to smash that feudal pyramid. In a 'social diamond' the well-off outnumber the poor, an accomplishment almost as stunning as the way we overlook it. (Nobody spoke of eliminating poverty when it was a vast sea of misery. Only when privation was a mere bitter lake, surrounded by affluence, did it become an outrage.)

That fact — our often obsessive striving to ignore progress — occupies the book's other half.

Many of us recall the decade when confidence in tomorrow become a sin. But even amid the tense and dolorous 1960s, a few like John W. Gardner dissented. "What we have before us are some breathtaking opportunities disguised as insoluble problems." Can it be that we took up Gardner's challenge, like decent, pragmatic people, and solved many insoluble problems... without ever noticing? Easterbrook is no pollyanna; he lists several areas that desperately lag the general trend. Still, he says it's time to notice. Indeed, noticing may help us do more.

Why do millions insist on seeing a glass half empty? Easterbrook speculates. An evolutionary proclivity for worry? Politicians and media that benefit from ongoing 'crises'? I've suggested others. For example, science shows that relentlessly self-righteous people often secrete brain chemistry similar to drug addicts. How can optimism match indignation's self-doped high? Another cause may be our myths. Name a popular film that does not preach suspicion of authority. Eccentric individualism — the top propaganda theme — encourages each of us to imagine we invented it, and to see our neighbors as clueless sheep. But those neighbors view us the same way! Irony should make an honest person smile.

While Affluenza, by DeGraaf et. al., diagnoses dissatisfied Americans as too mentally-ill to notice progress, Easterbrook suggests that this propensity for worry may be healthy in dangerous times. Self-deceiving humans are lousy at finding their own mistakes, so we do each other the favor of criticism... never calling it a favor when we're at the receiving end. A noisy, grouchy system. But the world Easterbrook portrays could have come no other way.

(One criticism. Easterbrook disappoints by not citing the range of literature that I've referred to here. None of the books or authors who came before. It should not have been my job, as a reviewer, to fill in that important gap, or to point out that his book was not the first on this subject, only the best, so far.)

Are we ready, at last, to stop ridiculing those eager, can-do boys and girls who believe in progress?

Alas, this book will be quoted by the wrong people. Right-wingers who lauded Bjørn Lomberg will tout Easterbrook's 'proof' that everything is hunky dory. No crisis. Forget that millions still hurt. Never credit the hard-working reforms that got us here. Ignore half a trillion dollars grabbed from our grandchildren by 20,000 golf buddies.

These people were never part of the progress Easterbrook describes. They don't deserve to cite him.

The Left is worse, in a weird way. Dripping scorn for the clueless, racist, sexist, SUV-driving masses, many activists preach for progress, but also dread it, viewing it as urgency's enemy. They'll never admit that people actually listened. Citizens built those universities. Voted for civil rights. Created jobs. Demanded environmental laws. We passed Title Nine, put our daughters in soccer and karate, and so much more without receiving a word of congratulations when things thereupon got better. The Left would destroy liberalism by insisting their product never worked! (Would you buy from a company that used such a sales pitch?) Emphasizing guilt, they neglect the motivating power of pride.

There are smart people among the worry-mongerers and their warnings should be heard. (See especially Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train, by Brian Czech.) But such works undermine themselves with a smug sub-text: "You fools won't listen — and I won't notice if you do." Stanford Prof. Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb and other dire tomes, wagered that we would all be in hell by now. Ironically, his subsequent excuses for failed prophecy never include the best and obvious one — that we took heed. We heard, we worried. We did as we were asked.

We saved the world.

Well, halfway. The lonely position taken by Easterbrook and a few others is not complacency, but hope. Despite many, many faults, Western Civilization proved itself — and its members — to be skilled, dynamic, self-indulgent, generous, flighty, eager, distractable, worried and... well... somewhat good. A nation that sends more youths — of all races/genders/types — to university than used to attend high school may be equipping itself to do even greater work.

I differ with Easterbrook only over the degree of desperate continuing need for even harder work, using all the tools that both the right and left despise in each other — markets and governments, altruism and self-interest.

Yes, trends are fantastic. The can-do spirit of Verne, Astor, Marshall, King, both Roosevelts — and so many millions who strove to get us here — has not been betrayed. But success is frail, partial, inefficient, unconscious, and deeply threatened by those who want us to fail. By what Thomas Friedman calls 'super-empowered angry young men'... and by super-empowered aristocratic thieves.

It's still possible to fail. We must charge ahead to technologies that will let ten billion people live as well as a billion North Americans and Europeans do now, at a tenth the cost in resources. That ambitious goal is no more impossible than this garishly successful nation might have seemed, a century ago. We can accomplish it, if we shrug aside both guilty gloom and complacency.

If only we believe again in ourselves.


book review for The Progress Paradox

about this article

This review (published in full here) of Gregg Easterbrook's "The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse" was originally named "Been Up So Long, It Looks Like Down to Me," and first appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune Book Review, December 2003. It's now part of a collection of Brin's book reviews, introductions and essays on popular culture called Through Stranger Eyes.

Copyright © 2003 by David Brin. All rights reserved.

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cited in this article

John Jacob Astor IV, A Journey in Other Worlds (book #ad)

David Brin, "Addicted to Self-Righteousness?"

David Brin, "Our Favorite Cliché: A World Filled with Idiots"

David Brin, Through Stranger Eyes

Brian Czech, Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train: Errant Economists, Shameful Spenders, and a Plan to Stop them All (book #ad)

John de Graaf, David Wann and Thomas H. Naylor, Affluenza: How Overconsumption Is Killing Us and How to Fight Back (book #ad)

Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (book #ad)

Paul Erlich, The Population Bomb (book #ad)

Bjørn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (book #ad)

Stephen Moore and Julian L. Simon, It's Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 years (book #ad)

getting better and better

letting others have their say

Gregg Easterbrook, It's Better Than It Looks

Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now

Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

Chris D. Thomas, Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction

Frans de Waal, The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens

Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers


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