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Review: It’s Better Than It Looks

Gregg Easterbrook’s It’s Better Than It Looks (2018) isn’t directly related to the topic of this blog, but it does try to address some of the rhetoric that I wrote about in Crying poor in a rich country. By pretty much every measure that Easterbrook examines, the world is getting better, in both poor countries and rich ones: people are healthier and wealthier, the environment is cleaner, crime and war are lower, and freedom and democracy are higher than they were decades and centuries ago. Yet numerous people have apparently convinced themselves and others that things are otherwise.

Easterbrook doesn’t spend a lot of time analysing why people might have convinced themselves of this, though one chapter does offer some plausible suggestions: negative stories get more attention, social media spreads outrage and hyperbole more readily than sober analysis, it suits certain politicians and other influence-seekers to keep everyone in fear, and our evolutionary history has predisposed us to looking out for threats.

Of course being aware of threats and that things are not as good as they might be are not bad things of themselves, and one might reasonably contend that being aware of them is precisely what is necessary for improvement to occur. Both “declinists”—as Easterbrook calls those convinced that civilisation is on its way down—and the cornucopians who dismiss their fears have a habit of making projections based on current trends that take no account of anyone doing anything about them. For declinists, industry will continue to pollute or resources continue to be exhausted without anyone ever thinking to develop cleaner technology or find other resources, while for cornucopians she’ll be right, mate without anyone ever having to worry about where these improvements might come from. I think Easterbrook intends to promote the middle view—he uses the term optimism though it might equally be called constructive pessimism—that we can and should identify problems and solve them, and he does propose numerous solutions to specific problems in the United States, though he’s not very explicit about this philosophy. For me, the most powerful expression of the philosophy is in his discussion of greenhouse gas emissions: we have numerous examples of pollution control that cleaned up the pollution while industry continued to generate wealth, so why should greenhouse gas emissions and dealing with them be so much more difficult?

I could probably find some apposite cliché about “turning threats into opportunities” here, as someone developing renewable energy systems might say about greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps the threat most relevant to this blog is that automation will eliminate our jobs. In keeping with the theme of his book, Easterbrook isn’t particularly worried about unemployment; it is, he says, much lower than what Americans (at least) tend to think it is. In any case, I’ve noted before that there’s a perspective from which this is a rather strange threat to have: we could instead see it as an opportunity to do something other than work.

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