Stephen Johnson, author of the admirable The Invention of Air, offers an argument that the sense of foreboding and pessimism that is pervasive in modern American is actually erroneous: that many trends are positive and that they are ignored. The suggested reasons are interesting too: a disaster-oriented bias in the press, and the lack of an advertising budget for the public sector.
Of course, not all the arrows point in a positive direction, particularly after the past few years. The number of Americans living in poverty has increased over the past decade, after a long period of decline. Wealth inequality has returned to levels last seen in the roaring ’20s.
Today, the U.S. unemployment rate is still just under 8%, higher than its average over the past two decades. Household debt soared over the past 20 years, though it has dipped slightly thanks to the credit crunch of the last few years. And while the story of water and air pollution over that period is a triumphant one, the long-term trends for global warming remain bleak.
We are much more likely to hear about these negative trends than the positive ones for two primary reasons.
First, we tend to assume that innovation and progress come from big technology breakthroughs, from new gadgets and communications technologies, most of them created by the private sector. But the positive trends in our social health are coming from a more complex network of forces: from government intervention, public service announcements, demographic changes, the shared wisdom of life experiences passed along through generations and the positive effects of rising affluence. The emphasis on private sector progress is no accident; it is the specific outcome of the way public opinion is shaped within the current media landscape.
(Oddly, just this week I saw a billboard on Interstate 35 in Texas promoting the virtues of the Texas public school system, which smacked to me more of desperation than of celebration. But it is entirely true that the American public at present does not tolerate advertisements by the government promoting government programs or celebrating government successes. This may be less true in other countries.)
This all said, I am increasingly of the opinion that flora and fauna are under increasing stress, systematically, worldwide. It’s hard to be entirely cheerful under the circumstances. The question at hand is how well and how long humanity can thrive under the circumstances. It’s possible that things are getting much better and much worse all at the same time. Johnson’s point that we should not be ignoring the positive trends is worth keeping in mind.