Ignoring the Good News

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.


  1. Interesting point. One could connect the two by noting that the increase in material goods is part of the system that is degrading our planet. It also exploits and makes the lives of the burgeoning underclass ever more difficult, particularly if they have children. Surface and cosmetics serve the marketing machine, but divide us.

    In addition, the total makeover of our culture, from cars in the early 1900s to TV and airplanes in the 50s to computers and the internet, and now high speed mobile internet, has promoted ghettoes both upwards and downwards. (examokesL Scientists and wonks seem to have little contact with people who think differently from them. Readers of the NYTimes are not a cross section of our population.)

    Villages used to be less homogeneous and generations used to live together. I'd hate to go back to a time when hot and cold running water were not common and transport more labor-intensive, but we've bought this situation.

    The means for reintroducing nature-based living to the ordinary schoolchild is becoming more and more difficult. Taking away the cell phone for a day would be regarded as torture.

  2. Jeekers, I thought the world was ignoring bad news. I hope he is not saying we should look to good news and ignore the bad. Is he cherry-picking?

    Or perhaps that there is both good and bad news out there.
    I certainly hope he is not saying we should ignore the alarming news for his good news.

  3. Some thoughts about children and nature:

    The extent to which we are dependent on gadgets which didn't exist even a decade ago is pretty amazing. Is it good news or bad? If we feel more companionship with less travel, perhaps it is a good thing in a way.

    I cannot imagine how kids relate to nature nowadays; although a city boy I spent many childhood weekends in essentially untouched natural conditions north of Montreal.

    We can look to people who grew up in Manhattan for the last couple of generations to see how culture evolves in extremis in isolation from nature. It seems that people who live in the more rural areas are in the habit of doing far more damage than urbanites. The last few months in Manhattan may have reinforced that. People in the city understand that they depend on a substrate of civilization which in turn depends on nature. People in the country can fool themselves that they "worked for" what they have, ignoring the extent to which it depends on a thriving commons. I'm not sure biophilia is really the key to sustainability.

    Maybe the combination of the two is most potent, which in turn may explain why disproportionately many of our most cogent commentators here and on similar communities are Canadian. In Canada, there are a few great cities and a vast wilderness but not much of that vague in-between stuff that most people in other countries inhabit.

  4. Off topic, but earlier Michael Tobis had inquired about thermal expansion of the oceans. Using commentary in
    and GISTemp data, I compute

    36 mm/K

    as the (approximate) ocean thermal expansion coefficient.

  5. Michael, you may be misunderstanding something about how rural people see their impact on nature. Screwed up that river? No problem, there's another one just like it in the next county and plenty more beyond that. I think urban people are somewhat more prone to thinking in terms of aggregate impacts. (Just to note, I grew up in a small town in the upper midwest.) It doesn't help that many rural people believe their deity has promised them that they *can't* have such impacts, unrecoverable ones anyway.

    The history of soil conservation efforts spurred by the Dust Bowl years and what's happened to them since might make for an interesting case study. My impression is that even that lesson hasn't stuck very well, perhaps because memories of the impacts of poor practices have faded so much.

  6. I don't disagree with any of that, Steve. I'm not with you on everything, but there's nothing you said here that is inconsistent with my understanding at all, except that you seem to have misunderstood that I misunderstood!

    I like the Dust Bowl angle and will pursue it.

  7. To clarify perhaps, what you call rural is part of what I call in-between.

    There's only a half dozen of Texas 250-and-some counties that are wilderness in my estimation. Hardly an inch of wilderness from Savannah to Natchitoches. (There's a tiny but fascinating remnant of wilderness running along a rocky ridge from Nebraska to Oklahoma; I think this is the easternmost significant instance in the US of an unmanaged biotic community, though hardly untouched. This is where the buffalo herd survived.) Most Texans are quite biophilic (they love plants and critters) but not ecophilic in any remotely reasonable way, because what surrounds them is not really an ecosystem but a vast ongoing confusion. Texas is really Post-Anthropocene from heel to toe.

    The Val-David, Quebec area, in the 1960s of my childhood, was not.

    Consequently I am suggesting that despite being a sort of a housecat type person, I suspect I have a personal experience of nature that many far more adventurous and vigorous American youth today still lack. From that urban-wilderness-aware perspective, it's everybody in that in-between zone where the fox are gone and you get to shoot the deer yourself that's a bit odd.

  8. Last Sunday there was a fabulous piece in the New York Times, "Avalanche". It talked about the "glorification of risk". All those youngsters (yes, if you're younger than 45 you're a youngster to me) seem to have no feeling for the environmental consequences of entertaining themselves by bringing down a mountainside of snow; though I see in this particular case they may not have caused it all these risky entertainments carry large footprints. The chicken-egg argument of what we need and what we want can go on forever.
    (starts here:)

    I'm getting boring on the subject, but marketing has taken on a life of its own and we appear unaware that we've been bought and paid for. Our "free media" are far from free, though I'm learning that the actual electronic footprint is not so bad even as we multiply massive volume on the "cloud".

    re Dust Bowl, Ken Burns did a very thorough four-hour documentary not long ago.

  9. Michael, I was responding specifically to:

    People in the city understand that they depend on a substrate of civilization which in turn depends on nature. People in the country can fool themselves that they “worked for” what they have, ignoring the extent to which it depends on a thriving commons.

    I used rural where you used country, which led to confusion. Anyway, my point is that the country parallelism to the urban view you stated (which I agree with as a general proposition) isn't as you have it, rather it's that nature is too big to be damaged. Certainly the feeling of having "worked for" what they have is also present (albeit not universally), but I'm not clear that it's different in kind from what an urban person might feel.

    The genesis of this sense of invulnerable vastness may come simply from having grown up with the feeling of isolation that comes from having to spend hours going anywhere else while the traveled-through landscape changes only imperceptibly. I know you experience that now, but it's not the same as it being part of your formative experiences.

    Whether country people have a sense of wilderness probably depends somewhat on where they are, although I think a reasonably perceptive person can infer much from the remnants. Of course, many who grew up in and around wilderness seem perfectly willing to over-exploit the hell out of it, so I'm not sure where we go with that concept.

  10. I also had in mind the facility of children everywhere to work with whatever is around and invent games. The kind of passive entertainment we now espouse, while expensive, is more likely to stifle than promote this kind of creativity. OTOH, children will need the up-to-the-minute multitasking skills, even if it does prevent them from learning to create on their own the way we did when we were young.

  11. This from Fleck on the state of the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico is thoughtful, but not IMO in a good way, the dividing line between natural and artifact being a little too subject to redefinition in favor of the latter condition.

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