The Case for Radical Optimism
History will remember 2020 as the exception, not the norm.
2020 was an objectively turbulent year. In January Australia burned, Iran shot down a passenger plane and Kobe Bryant tragically passed away. In February the World Health Organization officially coined the term “COVID-19,” and the stock market plunged.
By March the magnitude of the pandemic became clear as schools moved online, major sporting events were cancelled and businesses closed their doors. The death toll would climb to over 300,000 by the end of the year, with millions unemployed and well over 100,000 businesses closed permanently.
2020 wasn’t all bad, of course. The pandemic allowed us to spend more time with our families, and animal shelter populations sit at historic lows. Pollution is down, traffic is down, and despite their February plunge, the markets have rebounded to pre-pandemic highs.
COVID-19 was essentially unknown to the Western world on Jan. 1, 2020. By Jan. 1, 2021, millions had been vaccinated thanks to tremendous achievements in the scientific community, efforts which may well lead to vaccines for other diseases as well. Further, the political institutions our Founders designed withstood their most significant stress-test in generations.
2020 was an unusual year on an otherwise surging rocketship of human progress. Here are a few examples:
Extreme Poverty is Down
Life Expectancy is Up
Violence is Down
Wealth is Growing
And not just for billionaires, though it’s true that their gains far outpace the average person. But when the stock market goes up, that’s good for everyone’s retirement account. Plus, access to capital markets has never been more affordable. In decades past, brokers charged large trading fees plus a percentage of the amount traded. Now, trading is practically free.
Education rates are up, especially for women. Internet access is up. Democracy is up. Human productivity is up in everything from agriculture to transportation. In the not so distant past, synthetic light came from burning expensive whale fat candles. Now it can be generated in all kinds of inexpensive ways, bringing energy access to every corner of the globe.
If you turn on the news, you do not hear this story. You hear panic and hand-wringing about the crisis of the day, because “if it bleeds, it leads.” To take an easy example, there are roughly 85 million persons under the age of 21 living in the United States today. The FBI reports that fewer than 350 persons under the age of 21 are kidnapped by strangers in an average year. It is terrible that the number is any higher than 0%, but .0004% doesn’t seem high enough to justify arresting parents who let their children walk to the neighborhood park alone. But we have been terrified into thinking there is danger around every corner.
Thus is the dichotomy between the world depicted in the news and the world depicted by the data. We have challenges yet to be solved: racial and economic inequality, a changing climate, an ongoing pandemic. But the trends are clear. The world is not spiraling out of control. Instead, we have every reason to be radically optimistic about our future.