As a cognitive psychologist, I have long known about the research showing that as we age, we tend to cleanse the past of unpleasant memories, leaving us with a view of the past that is actually better than it was. Knowing this, and besides, being an optimist by nature, I did not expect to fall into this fallacy.
I don’t think of the past as a time to which I would like to return. But I was rather surprised by the conversation I had with a friend last week in which we both seriously wondered if the world was in a worse state now than it has ever been. What with our environmental destructiveness, our resistance to immigration, a seeming growth in those who believe that they have a God-given obligation to murder those who disagree with them, and the millions of starving and displaced refugees, most of whom are being refused entrance to countries who see them as dangerous and different, things seem pretty awful.
But I’ve discovered one of the most amazing books I’ve read in perhaps 15 years. It’s Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future by Johan Norberg.
One cannot accuse him of naivete or denial. He begins with a brief statement of the state of the world:”Terrorism. ISIS. War in Syria and Ukraine, Crime, murder, mass shootings. Famines, floods, pandemics. Global warming. Stagnation, poverty, refugees.”
And yet the gist of his book is a strongly research-based argument that things are better now than perhaps they have ever been, and that the most dangerous thing we can do is to pull back from the conditions that have reduced famines, increased life-span, even reduced war. The book is divided into 10 chapters, examining dramatic improvements in food, sanitation, life expectancy, poverty, violence, the environment, literacy, freedom, and equality.
Norberg is not suggesting that everything is going to work out. He is quite aware that we could destroy our environment and ourselves to the point of extinction. But his argument is that we don’t have to wring our hands in despair. In the last century we have already made incredible progress.
I think it is worth studying what he is saying, and I am hoping to write a series of posts summarizing what I am learning.
Right now I’m beginning to suspect that The Good Old Days might be far more than a benign fantasy of old age and instead a very dangerous myth.