This is a shortened version of an address I gave to the Boobooks club in Melbourne earlier this week. The Boobooks is a dining club, the oldest in Australia, founded in 1902 by some young men who later became Sirs, in Fred Eggleston and John Latham. It was an honour to have been asked to speak.
The title was ‘Should we be optimistic or pessimistic about the future?’, and in it I revisited ideas that have been rehearsed on this website before. I am not sure whether optimism and pessimism are part of our make-up or the result of upbringing (or how much of either). But I have been optimistic throughout my life. I have also known people who see the dark side of almost everything. Whatever your predisposition, and even for an optimist like me, it is hard to escape the predominantly gloomy, scary tone of the mainstream media.
It is true that bad news sells, and that films about airliners crashing, hotels burning and fierce sharks eating people do better at the box office than feel-good movies. We may be the descendants of those Neanderthals who had a high respect for danger, if their more sanguine colleagues were eaten. But what irritates me is the lack of understanding in the media that the last half-century or so has seen extraordinary progress in the conditions of life for ordinary people in our country, and indeed the world. We are not in some abyssal pit of selfishness, hate, crime and greed, though you might think so after a sustained diet of the 6pm television news. On the contrary, our people are in an excellent state, if you compare our lives to the conditions in 1953, when I left high school.
Australians today live longer, are healthier, wealthier, much more travelled, more creative, more philanthropic and more active in more organisations than was true of their counterparts in 1953. The rise in the status of women in our society has been astonishing, as has been the rise in the status of our Aboriginal peoples. And these processes are not complete, not at all. A boy baby in 1885 had a life expectancy of 45 years; my cohort in 1937 had one of 63; today’s baby boys have one of 81. The new diseases of today are those of advanced old age — Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s in particular. They were not unknown in the middle of the 20th century, but they were not statistically important. Australia, and Canada, a country I know well about which the same story can be told, have both done all this and also showed the world how a modern country can absorb a diversity of immigrants without domestic crises. Look backward to whatever point in time you like, and the progress of Australian society is remarkable. But it is not celebrated — indeed, you will hear people speaking as though nothing at all has happened in the last century.
And much the same can be said about the conditions of life in the rest of the world. There are websites that demonstrate these improvements, and one of them proclaims that ‘The World is Actually Getting Better’. It uses statistics from the OECD, World Bank and UN agencies to show that across the world countries are improving the lives of their citizens, almost everywhere. Here are a few, comparing 1900 with 2012. Life expectancy has risen from 32 to 70, infant mortality has declined from 20 per cent to to 4 per cent. Incomes have risen five times. Extreme poverty has declined from 69 per cent to 17 per cent, while literacy has doubled, from 42 per cent to 84 per cent. Girls are now being educated in most countries (with a few conspicuous exceptions, like Nigeria), because of the recognition that without widespread skills no country can modernise. Rather more than a third of humanity can access the Internet. Warfare is at a century-long low, notwithstanding the rise of terrorism.
Gareth Evans, in talking the launch of his new autobiography, has said not only that he is an ‘incorrigible optimist’ (the title of his book), but that however bad things may seem to be, they often don’t look quite so bad when looked at from a longer historical perspective – that’s true of conflict generally, mass atrocity crimes, civil violence, major human rights violations, and certainly of poverty. He could have gone on to say that the forces shaping the rapid progress of the nations of the world are not just the result of some kind of UN directive, but of a growing recognition, in ask countries, that such progress is available, and not impossibly difficult to achieve in a short time.
England was the leader in the Industrial Revolution of the middle of the 18th century, but its success rested in part on the miserable lives of industrial workers, many of whom migrated to the New World, in tens of thousands. One of them was a great great grandfather of mine. Today education and technology transfer can shift any society forward in rapid leaps. I first visited China in 1977, and the progress there in forty years has been astounding. Nor is it over. We do not know what will happen in the long run when China has a billion and more well-educated, citizens who have their own incomes and their own sense of what is best for themselves and their country. But I at least feel optimistic about what has happened there and what might happen.
Of course, there could be halts and even reversals in some countries. No one predicted the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union. An asteroid could hurtle into our planet, and one just missed us on Thursday last. A solar flare could put our communication systems out of whack for weeks. A new and deadly virus could spread quickly around the world. Someone could launch a nuclear attack on someone else. All these things are possible. But as I have pointed out before, there were all sorts of gloomy predictions in the 20th century about what might happen , and none of them actually occurred. A pretty safe bet, I think, is that technological change will continue, and at least one of its benefits will be a continual improvement in the lives of ordinary people.
Because I had been asked to, I offered a critique of the environmental movement, our new secular religion, but I don’t need to do that here, because my views on global warming and ‘climate change’ have been offered many times before on this website. Many of those who cry woe about the environment seem to have no idea of the enormous advances there have been in the last fifty years with respect to clear air, cleaner water and more national parks, to take just three examples. There is a wonderful little article about little birds in North America that have been studied for a long time. Today’s examples are white on the breast; those a hundred years ago were sooty from air pollution. You can see photos here.
And some of the news this week provides a good example of how governments can get themselves into a dreadful tangle when they stray into ideological positions that are not really supported by the science they are said to derive from. I haven’t had a letter yet, but I believe we are about to be offered inducements not to use air conditioners to prevent the system from experiencing blackouts. We have exceedingly large resources in coal, gas and uranium, and all these energy sources could provide us with reliable electricity for the next century at least. Ah, but they are ideologically contaminated. It is hard for ministers in governments even to talk about their use.
So we seem doomed, for a few years at least, until the citizenry wakes up, to high prices for a electricity grid that is increasingly likely to be unreliable. I can’t believe that the Turnbull Government doesn’t collectively know this. It simply can’t talk about the elephant in the room in case it offends someone.
One of the commenters wonders why I remain optimistic in the face of such fatuity, and other examples that could be mentioned as well. The answer is that we learn from our mistakes, and our present idiocy about energy will most likely lead to blackouts before it leads to a saner and more rational system. But, I feel confident, it will produce such a better system in time.