Skip to content

Nothing Before Us

Weighing the case for progress in an age of anxiety

It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear by Gregg Easterbrook. PublicAffairs, 352 pages.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari. Random House, 400 pages.

America: The Farewell Tour by Chris Hedges. Simon & Schuster, 400 pages.

The first paragraph of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities begins: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” and continues: “it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.” The early twenty-first century appears to resemble the late eighteenth century in at least this one respect. Assurances of progress alternate with threats of catastrophe; promises of endless improvement are answered by warnings of terminal decline; every Steven Pinker produces an equal and opposite Wendell Berry.

What’s at issue is not merely the accuracy of these dueling predictions—only the most long-lived participants in these debates will get to see their forecasts confirmed or falsified. In any case, the future is not a scientific experiment, in which one variable and then another is changed while the initial conditions are held constant. We have to make crucial long-term policy choices without the hope of knowing even many decades on whether different choices would have turned out better. (Yes, I know: “we” is a pleasant fiction; elites will make those policy choices. But let’s pretend we live in a democracy.)

Running the Numbers

The debate over progress is—overtly at least—a debate about technology: what’s worked, what’s likely to work, and at what cost. That sounds straightforward, but it’s not. Neoclassical economics is skilled at ignoring costs and benefits accruing to those with little market power, like subsistence farmers and fisherman, indigenous people attached to their land, and future residents of coastal areas (around 50 percent of America’s population) who might not want to have to choose between moving inland or living on a houseboat. Just as a proposal is “politically possible,” in Beltway jargon, not if a majority of the population wants it but only if it has some hope of mustering key congressional sponsors, so is a technology “viable” for an economist not if it would maximize human welfare but only if it can attract enough investors who expect to make a profit from it. Both decision processes are—to put it charitably—far from ideal.

“Everything is fine (except for global warming)” is a fair statement of Easterbrook’s general position—and he’s pretty sanguine about global warming.

Steven Pinker’s recent Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress opened the latest phase of the debate. Most of that book was devoted to presenting dozens of charts about everything under the sun: motor vehicle deaths, populism, nuclear weapons, loneliness, leisure time, female literacy, child labor, global calories per capita, CO2 emitted per dollar of GDP, and lightning strikes, along with a robust polemic against religion, postmodernism, and (most unfortunately) Nietzsche. Pinker was usually sensible but rarely imaginative, so when discussing inequality, he endorsed libertarian professor Harry Frankfurt’s thumping banality: “From the point of view of morality, it is not important everyone should have the same; what is morally important is that each should have enough,” and he loftily scolded Naomi Klein for rejecting climate-change incrementalism as though she had simply indulged in overheated rhetoric rather than offering closely reasoned argument. Still, Pinker’s graphs were a kind of public service.

Gregg Easterbrook in It’s Better Than It Looks takes the same data-heavy approach as Pinker (minus the graphs) and comes to the same conclusion: nearly everything is getting better, no matter what nearly everyone thinks. He comes out swinging: the preface informs benighted Sanders and Trump supporters that their anger was misplaced. There was very little wrong with America in 2016 (shades of Hillary Clinton!): “Objectively America was in the best condition it had ever been in . . . living standards, per-capita income, buying power, health, safety, liberty, and longevity were at their highest, while women, minorities, and gays were free in ways they’d never been before.”

OK, what is the evidence that “at no juncture in American history were people better off than they were in 2016” and (as Easterbrook elsewhere asserts) that at no prior juncture “the typical member of the global population was better off either”? To begin with, there’s the Misery Index: unemployment plus inflation. It was the lowest in half a century in 2016. Global malnutrition has declined to the lowest level in history, with per capita food production at its highest. Oil is abundant and inexpensive; likewise essential minerals. Throughout the developed world, air and water pollution are down. In nearly all nations, death from infectious diseases have fallen sharply, and average longevity is the highest in history. Nearly every year global per capita GDP sets a record. The incidence of extreme poverty is the lowest ever. Global per capita arms spending has decreased. Crime rates have declined sharply, and in every country except Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Sudan, a person’s chances of dying by violence were at an all-time low. Car and air travel are safer than ever. Schooling for girls is nearly universal. So say Science, Nature, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the World Health Organization, the Census Bureau, the Cancer Journal for Clinicians, and Easterbrook’s myriad other impeccable sources.

A Mixed Harvest

High-tech agriculture is the central panel in Easterbrook’s tableau. A half-century ago, 50 percent of humanity was malnourished and predictions of famine and mass death were common. Enter Norman Borlaug, pioneer of the Green Revolution and “the most important person of the twentieth century.” Thanks to the sturdier and more fertile plant varieties Borlaug developed, India, Africa, Brazil, and other populous regions have expanded food production enormously, increased farmers’ income (at any rate, those farmers who could afford the expensive fertilizers the high-yield varieties required), and even reduced pesticide use. The Green Revolution, Easterbrook affirms, was estimated in 1997 to have saved a billion lives. “Two decades along, the count may now be two billion,” he writes. (It’s a little difficult, by the way, to square that claim with Easterbrook’s disparagement of warnings in the 1960s and 1970s of imminent mass starvation as “cant.” If Borlaug’s miraculous intervention saved a billion lives, surely this means that the alarmists who predicted that, barring some kind of miracle, a billion people would die, were exactly right.)

New technologies, however benign, are rarely an unmixed blessing. A billion or two lives saved is worth a lot of side effects. Still, we should acknowledge the side effects. Here’s an excerpt from a 2015 article by the Indian academic Saidur Rahman in the Asian Journal of Water, Environment and Pollution:

The Green Revolution has transformed India to a food grain surplus country from a deficit one. . . . [But the] intensification of agriculture over the years has led to overall degradation of the fragile agro-ecosystem. High cost of production and diminishing economic returns from agricultural practices are affecting the socio-economic condition of farmers. Loss of soil fertility, erosion of soil, soil toxicity, diminishing water resources, pollution of underground water, salinity of underground water, increased incidence of human and livestock diseases and global warming are some of the negative impacts of over adoption of agricultural technologies by the farmers to make the Green Revolution successful. Indiscriminate and disproportionate use of chemicals pollutes the soil, air and water and feed and fodders offered to animals. . . . Various scientific studies and surveys conducted on fertilizer and pesticide residues during [the] last 45 years indicate the presence of residues of fertilizers and pesticides . . . at higher level than permissible limit in milk, dairy products, water, fodder, livestock feeds and other food products. . . . The extent of systematic damages caused in the process of [the] Green Revolution to the soil, groundwater, and ecosystem needs to be quantified. It could lead to irreversible consequence . . . if the timely, adequate and sustainable measures are not taken up to mitigate the harm done by the Green Revolution.

Easterbrook takes as much pleasure in mocking worries about resource scarcity as about food scarcity. “Everything is fine (except for global warming)” is a fair statement of his general position—and he’s pretty sanguine about global warming. Oil is the Resource-in-Chief, of course. Those spooked by scaremongers warning that fossil fuels can’t last forever are fretting needlessly, he assures us. “Morris Adelman, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist who was influential in the early postwar period, argued that no nature resource would be exhausted, at least for millennia, because price and technology would draw out more supply from a geological structure that is immense compared to human action. Experience supports this view.”

Any revolutionary schemes worth considering will have to begin with detailed transitional plans.

Does it? It sounds daft. (It also sounds like Julian Simon, who is endlessly thrown up to environmentalists by devout capitalism-worshippers, and who, many economists now think, won his famous bet with Paul Ehrlich—about the dire prospect of acute resource shortages in the wake of a global population increase—thanks to a fluke.) It’s certainly true that oil prices are very low and that listed oil reserves are very high. But does this mean that oil and gas are “inexhaustible along the human time scale”?

Not necessarily. For one thing, those reserve figures don’t distinguish between light oil and other kinds. Light oil is easy to collect, easy to refine, and comparatively clean. There’s not an unlimited amount of light oil left; in fact, there’s not a lot. Heavy oil, oil shale, and tar sands are another matter. So far, at least, they’re hard to get at, hard to refine, and fairly dirty.

Ghost Prosperity

How persuasive is Easterbrook’s case overall? Statistics don’t lie, but averages may mislead. The earnings of the upper 20 percent of the income distribution may have risen sharply, but the rate of wage growth for those in the bottom 90 percent has been 0.6 percent a year since 1980, and the number of people who’ve dropped out of the workforce is at a forty-year high. The interior of the country, once filled with small towns populated by independent farmers, artisans, factory workers, merchants, and ministers, is now a ghost region, full of heavily indebted mega-farms, whose colossal productivity (fueled by huge doses of pesticide and fertilizer that run off down the Mississippi and other rivers to the Gulf of Mexico, where they’ve created a 9,000-square-mile—i.e., New Jersey-sized—dead zone) Easterbrook dotes on. The former denizens of those small towns are killing themselves and addicting themselves to opiates in unprecedented numbers. In a recent Federal Reserve survey, 40 percent of American adults said they couldn’t come up with $400 to meet an emergency—a state of precarity that would have proven catastrophic if the Republicans had retained the House and repealed Obamacare, leaving tens of millions without health insurance to cover at least some of those emergencies.

And while Easterbrook scoffs at Sanders’s contention that “Americans are being ‘poisoned’ by pollutants caused by corporate greed” (life expectancy is up, Easterbrook smirks; “if our bodies are being poisoned, living longer is a funny way of showing it”), Time magazine reported last year on a Lancet study that found that 155,000 premature deaths in the United States were caused by air pollution. The researchers added that this was probably an underestimate, and that they had no data for fatal exposure to endocrine disruptors, flame retardants, pesticides, or other pollutants.

Whistling Past the Cliffs

Then there’s the phenomenon called “falling off a cliff,” in which a new material or technique works brilliantly for a generation or two and drives all competitors from the field, then begins to have negative consequences or simply stops working. The Green Revolution, as noted, may turn out to be an example. Another example might be plantation forestry, which has sometimes failed because the complex ecological support system a healthy forest requires is lost in a commercially managed forest. And oil prices are so volatile, and reserves so hypothetical, that it’s possible there’s a cliff, or at least a big bump in the road, ahead of us there too.

Easterbrook writes that he wants to make optimism “intellectually respectable again” (the same mission he took on in his 2004 predecessor volume, The Progress Paradox); and he insists that optimism is not complacency. Not necessarily, it isn’t. But optimism can mean confidence that humanity’s big problems can be solved, or it can mean confidence that those problems can be solved by doing pretty much the same things we’re doing now, with the same people in charge. Easterbrook continually assures readers that “market forces” have everything under control. “If a government agency had been created to develop three-dimensional seismology,” he chortles, “the agency would have built imposing buildings, hired hundreds of deputy associate administrators, lobbied for annual budget increases, and never produced any oil.” This is evergreen libertarian humor. “Petroleum and gas output has increased in the United States and in other nations mainly because private initiatives ran rings around slow-moving political systems burdened by cronyism, special-interest grievances and lack of a grasp of basic economics.” Behind such glib incantations of the higher wisdom of markets is a chronic state of organized corruption. Government initiatives have never been allowed to compete successfully with private enterprise in the United States because business owns the government here. Failure to understand this is to lack a grasp of basic politics in a capitalist democracy. On the other hand, Easterbrook does take climate change seriously, and—surprise!—he inserts near the end a chapter advocating a Universal Basic Income.

For all its ideological unevenness, It’s Better Than It Looks is a useful book. It will put techno-skeptics on their mettle. In particular, it’s an emphatic reminder that large forces, with tremendous inertia, are in play, with vast accumulated experience and with their own ideas about how to solve the fundamental material problems of the future: food, health, energy, transportation. Any revolutionary schemes worth considering will have to begin with detailed transitional plans.

The Future, Computed

Detailed plans don’t interest the celebrity futurist Yuval Noah Harari. Easterbrook is earnest, logical, square; Harari is whimsical, imaginative, edgy, much given to leaping, dizzying sentences like this one, of which Easterbrook would never dream: “As the Spanish Inquisition and the KGB give way to Google and Baidu, ‘free will’ likely will be exposed as a myth, and liberalism might lose its practical advantages.” A wiry Israeli historian, Harari broke through with Sapiens (2014), a broad-brush history of our species, and Homo Deus (2017), a look into our species’ future (or, possibly, non-future). Both books conveyed a fair amount of interesting information, along with numerous Very Serious Ideas, all in a breezy, insouciant style; hence they’ve sold, between them, around twelve million copies. With so many readers hanging on one’s every word, who could resist the temptation to offer them advice—or rather, as Harari prefers to describe his purpose, “clarity”?

Harari frequently admonishes readers that the political problem of the future will probably not be oppression or exploitation but rather irrelevance.

In The Graduate, a savvy businessman whispered “Plastics!” into Dustin Hoffman’s ear, opening a vista on the future. Harari’s vision can also be summarized in one magical word, just as unglamorous-sounding as “plastics” but no less pregnant with the future. One day—in some cases already—our health will be maintained, our businesses run, our wars fought, our leaders chosen, our scientific research carried out, our aesthetic tastes formed, our education conducted, our psychotherapy administered, our friendships arranged, our vacations planned, our houses cleaned, our cars driven, and our home entertainment selected by means of . . . Algorithms!

Algorithms—if you need this explained, you’re probably stuck in the twentieth century and should reboot immediately—are generalized problem-solving methods. There are algorithms for making medical diagnoses, searching legal databases, playing chess, cooking vegetable soup, and most famously, for doing Google searches. There have always been algorithms—there were algorithms for avoiding predators on the savanna a million years ago. But thanks to two momentous twenty-first-century developments, algorithms are poised to take over the world.

The first is the biotech revolution. Ancient debates about human uniqueness are now moot, as scientists figure out how one internal system and organ after another works and, increasingly, how to repair and even replace them. No one objects to remedial bioengineering to help victims of illness or accident, but as Harari points out, the technology will not stop there—or anywhere—by itself. Enhancement, whether via wholesale bodily upgrades or customized genetic engineering is our default future. Well, not “our” future: for some time, at least, only the rich will be able to buy superhuman powers and immunity to pain and death. “If we are not careful, the grandchildren of Silicon Valley tycoons and Moscow billionaires might become a separate species superior to the grandchildren of Appalachian hillbillies and Siberian villagers.”

Mind Doesn’t Matter

The infotech revolution is winging along parallel to the biotech revolution, and it’s hard to decide which is more worrisome. One aspect of the former is miniaturization: any smart phone today has more computing power than the module that landed on the moon in 1969. Another is machine learning. Harari tells an intriguing anecdote. Google decided to challenge the reigning computer chess champion, Stockfish 8, with a new program, AlphaZero. Stockfish could run through seventy million chess positions per second; AlphaZero was only one-thousandth as fast but incorporated some new machine-learning principles. AlphaZero was not programmed with any chess strategies or previous games to analyze. It was simply told the rules and given four hours to teach itself chess. It crushed Stockfish, twenty-eight to zero, with seventy-two ties. A Little League team winning the MLB World Series—in a sweep—would hardly have been more surprising.

Harari makes a distinction between intelligence and consciousness. We’re used to seeing them together, but there may never be conscious machines. That doesn’t mean, however, that artificial intelligences won’t learn to understand us better than we understand ourselves—or well enough, at any rate, to do most of the interpersonal jobs in the service industries, where those displaced by automation have typically found a place in the past.

In which case, humans will be quite unnecessary. Harari frequently admonishes readers that the political problem of the future will probably not be oppression or exploitation but rather irrelevance. Continual retraining at public expense—the Scandinavian solution—may not cut it: there’ll be a lot of people who won’t be able to learn to do anything a machine can’t do better and cheaper. The humane solution would be universal basic income, or alternately, universal basic free services (education, health care, transportation, etc.). The inhumane solution—in which countless superfluous people, mostly from poor countries, simply die—Harari turns away from with this lame joke: “But would American voters also agree that these taxes should be sent to support unemployed people in places defined by President Trump as ‘shithole countries’? If you believe that, you might just as well believe that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny will solve the problem.” It is one more example—along with his failure ever to recommend, or even describe, people acting together for political purposes—of how 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, for all Harari’s brilliance, remains within the moral limits of a TED talk: never describe the crimes of, or urge action against, the corporate, financial, and governmental powers-that-be, who are, after all, such very good friends of the good people who run the TED talks.

You Can’t Make It Here

I doubt Chris Hedges has ever been invited to give a TED talk. If he has, then someone was fired for it, I’m pretty sure. Hedges is as angry and eloquent as Harari is wry and cool. America: The Farewell Tour is a chronicle of decay, a tableau of anomie, a portrait of blight. As in his other books, Hedges goes out and finds forlorn or downtrodden people, reports what they say, and takes their plight as the text for a political sermon. In this book, the cast of characters includes gamblers, addicts, antifa protesters, survivalists, prisoners, and the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

So are things getting better or worse? Both, evidently.

Hedges has a gift for dramatizing these encounters. We meet an addict/prostitute in New Jersey, whose experiences are almost too painful to listen to. We go to a San Francisco school where students are taught that verbal abuse can make them feel “empowered.” Porn actresses take us through the extraordinary varieties of kink. Hedges attends a “prepper convention” in Logan, Utah, where barking-mad Christian survivalists report what Jesus and Mary look like and explain what food and weapons to stash for the End Times. Prisoners in Ohio and Alabama describe the inventive cruelty of police and guards, and what is sometimes worse, their frequent debt peonage. At first I was critical of Hedges’s preacherly interludes, which are often powerful but just as often go on too long. They serve another function, though, besides information and analysis. One simply needs relief from the harshness of his portraits.

While reading America I found myself asking: “Is this the same country that Gregg Easterbrook insists has never been better?” The mayor of Scranton, once a manufacturing hub, laments: “We are government, education, and medicine, and if you look at all cities, that is what they are. There is really no manufacturing anywhere.” What about Easterbrook’s assurance that manufacturing output in America is at an all-time high? “In nearly all of the country’s nineteen thousand municipalities,” Hedges writes, “declining or stagnant property tax revenues, along with mounting costs, have reached crisis proportions.” There was no hint of this in It’s Better Than It Looks. “The United States consumes 80 percent of global opioids. . . . Opioid overdoses are the leading cause of death in this country for those under the age of fifty. . . . The number of deaths from overdoses has quadrupled since 1999.” Suicides are up 30 percent from the beginning of the century. Easterbrook doesn’t mention business’s assault on labor unions, while Hedges quotes economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton (the latter a Nobel Prize-winner): “Traditional structures of social and economic support slowly weakened; no longer was it possible for a man to follow his father and grandfather into a manufacturing job, or to join the union and start on the union ladder of wages. . . . [The] collapse of the white, high school educated, working class after its heyday in the 1970s led to a variety of ‘pathologies’ . . . [and] these slow-acting and cumulative social forces seem to us to be plausible candidates to explain rising morbidity and mortality, particularly their role in suicide.” This sounds like a country in pain, not one that’s never had it so good.

So are things getting better or worse? Both, evidently—different things for different people in different places. And which way of answering the question is best: compiling statistics, or conjuring science-fictional utopian/dystopian scenarios, or in-depth reporting on living, suffering individuals? All three. There will be real, often bitter political disagreements among proponents of each approach. But the large, indeed dominant, presence in contemporary American politics of plutocrats, irrationalists, and authoritarians, with their own repellent visions of the future, should compel the rest of us to listen to one another.