A CNN poll earlier this year found that a majority of Americans are pessimistic about the future of the country. That's consistent with prior polling, which discovered that a majority thinks the next generation will be worse off than their own. Are the worries that underpin this trend legitimate?
Reason TV went to the Venice Beach boardwalk to gage how people are feelings about the future, with the goal of cheering up the doomsayers. Maybe it was just the pleasant beachside atmosphere, but, at first, most people told us they feel a sense of optimism about the future.
With a little digging into the issues, however, we uncovered the seeds of pessimism. Many referenced one particular (orange) presidential candidate. So we responded with some statistics and success stories that should give even the most hardened pessimist hope for a better future.
General trends over the past few decades in numerous categories are good cause for hope and—dare we say—optimism for the future. From the massive declines in war and street violence to the reforestation of the planet, from rising living standards and huge reductions in global poverty to the democratization of the world's political regimes, things are looking up for humanity and our neighboring species in a plethora of ways.
The World's Forests Are Not Being Obliterated
Take the seemingly perpetual and intractable problem of deforestation, which dominates media reports every year around Earth Day. In fact, scientists call the present turnaround in the world's forests the "Great Reversal," and a study from Rockefeller University and the University of Helsinki found that the forests in a majority of countries have been thickening for the past few decades.
Part of this reversal is thanks to a more remarkable trend: Contrary to 1970s-era Malthusian warnings of mass famine and starvation, advances in biotech and agriculture have led to a tripling of the amount of food grown on just 10 percent more land. If crop yields had been stuck at 1960s levels, we would have needed to farm an area almost twice the size of South America to feed the doubling population. The global adoption of genetically modified crops has also reduced chemical pesticide use by 37 percent and increased farmer profits by 68 percent.
What's more, the efficiencies in farming and other factors have increasingly encouraged urbanization. Rural populations will be nearly cut in half by 2050 according to U.N. projections, potentially returning huge plots of land to nature. And researchers at Rockefeller University say we might be on the verge of peak farmland, meaning an area twice the size of France could become available for other uses come 2060.
The Decline in Violence
Another trend that contradicts pessimistic prognostications is the overall decline in violence. Not only has the FBI documented just about every metric of violence on a downward trend since the mid 1990s, gun violence in particular was cut in half in that period despite a doubling of gun sales. But fear of violence persists thanks to breathless media coverage of terrorism and mass shootings that fails to put the magnitude of the problem in proper context.
Atrocities committed by groups like ISIS and dictators like Syria's Bashar Al-Assad are real and horrifying, but those tragic death tolls are still dwarfed by the mass murder and genocide that was commonplace in the era of Communism and Fascism. And while the threat of terrorism looms large in America, a civilian on U.S. soil is about four times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed in a terrorist attack.
Living Standards Are Improving
Unemployment is back around 5%, but that's partly because many Americans have dropped out of the labor force altogether. But there's still good reason for optimism about the economy if historical trends hold.
If you break down the income of Americans into quintiles and think of them as rungs on the economic ladder, 95 percent of families on the lowest rung move up at least one rung in their lifetime, with a majority moving up to the top two rungs to join the top 40 percent of American earners. And 82 percent of kids whose parents were on the bottom rung move up at least one rung.
We're also getting more bang for our buck. The number of work hours Americans have to log to afford household appliances and luxury goods has steadily declined since the 1950s, and GDP keeps rising even though people are working fewer and fewer hours. In the 1930s, Americans spent more than a quarter of their disposable income on food; now, it's less than 10 percent.
The dramatic gains have accrued to the planet's poorest people. More than a billion people have climbed out of extreme poverty since 1990, cutting the global poverty rate in half.
How about the orange elephant in the room? Regardless of your feelings about Donald Trump or any other potential political leader, there's good reason to be optimistic about human freedom and the decline of authoritarianism across the globe. Countries have been dumping their autocratic dictators in favor of democratically elected representatives; in fact, most countries are now democracies.
Many of the people we spoke with were optimistic about the freedom that technology provides, our increasingly tolerant society, and the ever-expanding consumer choice that's improving all of our lives.
So, have we cheered you up?
About 8 minutes.
Produced by Zach Weissmueller and Justin Monticello. Hosted by Weissmueller. Camera by Monticello and Weissmueller. Additional graphics by Joshua Swain.
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