Daniel Hannan: Despite Everything, Life Keeps Getting Better
How do you think you will fare in 2014? And how about the human race generally? If you’re typical, you’ll be cautiously optimistic about your own prospects, but gloomy about mankind’s. Most people in most countries tell pollsters that they expect their lives and their children’s to improve: gradually, patchily, with occasional reverses but, none the less, to improve. This is a rational belief: most people’s lives have become longer, healthier and more fulfilled over the past six thousand years, accelerating spectacularly in the past 400.
Yet we are reluctant to extrapolate from our own circumstances. We are haunted by a sense of decline, of imminent catastrophe. We are killing the planet! Our debts are unsustainable! Immigration will overwhelm us! The world is frying! We’re overdue for an ice-age! We’re overdue for an epidemic! We’re overdue for an asteroid-strike!
The idea of a coming calamity seems to be hardwired into our imaginations. Almost every civilisation has separately evolved its own End of Days scenario: Ragnarök or Judgment Day or Apocalypse or Armageddon. The eschatology varies, but the idea that life as we know it will come to an end doesn’t. Here, to pluck an example at random, is the Zoroastrian version:
At the end of the tenth hundredth winter, the sun is more unseen and more spotted; the year, month, and day are shorter; and the earth is more barren; and the crop will not yield the seed. And men become more deceitful and more given to vile practices. They will have no gratitude. Honorable wealth will proceed to those of perverted faith. And a dark cloud makes the whole sky night, and it will rain more noxious things than water.
Which is, more or less, what the eco-extremists tell us today. Fifty-five months have passed since the Prince of Wales assured us that we had less than 100 months to save the world. Do you imagine that, when the 100 months are up, he will say: “I was wrong: maybe life is getting better after all”? Of course not: the whole point of the looming disaster is that it’s always just around the corner.
“Time is running out to deal with climate change,” Steven Guilbeault of Greenpeace said in 2006. “Ten years ago, we thought we had a lot of time.” We did? We thought we had lots of time? Hmm. In 1997, Chris Rose of Greenpeace declared: “Time is running out for the climate.”
Not that I want to pick on the greenies. Mine is a wider point about our tendency to existential gloom. Perhaps the most hostile comment thread I’ve had recently, in a crowded field, was in response to a blog entitled Ten Reasons to be Optimistic about 2014. Simply to recite the statistics that show how life is improving is to prove yourself, in the eyes of many readers, a hopeless naïf. Pessimism, as Bjørn Lomborg found when, without questioning global warming, he none the less poured cold water on the catastrophism prevalent in the eco-movement, is compulsory.
Part of the reason it’s compulsory is that there is a lot of money to be made from it. This blog was a lonely voice proclaiming the obvious bogusness of the swine flu “epidemic” four-and-a-half years ago. Not because I’m any kind of expert on viruses; simply because I could see that all incentives pushed interested parties into exaggerating the danger – with the result that the British government, as is now acknowledged, squandered a billion pounds on the racket.
That was also an unpopular blog. A lot of people are determined to believe the worst, whatever the evidence. They always are. As the great Lord Macaulay put it a century and a half ago:
We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who say society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days, but so said all who came before us and with just as much apparent reason.
Declinism pays: publishers love it, newspapers print it, politicians declaim it, voters echo it. If you go around saying that we’re being overwhelmed by foreigners and Eurocrats and welfare scroungers, you will pick up a certain level of support. And you will do so, in fairness, because there is an element of truth in what you are saying.