Good news about the state of our world

Georgene Rice interviews Bradley Wright, author of the book “Upside, Surprising Good News About the State of our World”.  He writes from the perspective of a sociologist. In an age of pessimism, this book offers good news for readers looking for glimpses of hope. He examines issues such as poverty, sickness, sexual morality, the environment and the global church.

Georgene: Are we more pessimistic in this country than elsewhere in the world, and if so, what makes us distinct in that regard?

Bradley: Studies show that for every one American who says we are going in the right direction there are 2 ½ Americans who say we are on the wrong track. So it’s not just that we don’t think things are better, but that we think it is getting worse. This not an American thing. It is fairly common for people throughout the world to think that their country is headed in the wrong direction.

Georgene: You write about nostalgia often characterizing our impression of the present. Our nostalgia isn’t always very realistic and often has a short memory. How does media contribute to our pessimism and the conclusion that things are spiraling downward.

Bradley: When things are going bad, we’ll hear bad news. When things are going good, we’ll hear bad news.  People have studied that. They’ve looked at the amount of bad news, for example about the economy, and it doesn’t correlate with how bad the economy is doing. We hear bad news so it is easy to believe that things are getting worse.

Georgene: So we shouldn’t be as concerned, for example, about 9.1% unemployment because when you consider other parts of the world that is a relatively low rate? Are we misinterpreting things or are we thinking more pessimistically about them than we ought.

Bradley: Unemployment is a tough one because it is high. There is no doubt the country has had a tough four or five years financially. I think it is legitimate to be concerned about the unemployment rate, but what that masks is other ways things are better financially. For example, the average family today makes 2 ½ times the amount a family of the 60’s made, adjusted for inflation. We have a lot more money than our grandparent’s generation.

Georgene: Not only do we have more, but we also don’t have to work as hard to get it as our grandparent’s did. But, I think people look at that in light of the cost of living and that undermines the gratitude that we do have for the capacity to earn more today.

Bradley: Absolutely, but even adjusted for inflation which gets at the cost of living we just have a lot more. However, the more we have the more we want. It’s almost, because I have more I want more and recognize what I don’t have. There’s almost a simplicity in having less. Maybe a part of the answer would be a voluntary simplicity.

Georgene: You make the point that Christians have additional reason to be pessimistic and it plays more heavily than it ought. Why do Christians tend to be more pessimistic?

Bradley: I think we hear bad news more than people who aren’t Christian for a couple of reasons. First, the Gospel at its heart is an answer to a problem. I accept that. But in order for people to appreciate the need for it, I often wonder if people who are presenting the Gospel don’t often put extra emphasis on the problems of the world and in their lives. With the best intention of highlighting the needs of the Gospel, the side effect is Christians forming the conclusion that the world is getting to be a worse place. The problem isn’t that they are factually incorrect, but that it is the emphasis.

Also, many Christians believe that part of Jesus’ return will be preceded by worldwide problems. Because of that we may be more ready to believe that things are getting worse than they really are.

Georgene: Let’s talk about the good news. Pick an area that you think we have good news that is largely overlooked.

Bradley: Health. Human beings in this country and the world are healthier than we’ve ever been. This is the best time in human history to be alive, in terms of health. In just 100 years life expectancy has gone up 20 years.

Georgene: We’ve talked about being financially better off than we used to be and healthier than we used , but how smart are we? We hear the negative reports about how our children fair against the rest of the world.

Bradley: International comparisons can be difficult, except for science and mathematics which is a little more straightforward.  Instead I looked at how the United States has trended in education over the years. Today, we expect about 95% of people will be high school graduates. But just 45-50 years ago half of American adults didn’t have a high school education. Also, back in the 50’s and 60’s only about 12% had four years of college. Now it is 25%. There is no doubt we are a better educated population. Could it be better or what we want are philosophical questions, but just in terms of whether we are better educated, there is no doubt.

Georgene: So you are asking us to look at a broader context when we look at whether or not we are better off. In light of the tunnel vision of the moment we can misunderstand that we are progressing  in areas that we think we are declining.

Bradley: Let me ask you a question that will put a fine point on it. Is there any other time in human history than it would be better to be alive than now? Up until 150 years ago most people had to work 3,000 hours a year. Now we work 1,600 or 1,700. Go back a couple hundred years and your children are dying and you died much earlier than now. When famine hits you lose everything. Do we want to roll race relations or women’s roles back to 50 years ago or double the poverty rate which it was in the 50’s?

Based on the way things are going, perhaps the only time that would be better to be alive would be in the future.

Georgene: What about crime, war, freedom and faith?

Bradley: The thing media gets wrong the most is crime. We get as many crime stories as 30 years ago but the crime rate is a fraction of it. Homicides are only 60% of what they were. Burglary is maybe half. You are much less likely to be killed or have your things stolen, but you wouldn’t know that from the media.  I’ve never witnessed a murder, but I bet I’ve seen thousands in the media, television or movies. How can that not affect how we see the world?

Georgene: What about marriage and the family?

Bradley: That is an area of concern. My approach with this book is not to just find good news and report it, but to be as accurate as possible. That way if do find trouble areas we can focus on them. There are some silver linings but there are dark clouds. For example, the divorce rate today is substantially higher than other times in the 50’s, but it has gone down some in the last 20 years. Part of that though is because a larger number of people are cohabitating rather than getting married. There are more kids being raised without both parents. Abortion rates have gone down in the last 30 years but there are still higher than they were 40 or 50 years ago. So, I would say if there is an area that you would like to focus on to make better, this is a good area.

Georgene: You said you didn’t go into this research with any preconceived notions, but tried to follow the data. Was there anything that was surprising to you in this effort?

Bradley: Yes, one was how much less extreme poverty there is in the world. The numbers have been cut in half but we never hear that. The essential point is that if we constantly hear that things are getting worse, yet in the back of our minds we know we’ve been working to make a difference for decades, why would we have any hope that what we do would make a difference?

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