Some good news to fill your glass


The evening news didn’t win any awards by covering a joyous event. A charity never reached its goal by saying how great things were. A reporter never made the front page by writing about a cupcake contest.

I know I’m not necessarily always a half-glass-full kind of guy, but I don’t prescribe to the glass-half-empty thinking either.

I’m just happy to have a glass to begin with—at least until Mayor Bloomberg takes it away and gives me a smaller one.

Several months ago I read an article in Reader’s Digest written by the “rational optimist” Matt Ridley. In a world cowering in fear of economic crisis, ferocious natural disasters, fuel shortages and the presidential choice between Obama and Eastwood, I thought it might be nice to share some of Ridley’s optimistic outlooks on why this is a great time to be alive.

It won’t get me on the front page—in fact, I can guarantee this column is on Page 4—but it might give you an extra spring in your step.

Ridley leads off by saying we’re better off now than 50 years ago: “The average human now earns nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), eats one third more calories”—except in the school cafeteria—“buries two-thirds fewer children and can expect to live one third longer.”

Additionally, Ridley says that though the rich are getting richer, the poor are doing even better. In the 20 years leading to the millennium, the poor doubled their consumption. The Chinese, for example, are 10 times richer and live 25 years longer.

Undoubtedly this has been aided, and simultaneously initiated, by necessities such as food, clothing and shelter becoming much cheaper.

In 1800, for example, one hour’s worth of candlelight would have cost the work of six hours. In the 1880s, that same light from a kerosene lamp only took 15 minutes of wages, and by 1950 only eight seconds. Today, an hours’ worth of light only costs us half a second of work.

So, if we do the math—let’s see… Add this, divide that, carry the one, circumference the pi—we are 43,200 times better off than we were 200 years ago.

And speaking of energy, Ridley goes on to point out that we are not running out of oil. At least not at the rate all those doomsday-yellow-journalism-tabloid publications like National Geographic keep telling us.

In 1970, it was thought that only 550 million barrels of oil reserves were left in the world. But 20 years later the world had consumed 600 million.

Of course, by then experts had decided that there were really 900 million barrels—not counting some promising areas in Saudi Arabia.

So, sure, we’re running out. But by the time it’s gone we’ll all be scooting around on jet packs powered by soy beans and cheery thoughts. (That’s my vision, not Ridley’s.)

And speaking of transportation, the effects of our fuel emissions are actually getting better: In the US, rivers, lakes, seas and air are getting cleaner all the time, Ridley says.

Today’s automobile emits less pollution traveling at full speed than Al Gore’s parked car did from leaks in the 1970s. (OK, I added the Al Gore part.)

So what about that whole global warming thing?

Sure, the climate is slightly warmer than it was a century ago, but Ridley reports that the occurrence of hurricanes and tornadoes are actually down.

Not to mention the annual death rate from natural disasters—this is going to blow you away, so to speak—has declined 99 percent since the 1920s.

The deadly powers of such storms depend more on wealth than storm strength, however: A 2007 hurricane that hit a well-prepared city in Mexico killed none, while a similar storm struck Burma in 2008 and killed 200,000.

“The best defenses against disaster are prosperity and freedom,” Ridley says.

Which is what we have.

Ridley believes good ideas, inventions and the resulting fortunes will continue to improve the world, despite any immediate setbacks we might experience. The Great Depression was “just a dip in the upward slope of human living standards,” Ridley says. America emerged in 1939 richer than it was nine years earlier.

I think that’s something we can all raise our glasses to… As long as they’re 16 ounces or less.

To ask why, you can reach the author at david@hillsborofreepress.com.


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