Perdition or Progress?

I am disgusted with a media infrastructure that thinks keeping us mis-informed, polarized, and panicked is justified by the profit motive. In part this is because I am old enough to recall when the Fairness Doctrine was the norm, and in part it’s because I know freedom of the press was not incorporated into the Constitution for the sake of shareholders’ dividends.

But it’s so easy to buy into the chronic anxiety, negativity, and opining that passes for journalism these days, and to simply accept that the world is going to perdition, pandemics included.

Except it’s not. By any objective measure, as a species, we are happier, wealthier, healthier, more peaceful, more democratic, less oppressed, and enjoying more leisure time than we were even thirty years ago. Some facts:

Homicide rates and rates of most violent crimes in the US have been dropping more or less steadily for decades. We’re polluting far less than we did thirty years ago and our air quality has improved immensely. Dire poverty in the US and worldwide has been radically reduced in recent decades. More people are living under democratic governments now than at any time in the past. Steve Pinker, in this excellent Ted Talk on the topic of human progress, states that “house work” for much of history took up 60 hours a week, and now the average is 15 hours.

Pinker goes on to point out that news is about what happens, not about what doesn’t happen. “Nobody started a war today” isn’t news. “137,000 more people aren’t living in dire poverty today (and each day for the past twenty years)” is not news. He has a point, but I think it’s also the case that before we can tackle problems, we have to become aware of them. If we are to get the 700 million people still living on less than $2.00/day to better situations, we first had to realize (in 1990) that having 1.9 billion of us living in that situation was unacceptable.

We’ve had to realize that yes, spouses can rape one another, so we passed some laws about that. We realized that the planet wasn’t benefiting from having 70,000 nuclear weapons lying around (1986) so we’re down to fewer than 15,000 now. Before we can do better, we have to know better, and we are knowing a lot better.

Or that’s my theory. I see progress. My nieces and nephews are approaching family very differently–and more thoughtfully–than my parents or I did. Food-miles are now a thing, and I’m mighty aware of them. My house is powered by renewable energy not because I did anything to make it that way, but because the State of Maryland set up a program I could opt into by checking a box.

We see problems everywhere, but I suggest that if we look behind, beside, and beneath the problems, we will also see progress–and a lot more progress soon to be made.

Am I full of baloney? Are we headed for perdition, or does the fact of recent gains give you some hope? Do you see any other hopeful signs? To three commenters, I’ll send an ARC of A Spinster by the Sea.

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42 comments on “Perdition or Progress?

  1. I am somewhat hopeful because I am old enough to have seen when certain things were even worse. I grew up seeing “Whites Only” signs and attending segregated schools. I am glad that we don’t have those anymore, though I am realistic enough to know that while the outward signs may not be there, the systemic racism still underlies our democracy. Though it is somewhat small in comparison, I remember working full-time (husband was in school) and applying for a credit card, only to have it issued in his name, because he was a “he” and my husband, even without an income. That doesn’t happen now (of course, I made it easier to avoid by not marrying my current very long-term partner purposely).
    I do think that the big media companies are pandering to people and stirring them up for profit and I wish we could stop that. I, too, remember the Fairness Doctrine and wish its spirit remained (I know it actually remains but at least one party uses their fair time to just rail against the other, often on a personal level, rather than actually say anything of substance to counter).
    On a somber note, however, while I wish I was younger, I am really glad I’m so old that I won’t have to live with the negative consequences I see coming and I never had children so don’t have to worry about their future either. Yes, it’s selfish, but I cannot fix so many of the things I see are wrong. If I had a magic wand, however…

    • I recall doing “bomb scare” drills in grade school, and hearing all sorts of Malthusian disaster scenarios involving cannibalism unless we achieved ZPG (zero population growth). Welp, we now apparently have more children on the planet than we ever will again, and in my daughter’s lifetime, declining planetary population is going to be a pressing issue. Seeing that burning, apocalyptic issue fizzle in a few decades was instructive. It limits my panic… some.
      Like you, I do not envy the mess young people face in large part thanks to immediately preceding generations, but the worse problems have been building for centuries. Here’s hoping we can pace ourselves for the long haul….

      • Speaking of potential side effects of missing ZPG, I cringe every time I catch a promo for the products made by the Soylent company! The founders do know about the film and mention it on their website, but I can’t get past the name.

  2. I do see progress in the world about many things. First you have to SEE a problem, acknowledge there IS a problem, then figure out how to solve it. More and more people are speaking up about things no ever spoke up about before and that’s good.

    I’m sure what food miles are but….it disturbs me to purchase items out of season. While I may crave strawberries in January, the best ones are grown close to home and are available in June and July. I only have a short period of time before asparagus is in season and am really looking forward to it!

    I think a story I read in childhood has colored the way I look at out of season fruit and veggies–I think the title was “East of the Sun and West of the Moon”–it might be something else, but that title comes to mind. The premise was a young, beautiful girl had her step-sister (always the step-siblings!)demand she bring her strawberries in January. The wandered into a forest crying. The woodland creatures heard her and led her to the fairies of each month of the year dancing in a circle, with January in the middle. She explained her situation and June was led into the circle to dance so strawberries would grow. The girl plucked them, thank the fairies of the months and brought the berries to her step-sister who demanded a bunch of violets–you get the idea. Mayhem with the weather ensued outside of the forest and the moral of the story was to live in the month you are in. :)There’s a lot of mayhem created because we want certain things when they are not available to us.

      • Thanks for this. Now I’m thinking about how I can use the theme of wanting (insisting on having) something out of season in a book. Maybe not food, but something else that has seasons and needs a particular schedule or environment to develop. Dr. Suess’s tale about Gertrude McFuzz makes a similar comment on wanting what you don’t need, to the point that you screw up everything just to get it.

  3. Good reminders Grace, and at a time when we need those. It seems like we’re toggling between both, the hopeful gains and the looming death throes of certain negative contingents. Not quite two steps forward with one step back, but not the reverse either. Thank you.

    • Clash of the Titans to hear mainstream media tell it–all day, every day, and nothing but. I could do with a few more facts and a lot fewer opinions, myself.

  4. Anybody else old enough with a red enough neck to remember Merle Haggard singing, “Are we headed downhill Like a snowball headed for hell?

    It ends, “The best of the free life is still yet to come. The good times ain’t over for good.”

  5. The revocation of the Fairness Doctrine was such a poor decision!! And we are all reaping the “benefits” of that disaster.
    And I’m definitely a pessimist, and I think we’re all headed for perdition. Unfortunately. I know optimists are more healthy and live longer, but I just can’t trick myself into being an optimist.

    • I do wonder about the whole optimist/pessimist thing, Make. Why didn’t those optimists all end up getting eaten by sabre toothed tigers? I suspect because some of them were like you–realists. Better to skedaddle than hang around waiting to see what is rustling in the bushes at sunset.

      And we certainly CAN end up going to perdition, all too easily!

  6. A little of both. Looks like the usual bullies spoiling the playground for the rest of us. Ukraine, Syria, Turkey’s honcho crashing their economy.

    But then progress as the reality checks tank folks out of their self-absorption. I’m happy to live in times where medicine has options for glaucoma. My power company now offers an option to opt into solar power as they expand kilowatts available. I have fiberoptic internet that allows me to reach out globally to friends & work, as well as dropping in on satellites & planetary rovers. My car guides me to unfamiliar locations. (I still remember navigating Central London in a right hand drive stick shift, clutching scribbled directions in my shifting hand!)

    I’m thrilled to have annual visits from the Sandhill crane family after they almost went extinct. But sad that developers are clear cutting & burning everything in sight so the bobcats, deer, turkeys & raccoons have nowhere to go.

    I’m excited that larger earthquakes are starting to be semi-predictable by geomagnetic anomalies, curious to see the impact of the nearly 50 active volcanos on our climate & fascinated by our wandering magnetic poles. It’s a good time to be a science nerd. And it’s thrilling to have access to the scientific papers, videos, & observations with the click of a few keys.

    I’m a glass half full mindset & only glance at the negatives to avoid getting run over or adjust my survival strategy as things change. It’s a fascinating planet packed with (mostly) wonderful people & I’m determined to soak up as much of it as I can.

    • I wonder if, instead of gratitudes, we had to come up with “reasons to think half full” we might realize equal or greater benefit. Did not know that earthquakes were becoming predictable!

  7. I remember it being quite a shock (a pleasant one) to learn in my undergrad university twenty years ago that by nearly every objective that can be measured, the world is becoming a better place. Some of the cultural doomsday narratives I was raised with heavily promoted, shall we say, contradictory narratives.

    As a nearly forty year-old, the world seems like a much better place to me than the one I grew up in during the 80s and 90s: tragically flawed still, but better. Of course, I’m biased by my experience, but I also work with young people. They are fairer, kinder, more hardworking, and more oriented toward their family and the good of society with each passing cohort. These are young adults whose earliest memories are of parents or other caregivers losing jobs and homes in the Great Recession, who don’t know a pre-911 world–these experiences could make them selfish and xenophobic, but I’ve found them to be among the most selfless, curious, and genuinely other-oriented people I know. (Misinformation does tend to be an issue among a minority of them, though.)

    I have fewer positive things to say about my cohort of early aughts coming-of-agers, but at least I think that as a group we’re learning–and please don’t get me started on Boomers (present company excepted–everyone here who identifies in that cohort seems great).

    In addition to my college-age students, my own little children, their friends, and my nieces and nephews are frequently out ahead of me on issues of kindness, fairness, and the way we ought to treat other people. The kids are all right.

    • Thank for swerving the whole topic of Boomers, Ona. I am one, and while I can shake my fist at my demographic cohort (and have), I felt even more so about my parents’ generation. It might be the case that the old people, who are most likely to also be the rich people, always come in for some deserved criticism. We know this about the old folks, though. Their turn comes to an end.

  8. Thanks for pointing out the progress. These days I am still fixated on what happened with Afghanistan, particularly how women there have lost whatever gains they had. How women without men aren’t safe to go outside their homes to buy groceries.

    Our city gets power from a hydroelectric generating plant, so there is that. Our state’s use of coal is dropping steadily.

    I had not heard of food miles but agree wholeheartedly. I used to have a little garden at my old house, but the dirt here is red clay. A shovel will bounce off it. I am sure our state imports more vegetables than we really need to. This is Alabama – a dead stick will sprout leaves and grow roots if you stick it in the ground in the black belt where I grew up. Fabulous dirt.

    Naturally, I would love to read an ARC. I am also eagerly waiting for February 22 when several of the Lady Violet books are going to hit my Kindle!

    • I’m sending some love to the World Food Program, because Afghanistan is on the verge of famine–half their families have insufficient food. The step backwards in terms of gender equality is appalling, but progress often comes with set backs. I tell myself that every time I think of SCOTUS gutting the Voting Rights Act… not much comfort there either, but we will persist!

  9. Going back as far as history records events, humans have dealt with crime, disasters both man made and natural. Today, victims of crime are more willing to come forward, authorities more capable of tracking down criminals and society more willing to punish. I’d call this progress and reason to hope. Advances in communication, travel, medicine and the sciences that help predict and prepare for natural disasters have reduced the numbers of lives lost to tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes. I’d call this progress and reason to hope. We can evacuate quicker when fires threaten. We can haul water and flame retardant by air. We can airdrop food, water, and supplies to people in desperate need all over the world.

    I, too, have nieces and nephews who have taught me much about my carbon footprint and saving the planet. I do my best and I’d call this progress and reason to hope.

    There will always be those headed for perdition, but I believe as a whole the world is better off than it was.

  10. I haven’t commented on a post for awhile, though I find your newsletter/blog posts to be among the most thought provoking things I read on a weekly basis. It’s been a particularly busy winter for us with some family crisis thrown into the mix that sent us to our knees.

    I know that what you report about the improvements we have enjoyed here and worldwide are true and it helps a lot to be reminded of them frequently. I don’t work with young people myself, but I see both sides of the scale through our local newspaper that leans toward reporting the good news about our youth and regrettably the other side from a sister who works in a grade school. From her point of view we’ll be fortunate to have very many good kids to report about in 10 years time. Discipline has gone out the window, because teachers’ hands are tied and cannot do a danged thing when one kid acts up and takes half the schoolroom down with him. The kids know they can get by with anything. And their parents blame the teachers, (at the top of their lungs, with threats of lawsuits, and accompanied by language strictly forbidden among polite society…whatever that is anymore.) This isn’t big city U.S.A. here. But we’re losing teachers like mad. They are burnt out.

    I know those improvements exist, but as many were prompted by a need we became aware of there remains so many more issues suffered by our less fortunate population until someone will take up their cause. When I was a youth, I had that pie-in-the-sky optimism typical of that age, even though my own home life was often quite bad. That gave me a heart for others living through dark times, though, so not all bad. Still, was it youth that believed the world could be better? Only youth?

    I guess I’m the proverbial glass half empty person. I have so very much to be thankful for, and I am deeply grateful. But my upbringing (even though I hated it at the time) has been ingrained and I am aware of disaster lurking around the corner every step of the way. This is literally the mid-west pioneer’s descendant’s fear and belief that you should never let yourself get too happy because it never lasts. My Scandinavian ancestors had a hand in that too. 😀

    I don’t know how to end this comment. But I found others’ comments to be helpful and informative. And uplifting.

  11. I miss the Fairness Doctrine!!!

    I think we’ve come a long way (and if you don’t DO housework, it comes down to zero hours/week), but there’s still so far to go.

    And, I think Upton Sinclair hit one nail on one head when he said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

    I think we should report successes but if we went to the other extreme of only reporting successes, we’d fall back into our old habits. I think that makes me a pessimist, darn it!

    I also know that things that are reported as “improvements” in my medical situation are far more hassle (and not as “easy” to use) as most doctors think they are. So, an “improvement” to the doctors, but a great deal of hassle and anxiety and a LOT more time consuming for a patient.

    I think this is a situation where 20 things have to change/get adjusted in order for 1 thing to improve… it’s SO complicated, and I’m afraid my brain power just isn’t up to the task!

    So, I need balance in all things. I believe it is good to look for the hope but I like balance and, just to repeat myself, I MISS the Fairness Doctrine!

      • Oh my goodness! Maybe I’ll give it a try… might take me a few weeks, but we do need _something_. 🙂
        Here’s my working title: Marching for Fairness!


  12. I wish I were as confident of our collective future as you are Grace. What I see around me is a sea of uninformed, unintelligent people who are gullible enough to believe false promises of “trickle down” benefits. People who can’t see that they are sacrificial lambs to the grift and corruption of those who would seek power to their own benefit. What was it Woody Allen said about not wanting to belong to a club that would have him as a member? I frequently feel we ought not elect politicians who want to be elected! I hope for a better life for my kids and grandkids, but I am fearful that it may not be possible given the corruption and self serving people who lobby for power for the sake of power and not for the benefit of all citizens. Meanwhile, I try to do whatever I can to improve life on the local level, volunteering to cook meals for whoever needs them, donating to our local food pantry, just generally trying to be the best, kindest person I can be. Maybe if we all try, it will be enough? I surely hope so…. Hoping for the best while preparing for the worst.

    • I agree with you that the political scene is daunting, and the concept of elected office as a public trust, not a means to individual empowerment, seems to have waned. I am encouraged though, to see more women, minorities, non-lawyers, and non-millionaires in Congress. Diversity is HARD WORK, but it gets results.

    • And to extent that those media giants are publicly traded, they can claim that maximizing profit is their sacred duty to the shareholders… sure it is.

  13. I miss the Fairness Doctrine!!!

    For my own perspective, I view history / civilization / existence as cyclical and that is the only thing that keeps me sane. It doesn’t make me an optimist, but it does give me some space to breathe.

    • This too shall pass, and this, and this, and this… it’s oddly comforting to read Samuel Pepys grousing about young people going out carousing and thinking themselves indestructible during a plague year… The more things change…

      • There was a movie about Samuel Pepys in 2003. Humanity does not change that much. With what is going on today, I think of the corn laws and the Irish question. I enjoy reading your books to escape reality for a while (apart from the excellent writing, extensive research, character development, horse love, and engaging conversations [with horses]).

  14. AMEN to that! I blame 24 hour cable TV news for that. They have to fill the time with SOMETHING, I suppose something that sells ads, but important stuff that NEEDS a light shined on it, like corporate misconduct and corruption that affects public health and safety, is more or less ignored for “Tattler”-style opinion-filled “news” shows. You can still find well-researched informative articles and books done by real journalists, but you have to go somewhere else than cable TV news to find them.

  15. Oh, Grace! Thank you for that. As someone with a science degree, I know that perfection isn’t possible, it’s only theoretical. That idea helps me be forgiving of myself and others. Unfortunately it is easier to notice that something is there and not that something is no longer there.

  16. Hmmm. Lots of food for thought.

    Perhaps one area I see a definite regression is in manufactured items:
    Refrigerators that don’t last ten years, but are touted as energy
    efficient. Although the cost of the fridge far exceeds any
    electricity savings during its short lifespan.
    IPads that have obsolescent software in five years.
    Clothes that are discarded in a few years as unfashionable, but
    are no longer made of natural biodegradable fibers.
    Increasingly larger homes that need a corresponding increase of
    stuff (uh, furnishings)….

    I read a comment elsewhere the other day that said the 3Rs of environmental care were Receive, Reuse, and Recycle. And that is it in a nutshell. Consumerism teaches us that we must Receive. Environmental care teaches us that we must Reduce (whether population or our desires for what is new, new, new.)

    Thankfully, new books are one pleasure that doesn’t have to be curbed. (Ebooks assuage both my environmental conscience and any concerns about COVID-19, and have relieved more pressure on my already overburdened wall of bookshelves.)

    I am so thankful for all authors who continue to entertain and inform us in the middle of what has been some stressful years.

  17. I love your optimism, one of the main reasons I love your books. I do see hope and progress through our granddaughters who are so much more aware of the world around them and so much more open to all people.

  18. Every time I watch the national evening news, I think “FEAR!!!” As you stated, it’s their job to say what is going on, and if you focus only on what you hear from 6:30-7pm, it’s terrifying. It’s so easy to assume, and the obsess about, that we’re going to hell in a hand basket. Take a step back, a deep breath, and count your blessings.

  19. Grace I am delighted to find such an intelligent blog attached to your lovely books. I’ve just reached Violet’s love affair and your manner of writing it is marvellous: explicit yet sensitive. I salute your political optimism here but I do not share it.

    Possibly this is because I do not speak from America. Here in the UK we had one of the best societies that ever existed – 1945-1980. A tiny window of goodness. It wasn’t perfect; racism, sexism, classism, disability status, was all bad. But there were NO beggars, NO unintentional homeless, NO hungry children, free education on merit for all up to BA/BSc level with a maintenance grant, reasonable welfare without sanctions or harassment, and our National health Service (NHS) was a beacon to the world. All that has been destroyed by post 1980 governments and much more.

    We are crippled by Brexit. Big Energy is prettified by greenwashing. Bullying and dishonesty has been normalised everywhere from the top down. Rights have been and are being dismantled. One third of our population is treated as subhuman. Our starving children now get Red Cross aid. While we do have some vigorous feminist activity I have mixed feelings that issues of safety we raised in the 70s are only now getting serious attention. Now we have a (predictable) war to distract attention from our leaders’ greed and wickedness. (they are not stupid or incompetent they’r laughing al the way to offshore bank accounts.)

    I have an adult son. I admire his generation, their courage and kindness. But the changes in laws, and restrictions on the right to vote to photoID, the ill-health due to trashing the health service, the ominous building huge new prisons and police given terrifying powers … oh I fear for our young. The only way to a positive future will be via violent unrest on a large scale.I am sad most of all that I will soon not be here to protect my son as I have until now.

  20. Thank you Grace for this blog. I read Stephen Pinkers Angels of our Better nature and that is what he said in that book and thank you for reminding us. I have been enjoying your books for years. They take me away from the sadness I see in my job as a child psychologist and the fact that most TV is about violence. I am writing this watching the horror Putin is visiting on Ukraine. We need writers like you so keep them coming. I have just read about how Askimet works, someone should tell Google, Facebook and especially Mark Zuckerberg about how to keep the internet a safe space.