We live in Utopia!

By Razib Khan | May 19, 2010 7:40 am

Rod Dreher mulls his bias toward declinism while evaluating Matt Ridley’s new book The Rational Optimist. Here’s a portion of Ridley’s argument:

But with new hubs of innovation emerging elsewhere, and with ideas spreading faster than ever on the Internet, Dr. Ridley expects bottom-up innovators to prevail. His prediction for the rest of the century: “Prosperity spreads, technology progresses, poverty declines, disease retreats, fecundity falls, happiness increases, violence atrophies, freedom grows, knowledge flourishes, the environment improves and wilderness expands.”

Dreher gloomily observes:

Well, I would certainly love to be wrong; neither I nor my descendants gain anything out of a world of decline. But it would be useful to go back and look at how 19th-century progressives expected the 20th century to be a wonderland of peace, prosperity and progress. Didn’t quite work out that way. I suspect the truth is that nobody knows anything about tomorrow, and that we can only make our best educated guesses based on history and the wisdom of experience.

Looking at the imaginings of past futurists is often pretty amusing. And Ridley’s projections of plentitude and prosperity seem to involve an extrapolation of the conditions of the past 200 years, whereby a greater and greater proportion of humanity has broken the shackles of the Malthusian trap. The reality is that for most of human history innovation was always immediately counter-balanced by population growth so that median wealth never increased. Only in the 19th century did a new social pattern and demographic dynamic emerge whereby prosperous individuals did not reproduce to a greater extent in keeping with their greater wealth. Rather, societies went through the “demographic transition”, and greater wealth for future generations became the new norm. There’s no reason that this doesn’t have to be a transient state between long epochs of Malthusianism, so I think assuming that the new normal is the normal forever more is a step too far.

That being said, it seems to me that we do truly live in a utopia in any objective terms when viewed from the 19th or early 20th centuries. The Dickensian lot of the poor no longer characterize the lower classes of the developed world, and obesity is actually a feature of the lives of the poor, as opposed to starvation. The period between 1800 and 1970 witnessed a massive shift in earning power to the working classes, and a closing of the wage gap between skilled and unskilled workers. Infection has not been abolished, but it is no longer so deadly. Violence has decreased, despite the periodic outbreaks of industrialized genocide. And so on.

Utopia is always over the hill, and the new normal was the aspiration of the past, not the bliss of the present. But the past and the present and the future are actually instantiated simultaneously. Consider three airports which I have sharp experiences of. Dhaka airport is the past. John F Kennedy airport is the present. And Munich airport is the future. If you took a flight from Dhaka to Munich you would have thought that you’d been transported to utopia.

I don’t take these utopian dreams as an injunction toward complacency. Rather, we should appreciate all that modern science, technology and government has achieved, and be vigilant. Before we despair at all which might be lost, remember this famous chart:



Comments (23)

  1. NewEnglandBob

    I have Ridley’s book on order. I hope Ridley is correct and not the doom and gloom of Dreher. I like the way you look at it, Razib. Sure, we have lots of problems, but the average lifespan and the average quality of life has risen for many (of course not for all).

  2. Maybe the graph is famous, but I haven’t seen it before. What’s shown on it? It’s the poverty rate where, measured by what criterion?

  3. Chris T

    It won’t be a utopia; all of the age old problems will remain (unless we engineer humans to be something else). However, it will likely be even better than today assuming the trends of the last few hundred years continue.

    Fatalism, like Dreher’s, will paradoxically increase since only the (relatively) rich have something they’re afraid to lose and the time to worry about it. There will be a lot more rich to do the worrying.

  4. I’m a naysayer in many respects, but my fellow prophets of doom say a lot of things that aren’t true. Recently I ran into an old friend into diet and health, and he claimed that heart disease is skyrocketing. But it isn’t; deaths from heart disease and stroke have been steadily declining for at least six decades.

    A partial explanation: when someone affiliates with an attitude toward life (ideology, life plan, whatever) their concepts freeze at that point, and in general people only commit like that a few times in their life. So if crime is skyrocketing and you opt for law ‘n’ order as an ideology, for you crime will be skyrocketing forever, even after it goes down., and even though if crime kept skyrocketing for three decades society would collapse.

    Wiring a dynamic or a trend into your picture of the world leads to weird, weird results, but lots of people do it.

  5. I’m a naysayer in many respects, but my fellow prophets of doom say a lot of things that aren’t true.

    conservatives tend to believe that morals and crime are way worse than they used to be. not necessarily true (especially if you factor in fudges like the high % of shot-gun weddings before the 1960s). liberals tend to believe that the environment is collapsing all around us and that overpopulation and income inequality are destroying median quality of life. those are the two biases i’ve noticed.

    (on massimo pigliucci’s first diavlog on bhtv he kept implying that the world was poorer and overpopulation was producing more poverty and that economic conditions were getting worse and worse. this is a guy with doctorates in biology and philosophy. but his lefty subculture reinforces that poverty is getting worse through overpopulation so he believes this)

  6. “By 1950, [American] life expectancy had risen to 68.2, and it reached 76.9 in 2000.”

    Lots of life expectancy stats

  7. Chris T

    People tend to believe the first thing they hear on an issue, especially if it incites negative emotions. This is why people often talk as though something that was true twenty years ago is still true today regardless of the reality. Hence why the world generally and the US specifically always sound like they’re going to hell when you listen to other people.

    Bad news sells because it draws a strong emotional response and information that elicits strong emotions is more likely to be remembered.

  8. dave chamberlin

    Negativity sells and complex analysis doesn’t. That is why I have to go to the internet to listen to some arogant young sqirt named Razib to get the lowdown. I live in Chicago and every winter I am informed of the wind chill factor, the real tempature if wind is blowing on your bare skin. Well no damn fool is going outside bare assed naked, we are all bundled up before that front door opens to the bitter cold world outside. No one informs me of the actual tempature after estimating the solar efect on dark clothing, although it would be much more practical information. If if bleeds, it leads, gimme fear, gimme the stark awful worst.

  9. The problem is that the rate of economic growth in the U.S. has been declining pretty steadily since the sixties. (The 90’s had a long run of growth, but not very high rates in any year.) What was once 4-5% growth has gone to 1 to 2% growth, and our rather anemic effort to pull out of this recession is not promising. Growth in Europe in recent decades has been even less impressive. Given the massive debts facing Western nations and the demographic shift to persistently less productive peoples, there are certainly sufficient grounds to believe that this negative 2nd derivative will in the not too distant future turn into a negative first derivative.

  10. bioIgnoramus

    Don’t worry, chaps, the doomsters will soon fall silent. Because Western Civilisation is about to end.

  11. Mencius Moldbug likes to point to the illegible doom-mongering prophecies of Caryle as being vindicated by history, but MacCaulay is the all time champ at prognostication (with all due respect to Daniel Patrick Moynihan).

    People just refuse to believe that crime is down. Oddly enough, they have accurate beliefs about crime in their own neighborhoods, but inflated perceptions of how bad things are elsewhere. People similarly tend to think that their health-care situation is good but everyone else’s is bad and the economy has been good for them but not everyone else.

  12. Fargo is one of the safest cities in the world, but people there who watch TV worry about crime a lot because they watch the same TV as everyone else.

    Fargo’s so goddamn tame that at some point a normal person who moved there would want to start importing riffraff just to reduce the boredom.

  13. toto

    Razib: Surely this graph is adjusted for inflation effects…?

    Monetary depreciation of the dollar since 1970 – not a perfect match, but eerily similar.

  14. i assumed it was adjusted since economists are the ones who have pointed to this. it seems pretty obvious that poor regions of asian are getting richer if you just visit them.

  15. dave chamberlin

    John Emerson says
    “Fargo is so goddamn tame that at some point a normal person would want to start importing riffraff.”

    Well I have some good news for you then. The meth epidemic is just starting to take off in places like Fargo. Coming soon to a nieghborhood near you…. Tweakers, a really fun bunch with something like a 1% chance of recovery. If this crap was hitting the suburbs like it is hitting podunk we would hear ten times as much about it.

  16. omar

    That first statement about “look how the 20th century turned out” is actually laughably off-target. The 20th century was the best century this species has had in recorded memory. if that is decline, then we need more of it….

  17. People have been talking about the meth epidemic out in the boonies for a decade or two. As of right now this looks like one of those trends that people get stuck in their heads.

  18. “That first statement about “look how the 20th century turned out” is actually laughably off-target. ”

    I think what Dreher is referring to are the 100+ million slaughtered in world wars, ethnic cleansings, communist purgings and U.S./USSR proxy wars. That was quite a toll, so I don’t know that the “glory that was the 20th century” is quite so cut-and-dry.

  19. Brian Too

    When I look worldwide, it’s crystal clear to me that we are (globally) better off than at nearly any time in history. Though I cannot speak knowlegeably about early agrarian or pre-agrarian societies 5000+ BCE.

    Governments are far more representative than at nearly any time in history. The 20th century was dominated by a struggle between Communist and (crudely speaking) Western societies. Most of the Communist governments are gone and have been replaced by more representative governance systems. The monarchies of Europe that dominated pre-WW I, all gone or profoundly altered, with lesser roles across the board.

    The wars that swept whole countries, civilizations, and cultures, seem greatly reduced in size and menace (stay tuned on this score though. The Pax Romana lasted a long time too).

    The feudal socio-economic practices that held great masses in poverty, perpetually, largely gone.

    The threats to health caused by childbirth, infection, unclean water and unsafe sewage handling, long gone in the developed world, and much reduced even in the developing world.

    Education for the masses, a rarity prior to the Enlightenment and the printing press, is now commonplace.

    Just take a look at the sweeping changes hitting China and India now. Between them they hold 1/3 of the worlds population. Life for the average citizen is measurably improving there, year by year.

    The main thing that gives me pause is the human impulse. Humanity has a knack for messing up their own circumstances. Give (or simply enable) a person to achieve a middle-class lifestyle, and what seems to happen? Recreational activities increase to the point of self-destruction (gambling, drug use, Jackass-type activities). This is the wildcard. We cannot change human nature.

  20. Breeze

    Relatively we live in the best times ever, but there is no pleasing some people; they just want to bitch and moan and be negative.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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