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In Age Of Division, Author Says 'It's Better Than It Looks' When You Stick To The Facts


Between threats of nuclear war, devastating natural disasters, violence and political division at home, it might feel like things are really bad right now. But not necessarily so, says Gregg Easterbrook. He argues that by a lot of important measures, the United States and the world are on an upward trajectory. Here in the U.S., crime is down in most places, inflation is low and education is improving. Gregg Easterbrook's new book is "It's Better Than It Looks: Reasons For Optimism In An Age Of Fear." And he joins me now in our studios. Hi.


MCCAMMON: So to start, can you tell us why you think people have such a dim view of the country in the first place? Where does that sense come from?

EASTERBROOK: I spent a lot of time in "It's Better Than It Looks" on why we feel so badly about ourselves, although objective barometers are pretty good. And I think, right now, it's popular to pile on social media. That's fine with me. I do pile on social media. I think that's one factor because it relentlessly emphasizes the negative and overstates anger and discord. But I think more on a larger basis, these beliefs were developing long before anybody had Facebook in their pockets on a phone. Our perception of the world should be fact-based.

If you look at facts, the United States has never been in better condition. The European Union has never been in better condition. And a great deal - of course, not all - but much of the world has never been in better condition. But we've come to think that our emotions, not the facts, should dominate how we perceive events. And I think, in 2016, when Trump was elected and Brexit passed in the United Kingdom, we found out what goes wrong when you emphasize your emotions rather than looking at facts.

MCCAMMON: And you do write that President Trump and other politicians have sold the American people and perhaps the British people on a much dimmer view of the state of things. You write Trump convinced voters that our country is going to hell. Despite the industrial output record, Trump convinced voters that we don't make things anymore. Despite the glittering numbers, Trump convinced voters that the economy is always bad - down, down, down. Despite the urban comebacks of Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., Trump convinced voters that American cities have no education, they have no jobs and so on. So if everything is so great, then why is this idea that you call declinism so alluring for so many people?

EASTERBROOK: I think there - I say in the book there are four basic categories of knowing, and one is certainty. The sun is 93 million miles from the Earth. There's nothing to discuss there. Another is faith versus doubt. We can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. A third is opinion. Which beer do you like the best? I mean, it's just opinion. And then there's what you want to believe. What you want to believe is so much stronger than all other forms of knowing.

Americans want to believe that their country is falling apart. This is not a brand-new belief. This belief has been deep in American culture for generations. Far in the past, intellectuals thought America was falling apart. We seemed to have trained ourselves to believe this despite declining pollution, increasing longevity, less discrimination, less violence. Everything that you can measure has been steadily better during the lifetime of almost all of your listeners to this program.

MCCAMMON: We can't talk about the future without talking, I think, about one of the biggest threats - that being climate change. You acknowledge that rising sea levels pose a major threat to people's lives and livelihoods. But even on that topic, you express optimism that between technology and adaptation, humans will solve that problem, too. You know, we're already seeing rising seas and global warming. Why are you so optimistic we can solve this one in time?

EASTERBROOK: A core distinction I try to make in "It's Better Than It Looks" is being optimistic doesn't mean you're a Pollyanna, doesn't mean you go around smiling all the time. An optimist can be cynical. I'm a cynical optimist. An optimist can and should be angry about the injustices of the world. The difference is an optimist thinks it can all be fixed, and a pessimist thinks that we're just going to hell in a handbasket.

So when you - I spent - I've got a full chapter in the book on the practical things that could be done about climate change. One - on the practical things that can be done about inequality. As an optimist, I think that there are reasonable, pragmatic solutions to both those problems. They're not easy. I'm not saying they're easy. But I'm saying that they can be worked. And the key thing with climate change is that greenhouse gases are fundamentally an air pollution problem, and all previous air pollution problems - acid rain, smog and many others - have all been fixed faster and cheaper than anyone expected.

MCCAMMON: But this is a problem that takes collective action, and those are often tough problems. What makes you think that, collectively, humanity can do it?

EASTERBROOK: Well, if you go back one generation when smog was horrible in Los Angeles and other cities, it was also horrible in Paris, becoming horrible in the coastal cities of China. Now smog is declining everywhere. There is no international treaty that governs smog. The big achievement of the Paris conference three years ago was not the nonbinding sheet of paper that they signed. The big achievement is that not just the United States or European Union but China, India, Brazil and Indonesia were all there, and they all agreed to exchange engineering and technical information on the solutions. And that's what's going to beat climate change.

MCCAMMON: How we think about our world isn't just shaped by objective measures. It's also shaped by who we are - our racial - our gender identity, many things that shape how we see the world and the world sees us. If you don't mind my saying, you're a white man. You're part of what some people would call the media elite. Isn't it easy for you to say, hey, things are good - they're getting better?

EASTERBROOK: I take this the next step, and the final third of my book takes it the next step, saying that, first, we look at the reforms that worked in the past, and we try to find common themes, and I do find a few. And then, you take those themes and apply them to the problems of the present. The two main examples I use are the two hardest ones, I think - climate change and inequality. There are lots of other problems, too. But climate change and inequality going to be the hardest ones to solve. And knowing all these things that I think - and being a white male optimist makes me think that these problems can be fixed. And that leaves me with no excuse but to want to work on fixing those problems.

MCCAMMON: Gregg Easterbrook. His new book is "It's Better Than It Looks: Reasons For Optimism In An Age Of Fear." Thanks so much.

EASTERBROOK: Thank you, Sarah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.