A Case for Optimism [Gaille Energy Blog Issue 91]

A Case for Optimism [Gaille Energy Blog Issue 91]

  • Posted by scottgaille
  • On June 22, 2020

I spent Father’s Day visiting my parents in South Texas.  Much of our conversation was about the state of the world and how bad things have been this 2020.  But the trajectory of human progress—like the stock market—is not a straight line. There are ups-and-downs.  There are bumps in the road.  There always have been.  There always will be.

Many of my friends in the South Texas of the 1970s wore the same ragged clothes to school every day, clothes that were washed by their own hands and hung out to dry in the open air.  Some didn’t have electricity.  One didn’t even have running water.  Incomes are still lower in today’s South Texas, but even the least fortunate have electricity, air conditioning, washing machines, vehicles, big screen TVs, Internet, and iPhones.  Quality of life for Americans has surged over the last half century.

“Consider the U.S. just three decades ago.  . . . Eleven percent of us fell below the poverty line (as measured by consumption).  . . .  [Today] [t]hree percent of us fall below the consumption poverty line.”  Steven Pinker, The Enlightenment Is Working (Wall Street Journal Feb. 10-11, 2018).

The world, too, has greatly improved.  I’ve visited more than 140 countries, including 31 in Africa. Over the course of my travels, I have personally witnessed dramatic transformations.  People went from no phones to mobile phones.  People went from no electricity to solar panels on their roofs. People went from drinking parasite-infested river water to clean water pumped from wells powered by the sun.  It’s been amazing to watch the speed with which the worst-off around the world have dramatically improved their conditions.

“Globally, the 30-year scorecard also favors the present.  . . . 37% of the population lived in extreme poverty, barely able to feed themselves, compared with 9.6% today.”  Steven Pinker, The Enlightenment Is Working (Wall Street Journal Feb. 10-11, 2018).

The below figure shows how the vast majority of countries have seen their per capita wealth multiply since 1950:

Screen Shot 2020-06-22 at 1.03.15 PM

Looking further backward in time, the numbers are even more astounding:

  • “The world is about a hundred times wealthier than it was two centuries ago, and the prosperity is becoming more evenly distributed across countries and people.”
  • “Two centuries ago, 12% of the world could read and write; today, 85% can.”
  • “Americans work 22 fewer hours a week than they did in the late 19thcentury and lose 43 fewer hours to housework.”

Steven Pinker, The Enlightenment Is Working (Wall Street Journal Feb. 10-11, 2018).

The below chart of GDP per capita for the United States says it all:

Screen Shot 2020-06-22 at 1.50.37 PM

Human progress will always face setbacks.  Pandemics will come and go.  Bad ideas will hobble economies.  Evil people will destroy what others have worked so hard to build.  Yet the world is more resilient than ever.  The iPhone in my pocket is more powerful than the computer that landed Americans on the moon in 1969.  A person with a good idea can cheaply market it to the entire world.  For every step backward, we will take two—or three—or ten—forward.  The march of progress will go on.  Tomorrow will be even better.

About the Gaille Energy Blog. The Gaille Energy Blog (view counter = 156,114) discusses issues in the field of energy law, with periodic posts at www.gaillelaw.com. Scott Gaille is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Chicago Law School, an Adjunct Professor in Management at Rice University’s Graduate School of Business, the author of three books on energy law (Construction Energy Development, Shale Energy Development, and International Energy Development), and co-author of the award-winning travel compilation, Strange Tales of World Travel (Bronze Medalist, IPPY Awards for Best 2019 Travel Essay; ForeWord Magazine Finalist for Best Travel Book of 2019; North American Travel Journalists’ Honorable Mention for Best Travel Book of 2019).

Images available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.


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