Finding Hope in the Small Stories of Human Progress

We’ve been seeing so many dire headlines the past year that it’s easy to feel pessimistic about the planet — what with collapsing economies and malfunctioning governments, clashes over territories and religious and ethnic differences, not to mention intensifying storms caused by global warming that seem to be sending us hurtling toward, well, 2012.

That’s why it’s important to remind ourselves from time to time that the news plays up not the persistent trends that will have the biggest impact on our lives but the big flashy events that seldom leave a trace in a year’s time.

The story of human progress — the one that took us from eating grubs for dinner and driving away cave bears for shelter to McDonald’s and central heat — is generally logged in small type and below the fold. The trends that will add up to the way we’ll live in a decade are usually tedious compilations of small steps taken by people working in quiet obscurity — be they scientists, diplomats, entrepreneurs, financiers, artists or right-thinking individuals who impart the perspectives that help keep us heading in the right direction.

My habit of merely skimming headlines and spending the bulk of my news time zeroing in on these modest little chronicles of human progress writ small has made me an inveterate optimist. There’s hardly a dire headline that I don’t read as an opportunity for progress to improve the human condition. Cairo burning? A step toward a more progressive society that will provide better opportunities for all. Greece and Italy teetering on the verge of debt default and insolvency? Solid incentive for the EU to make badly needed structural changes to reinvigorate members economies. US congressional leaders can’t seem to tie their shoelaces? An object lesson in the perils of putting partisanship above public service.

To me politics are a puppet show — staged melodramas that present opportunities for the occasional emergence of statesmen who can lead us forward a couple of steps for each backward step taken through conflict. Wars are sad but inevitable failures of politics and diplomacy that leave all concerned more open-minded about embracing steps toward a new and better world order. The UN, for example, didn’t really come into its own until after a couple of great big world wars.

When you start talking economics and business, I start perking up. Nothing encourages me more than seeing growing economies that keep providing higher standards of living. The strides that China, India, S. Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Turkey, Brazil and Russia have taken recently are among the best reasons for hope. That many people moving into the middle class is that much less fuel for wars and collective misery. The 26% jump in e-commerce sales on Black Friday? Wow! Imagine the pollution, traffic congestion and misery that was saved!

To my mind the biggest small stories are those dealing with technologies that promise faster, cheaper, lighter, cleaner, more durable and more convenient cars, computers, homes, robots, organs, photovoltaics and a thousand other things to make our lives easier and more entertaining without hastening our planet’s demise as a habitat. With each passing year there seems to be more and more such stories of progress. It’s practically impossible for me to feel even momentary pessimism any more, no matter how many dire occurrences are screamed by the headlines.

How can I be pessimistic when we’re headed toward a clean world in which everyone will be well fed, comfortably housed and perpetually amused without the need to worry about drudgery, death and disease? Sure, it may take a while but I have no doubt we’ll get there — and that knowledge makes it easy to take those headlines in stride.