By KEITH DAHLBERG
Mr. Easterbrook speaks to the political and public fears and tumult of the present times. The chapters of his book address specific world problems such as “Will Nature Collapse?,” Will the Economy Collapse?” “With the rapidly growing world population, why aren’t we starving yet?” “Why Don’t the Dictators Win?,” etc.
He states that many of the world’s largest problems are actually lessening, and he documents his claims with many pages of authoritative end notes.
There is little doubt that the world is changing. Rapid change is often unpleasant, even fearful; memories of the “Good Old Days” seem more stable and comforting. Most people tend to focus on bad news more than on good, fostering a pessimistic attitude even when things are actually improving.
Two hundred years ago, when there were one billion people living in the world, about 90 percent had to labor hard to feed their family. Statisticians of the day prophesied that mankind would soon use up all the world’s farmable land, resulting in widespread famine. In 1914 USA, an acre of wheat yielded 10.8 bushels. By 1950, an acre produced 13 bushels; by 2015, up to 36 bushels. Part of this was mechanization, tractor replacing horse, reaper replacing scythe. Part was science: better fertilizer and irrigation, introduction of new wheat varieties, part was better education in rural areas. But where 90 percent of the world’s one billion population often went to bed hungry in 1800 AD, now only 13 percent of the seven billion are chronically malnourished. That’s still 900 million malnourished people and we still have a long way to go.
Another chapter asks, “Why is violence declining?” Many people would say it isn’t. Easterbrook disagrees. He points out that the last world-wide war ended 73 years ago. Terrorism, on the other hand is one of the types of violence that is still increasing, but on smaller scale, involving thousands of deaths at worst, instead of millions. An American is 175 times more likely to be killed by a car than by a terrorist.
He suggests that closed circuit cameras, tracking of cell phones, and DNA matching make offenders more likely to be caught and convicted. Some studies of ancient Rome have blamed lead plumbing as contributed to violence; and that enforced absence of lead in car fuel and in house paint may be a factor in present-day crime decrease. In any event, criminals are more likely to be stopped nowadays. He quotes statistics that one in every fifteen Americans is on parole or similar supervision and that rehabilitation does more than severe sentencing in reducing crime.
Although Easterbrook’s goal of seeking the facts is common sense in the present political atmosphere of endless argument and counter-argument, the reader may expect to doubt his claims in a few instances, depending on “but what if …?” factors from the reader’s own experience: “What about the years when expected gas mileage used to be 40 mpg, not 23?” “What about machinery built eighty years ago that still works fine? How will the obvious need for national infrastructure replacement be financed?” “What if the man in charge is irrational?” “What if a self-driving car has a defective component during rush-hour traffic on the freeway?” Best to provide for alternatives in advance. (No, something other than a funeral!)