5. The horn of plenty
The royal dinners at Versailles might have had glitzier place settings, but Louis XVI would gaze enviously at the food in a middle-class home or restaurant today: kiwifruits from New Zealand, South African peppers, Thai pineapples, Italian gelato. He’d be amazed, too, at the way we take fresh produce, fish, and meat for granted in every season.
The king’s subjects, of course, would be even more envious. France was one of the world’s richest countries in the late 18th century, but the average Frenchman consumed less than 2,000 calories per day-about the same level as people in the world’s poorest countries consumed in the middle of the 20th century. Today, the typical person in a poor country consumes 2,700 calories daily, a nutritional improvement made possible by farmers growing more food at lower cost.
While the occasional food shortage or price spike grabs our attention, the long-range trend is what really matters. While incomes have risen since 1950, the inflation-adjusted price of food has declined by 75 percent, according to the World Resources Institute. So it represents a smaller and smaller portion of our paychecks.
Food is so plentiful that in many countries, the old concerns about hunger have been replaced by worries about obesity.
6. More wilderness
Once you travel beyond the sprawling exurbs of America, you’ll find plenty of open space and peaceful forests. Many of the prairies and woodlands cleared by settlers have returned now that the land is no longer needed for agriculture.
In recent decades, America has gained 70 million acres of wilderness, which is more than all the land currently occupied by cities, suburbs, and exurbs, according to Peter Huber, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. And more people than ever can get to that wilderness because of a technology that we now routinely curse …
7. The modern automobile
Granted, cars emit greenhouse gases and create maddening traffic jams, but consider what else they do. Compared with the models on the road in 1970, today’s cars burn less gasoline per mile and emit 98 percent fewer pollutants. That’s why, despite the doubling of the number of cars, there’s much less smog in the air.
The basic sedan today offers more creature comforts and safety than the luxury cars of old. The fatality rate has declined sharply, and cars have become so reliable that it’s rare to come upon that once-routine sight on the shoulder of the road: a driver forlornly staring under the hood.
8. The platinum age of television
Forget the so-called golden age of TV. Shows from the ’50s look positively primitive compared with Mad Men, 30 Rock, or The Amazing Race. When a few networks had to appeal to the lowest common denominator, television really was a wasteland-just as Hollywood so often churns out mediocrity when it’s aiming for box office blockbusters.
With hundreds of channels today, TV producers don’t have to please everyone, so they can appeal to niche audiences with quirky programs: sophisticated dramas, edgy comedies, and documentaries that aren’t just educational but riveting. When children are happily learning about Mayan engineering on the History Channel or quasars on the Discovery Channel, that box is no longer the boob tube.
9. Retreat from Armageddon
During the Cold War, the United States and the former Soviet Union had about 50,000 nuclear warheads aimed at each other. Since then, they’ve agreed to get rid of 90 percent of them, and tens of thousands of those weapons have already been eliminated. As Gregg Easterbrook observes in his book The Progress Paradox, “Historians will view nuclear arms reduction as such an incredible accomplishment that it will seem bizarre in retrospect so little attention was paid while it was happening.”
The gift of longer life has usually been accompanied by the loss of memories, but we’ll be luckier than our grandparents. Besides the new memory-improvement drugs being developed, we’ve got digital photos and videos and e-mails to recall our best personal moments and the Web to instantly help us remember who sang that song or which year the blizzard hit.
In the past, only nobles could hire scribes to write their histories and artists to depict their deeds. Today, we all have records of our lives to pass on to our descendants, to comfort us as we age, and to remind us, every now and then, to count our blessings.