Cheer Up! | Reader's Digest

Cheer Up!

17 reasons it's a great time to be alive

By Matt Ridley | as told to John Dyson (adapted from Reader's Digest U.K. edition) from Reader's Digest magazine | April 2012

Cheer Up!Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Thinkstock
“The world has never been a better place to live in,” says science writer Matt Ridley, “and it will keep on getting better.” Today, in a world gripped by global economic crisis and afflicted with poverty, disease, and war, them’s fightin’ words in some quarters. Ridley’s critics have called him a “denialist” and “shameful” and have accused him of “playing fast and loose with the truth” for his views on climate change and the free market.

Yet Ridley, 54, author most recently of The Rational Optimist, sticks to his guns. “It is not insane to believe in a happy future for people and the planet,” he says. Ridley, who’s been a foreign correspondent, a zoologist, an economist, and a financier, brings a broad perspective to his sunny outlook. “People say I’m bonkers to claim the world will go on getting better, yet I can’t stop myself,” he says. Read on to see how Ridley makes his case. Brilliant or bonkers? You decide.

1. We’re better off now

Compared with 50 years ago, when I was just four years old, the average human now earns nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), eats one third more calories, buries two thirds fewer children, and can expect to live one third longer. In fact, it’s hard to find any region of the world that’s worse off now than it was then, even though the global population has more than doubled over that period.

2. Urban living is a good thing

City dwellers take up less space, use less energy, and have less impact on natural ecosystems than country dwellers. The world’s cities now contain over half its people, but they occupy less than 3 percent of its land area. Urban growth may disgust environmentalists, but living in the country is not the best way to care for the earth. The best thing we can do for the planet is build more skyscrapers.

3. Poverty is nose-diving

The rich get richer, but the poor do even better. Between 1980 and 2000, the poor doubled their consumption. The Chinese are ten times richer and live about 25 years longer than they did 50 years ago. Nigerians are twice as rich and live nine more years. The percentage of the world’s people living in absolute poverty has dropped by over half. The United Nations estimates that poverty was reduced more in the past 50 years than in the previous 500.

4. The important stuff costs less

One reason we are richer, healthier, taller, cleverer, longer-lived, and freer than ever before is that the four most basic human needs—food, clothing, fuel, and shelter—have grown markedly cheaper. Take one example: In 1800, a candle providing one hour’s light cost six hours’ work. In the 1880s, the same light from a kerosene lamp took 15 minutes’ work to pay for. In 1950, it was eight seconds. Today, it’s half a second. In these terms, we are 43,200 times better off than in 1800.

5. The environment is better than you think

In the United States, rivers, lakes, seas, and air are getting cleaner all the time. A car today emits less pollution traveling at full speed than a parked car did from leaks in 1970.

  • Your Comments

    • Farzad

       Dear Mr. Ridley,

      Almost all the 17 reasons you mentioned in your article do
      not seem to be real and are in blatant contradiction with the third world
      societies situations. Circumstances in Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, for
      instance, are worsened day after day. In addition, the condition of a society
      is not only measured materialistically. If the idea “the world is a better
      place to live in now” is going to be proven, peoples beliefs should also be
      compared with old beliefs. I, personally, would rather living with few money
      and be happy than living wealthy but unhappily. How about you?

    • monte hooper

      About Matt Ridley’s “Cheer Up” #16. He said, “All sorts of new products and industries were born during the Depression.” both in the US and Germany. Well, that’s true. Unfortunately much of the new products and industry was war based. I can’t believe that the run up to WWII should be viewed as a reason to “Cheer UP”.

    • Saeed

      Although what you have mentioned seems quite fascinating, I believe the quality of life cannot be measured by merely materialistic aspects. There’s more to life than how much one earns, or where someone lives. I strongly believe that the true happiness lies within, and not without. So if we should see whether this is a great time to be alive or not, we need to compare people’s beliefs and ideologies of life, humanity, and peace!

    • http://www.travelcoconut.com/ pathum

      bookmarked for later reading… interesting points.

    • Cynthiab

      I LOVE this article!  It all is very logical and every statement has research backing it up….love that.  But, the last paragraph is missing a point.  I think that it’s actually the pessimist that drives people to improve the world.  If everyone had an optimistic view, we may be sitting back and relaxing instead of saying, “OH NO!  Something bad is going to happen! We need to invent/develop something to prevent it!”  So, as annoying as pessimism is, I dare say it is necessary. 

    • Jessica

      In 1939 Germany, millions of Jews and other groups were already turning up missing – Germany was invading surrounding nations – and this guy wants to talk about their economy being better in 1939 than in 1930? Of course it was! And not for a good reason! 

      Every single one of this points holds at least a bit of bunk; with a tiny bit of truth thrown in just to throw everyone off. 

      I’m not a pessimist, but I am NOT going to take this guy seriously when he can’t even get his context straight! 

    • Jessica

      In 1939 Germany, millions of Jews and other groups were already turning up missing – Germany was invading surrounding nations – and this guy wants to talk about their economy being better in 1939 than in 1930? Of course it was! And not for a good reason! 

      Every single one of this points holds at least a bit of bunk; with a tiny bit of truth thrown in just to throw everyone off. 

      I’m not a pessimist, but I am NOT going to take this guy seriously when he can’t even get his context straight!