Gloomy. That’s the general outlook that the vast majority of Americans seem to have when it comes to our future. Whether it’s political wrangling, economic turmoil, pandemics or education—the present is bleak and the future is downright scary. It’s not just Al Gore predicting global devastation caused by global warming, nor is it simply the war-mongers who see a jihadist behind every bush, it’s Christians too, who seem to enjoy pointing out how bad things are (and are getting).
Bradley Wright, in his new book published by Bethany House asks, “What if the Doomsayers have it all wrong?” A Christian sociologist, in Upside: Surprising Good News About the State of Our World, Wright explores why it is that so many of us can’t get enough bad news, and why we all think that things are continually getting worse. The reality, however, is a far cry from the perception! And Wright proves his point by the end of the book.
Reading Upside, was like inhaling a deep breath of fresh air. On so many fronts, there has been remarkable progress in the world. Life expectancy, health and disease, poverty and access to clean water, air pollution, crime, financial well-being, literacy—all these areas and more have seen astounding improvement in the last 200 years.
Amazing progress in health, literacy and more
For some examples: Life expectancy has doubled around the world in the last 100 years, as vaccines, hygiene improvements, medicine and general safety measures have become widely available. Did you know that in the 1820s, the world average of life expectancy was only 26? Now it’s 66 and rising. Literacy rates have soared from 25% to over 80% worldwide in the last 100 years, and in developing countries, extreme poverty has been cut in half just since the 1980s. Financially, world income rates have increased 1300% since 1820—300% per capita income increase just since 1955. We are able to feed more people for less money than ever, and more people are healthy than ever. And they’re living longer, fuller lives. Things have dramatically changed since the early 1800s.
Some would counter and say, well what about pollution and global warming. Wright shows that both air and water pollution have dramatically improved since the 1970s when the issue was first trumpeted and environmental controls started being written into law. Even deforestation is beginning to level out with some gains being made in some regions of the world. There are still improvements to be made, don’t get me wrong, but the direction has turned.
Others would say crime is on the rise. But statistically it is not. Even as the population has soared, the homicide and burglary rates have dropped significantly since the 1980s. This drop correlates with a dramatic rise in the incarceration rate. In the US, we have 1 in 100 adults behind bars, and including probation and parolees, that number rises to an astounding 1 in 33 adults!
Certainly, most Christians would think the family is weaker and morality is far worse than it has been in America’s past. But for three generations, levels of premarital sex, for instance, have been fairly consistent, with a slight rise in today’s numbers versus the previous generation. Divorce rates have actually fallen since the 1980s, as have abortion rates. For marriages and families, the reality is certainly a mixed bag, but the immoral culture of America has been on a trajectory away from the Judeo-Christian ethic for the last 75 years or more.
Now, with all the good news, why is there still so much pessimism? Much of the pessimism, Wright claims, can be traced to advocates not wanting good news to cause people to relax when it comes to supporting their cause. Environmentalists, for example, don’t want you to know that the environment is getting better, otherwise they may lose financial support. It can also stem from the fact that bad news sells, and a steady diet of bad news breeds an expectation of more bad news. The problem with all this is that unwarranted pessimism can obscure our focus on areas where we really should be pessimistic. Wright explains: “Pessimism, if accurate, can serve us well, and ignoring real problems has its own costs. Accurate perceptions of the world both in the ways that it’s getting better and worse, is the ideal” (p. 31).
Worth being thankful for
Wright’s findings aren’t all positive. He started his book “with the simple question of whether life is getting better,” and his answer is “mostly yes.” He goes on: “Think of it this way: Is there any other period in history when people were better off than now? I don’t see one” (p. 205). In his conclusion he challenges his readers to to be aware of all the good news, and thank God for the state of our world: “While we hear people thank God for their food, their healthy children, or their job, when was the last time you heard someone thank God for the declining national crime rate? Or the rise in literacy around the world? Or the amazing decrease in poverty over the past generation? Aren’t these things worth being thankful for?” (p. 217).
Wright has an important point, which is why I think it is so important to read this book. It’s not just a book full of dry statistics, nor is it written with a preachy tone. Interspersed throughout his analysis of the state of our world are personal anecdotes, witty observations and off-the-wall interesting stats. The following quote, illustrates Wright’s knack at keeping his discussion of numbers fun: “On average, a passenger would have to take a commercial airline flight every day for 20,000 years before they died in a crash. By then, death might be a welcome escape from peanuts and pretzels” (p. 111).
There are not many books out there like Upside. I recommend you purchase a copy for some needed relief from the deafening drone of constant bad news. Read it and rejoice in what God has done for this world in the last 200 years. Then tell someone else that things aren’t all as bad as they might seem!
Author Info: Bradley Wright, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut, researches American Christianity. His first book, Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites… and Other Lies You’ve Been Told, won the Christianity Today book award in the category of Christianity and Culture. Brad is married, has two children, and lives in Storrs, Connecticut.
Disclaimer: This book was provided by the publisher for review. The reviewer was under no obligation to offer a favorable review.