Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
Are there reasons for young people not to be cynical?
Yes, many, although that kind of positive framework runs counter to the profoundly negative zeitgeist of the moment. From a historical perspective, we are living in a vastly different world than we were 100 years ago, for the better. All over, humans now live longer, healthier lives. Fewer are at risk of hunger or undernourishment, and fewer babies and children die before reaching adulthood. More have access to clean water and lifesaving medicines.
These reasons are why, as of early November 2022, the world population crossed the eight billion mark. “This unprecedented growth,” says the United Nations, “is due to the gradual increase in human lifespan owing to improvements in public health, nutrition, personal hygiene and medicine.”
These improvements did not sprout up of their own accord. They arrived due to the efforts of humanity to cooperate across cultures and borders in order to improve itself. A short and utterly non-comprehensive list of what it took to do so would include scientific research and discoveries, on-the-ground public health work, and the development of technologies once thought impossible, from airplanes to microchips, that are now standard in everyday life.
Even ethically speaking, we are different creatures than we once were. War is less common, for instance, and our stance toward it has gone from “it’s just the way things are” to considering it an international crime. Widespread education has led to the privileging of reason over magical thinking as well as to the idea that all humans deserve certain rights.
So it should be clear that we are capable of accomplishing a lot, despite our many shortcomings. Today is not the first time dire predictions about our future have been circulated. They have been plenty of times before, only to be proven wrong—such as the belief, popular in the 1980s, that the coming population boom would lead to mass starvation. (It hasn’t.) In many ways, we are better equipped now more than ever to keep moving the world in the right direction. And yet surveys tell us that large percentages of young people think humanity is doomed, see the future as frightening, and are hesitant to start families of their own. Why?
Let’s tackle two of the most commonly cited reasons: climate change and politics. After decades of dragging our feet, we are finally starting to see signs that the world is serious about a green transition, bringing climate predictions from the apocalyptic 4+ degrees Celsius of warming down to the still challenging, but far less world-ending, 2 or 3 degrees. “Thanks to astonishing declines in the price of renewables, a truly global political mobilization, a clearer picture of the energy future and serious policy focus from world leaders,” wrote David Wallace-Wells in The New York Times Magazine last month, “we have cut expected warming almost in half in just five years.” A report this month from the Global Carbon Project added another reason for optimism: global emissions are still growing, but more slowly, reaching a “near-plateau.”
As for politics, the United States could have been in some serious hot water after the 2022 midterms if election deniers got into power en masse. Happily, Americans on both the right and left seem to have soured on the “Stop the Steal” type of extremism popularized by Donald Trump, with election deniers losing most notably in key battleground states like Michigan and Pennsylvania and voters as a whole showing a clear preference for more moderate candidates. Last but not least, if participation is any sign of democratic health, we have seen historic levels of voter turnout in recent elections. When the chips are down, Americans show up.
None of this is to say that it’s certain the world will be a better place tomorrow than it is today. None of us has a crystal ball, and as the founder of The Progress Network, Zachary Karabell, is wont to say, humans have an incredibly capacity to destroy as well as create. But cynicism in excess foments a kind of learned helplessness that makes us vulnerable to exploitative politicians, wrecks our mental health, and sabotages potential leaps forward. Let’s push such narratives aside to make way for a more productive one: a better future is coming, if we commit to creating one.