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Is the “world” actually getting better? Depends on your definition of “world”

Is the “world” actually getting better? Depends on your definition of “world”

A frequent critique of the daily news flow is that it is filled with negative events. This is partly a product of the human nervous system. We react very quickly to perceived threats and more slowly to hope of gain or pleasure. Editors and reporters know what will grab people’s attention which is why the old adage—if it bleeds, it leads—still applies.

There are, of course, heartwarming stories about miraculous recoveries from illness and injury, rescued animals, and saintly persons doing amazing charitable acts. And, then there is a sub-genre of the feel-good story which I’ll call the you’ve-been-living-in-opposite-land-things-are-actually-getting-better story.

Now as an antidote to the relentless negativity of the news, this kind of story gets attention. And, sometimes we need to be reminded, for instance, that life expectancy continues to rise, child mortality continues to decline, and smoking remains in decline. Humans are capable of making progress by certain measures.

“By certain measures” is the key phrase because what we typically measure when we say that things are getting better are measures of human well-being. Those who tell us not to fret about the doomsday predictions of environmentalists very craftily conflate two categories: the state of the natural world and the state of human well-being by telling us that the “world” is actually getting better.

Well, “world” in its primary definition means the planet. Other definitions are narrower and some include only humankind. If you are not paying attention, you will miss this sleight-of-hand used by apologists for the destruction of the natural world who tell us that the “world” is getting better—while carefully omitting any mention of the natural world or cherry-picking a few narrow and misleading trends concerning the environment.

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