Thankful for the paradox of progress

Posted: Nov 26, 2003 12:00 AM

Lucy Tighe Goldberg, my 9-month-old baby girl, uttered her first word this week. She said "Tajikistan," though she said it with a silent "n." In fact, she's such a genius she managed to mention the name of that central Asian nation while holding four fingers and part of a sock in her mouth - and in a Cambodian accent!

I'm deeply thankful for that. Indeed, I'm thankful for everything about her, including her desire to start a fusion rock band: "The Explosive Pants Project: Featuring Lucy." But even if you aren't so fortunate as this proud poppa - and, really, how could you be? - there's much for everyone to be thankful for.

We all know that the media have a tendency to focus on bad news. Between every occasional plane crash, tens of millions of flights arrive safely at their destinations, but nobody wants to hear about that.

Even when the media - or Hollywood for that matter - focus on good news, they tend to make it seem like it's a cheery exception to the normally bleak rule. Good Samaritans are treated like four-leaf clovers in a population of weeds, even though Americans are astoundingly tolerant, generous and decent people.

What better time than Thanksgiving to keep that in mind?

This year we have cause for some bonus thankfulness; Gregg Easterbrook has come out with a wonderful book called "The Progress Paradox," which attempts to explain why we think things are getting worse even as they get better.

Easterbrook catalogs a staggering array of statistics demonstrating that material and even moral improvement is the norm. The moral improvement is debatable, but the material improvement isn't.

Almost every environmental trend - with the exception of greenhouse gas emissions, which Easterbook thinks is more of a problem than I do - has been moving in a positive direction in the United States and Europe.

A quarter of a century ago, only one-third of America's lakes and rivers were clean enough to swim or fish in. Today, two-thirds are. "Puget Sound, Chesapeake Bay, Lake Erie and the Hudson River and other important water bodies have gone from imperiled to mainly clean," writes Easterbook.

The Potomac River, near my house in Washington, stunk so badly of raw sewage 30 years ago, no one wanted to live near it. When Richard Nixon went out on his yacht, he had to keep the windows closed and stay inside. The Chicago River was so filthy that in Upton Sinclair's 1906 book, "The Jungle," chickens walked across it.

The air is getting cleaner, too. Since 1970, smog has dropped by a third despite a near doubling of the number of automobiles. In 2000, Democrats made a big deal about how Houston had overtaken Los Angeles as the new "smog capital." It did. But what wasn't mentioned was that Houston's air had gotten cleaner, just not as fast as L.A.'s.

We are living in an age of increasingly abundant resources. Most commodities like oil, ores, metals and coal are cheaper - i.e., in economic terms, more available - today than they were 20 years ago. And, with the exception of fresh water in the Middle East and groundwater in China, no important resource is expected to be in short supply for decades to come. That goes for oil, too.

Not only is the environment healthier, we are, too. Despite all of the hand-wringing about one epidemic or another, Americans are living longer - much longer. In 1900, life expectancy was 41 years. Today it is 77 and rising. Social Security was pegged to age 65 because most people weren't expected to live that long. Today, the global life expectancy is 66 years.

Deaths from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, fire, automobile accidents and suicide have all declined in the West. In the United States, infant mortality has dropped 45 percent since 1980 to the lowest in U.S. history.

Deaths from crime have dropped too, because crime in the United States has fallen dramatically for more than a decade. Teenage drinking is down (though this is largely due to the fact that my college buddies have gotten older and married).

Cigarette smoking is down a lot, divorce is trending down a little and teen pregnancy is down a ton. We have had a 20-year economic boom punctuated by two relative mild recessions, and the economy seems poised to boom again.

I would lose my conservative-movement decoder ring if I were to say everything's hunky-dory. But as Easterbrook notes, most of our real problems are the consequences of our successes, not our failures.

We're wrangling over Medicare, for example, because our older citizens are living longer and demanding top-flight healthcare - and they get it. This is a good problem to have.

Similarly, having Lucy perform her latest hit from The Explosive Pants Project is a great problem, compared to not having her around. So this Thanksgiving - her first - let's take a moment to think of all the problems we have that we should be thankful for.