Mar 062003
Authors: Monica Owens

Why is it that the glass always seems to be half-empty and not half-full? Why do we accentuate the negative, and downplay the positive?

Just ask yourself – or others – what they think the facts are in terms of air or water quality, forests or even on the possibility of being a victim in a terrorist attack at a time when war may be near.

I’m sure most of us think air and water pollution is increasing, our forests are being replaced by parking lots, and man-made disasters are quite common these days.

But in such cases many of us would be wrong, because there was more progress in the human condition in the 20th century than in all previous centuries combined. I know we cannot ignore it was a century that included Nazi and Communist oppression, which combined were responsible for the deaths of tens of millions.

But I don’t believe most Americans fully appreciate how fortunate we are to live during this most remarkable time.

The surprisingly good news is the economic progress made during the last century has not come at the expense of clean air. In fact, economic progress has, in many cases, brought significant improvements to the environment around the world. For example, hazardous emissions per capita have dropped 50 percent over the past 50 years, though we consume and produce far more today than ever before.

Another popular misconception is that our forests in the United States are being depleted. In fact, the reverse is occurring. For example, there are more forested acres today in the United States than there were in 1900. We are currently adding 22 million new cubic feet of lumber a year, while harvesting only 16.5 million – a net increase of 36 percent a year. Over the past century, about 500 million acres have reverted to woodland as well, primarily in the eastern United States.

Probably the most feared issue today is the possible occurrence of a catastrophic accident, like airplane crashes, nuclear/biological/chemical attacks, or terrorist bombings.

We seem more susceptible to catastrophic events now than ever before. Yet, the likelihood of dying in such an accident, even with our current situation overseas, is only one in 400,000. On average, less than 1,000 Americans die from a terrorist attack every year, which is fewer than those who die from falls in the home.

Why the disconnect? Why is conventional wisdom so often wrong? Well, there are many probable reasons why the negative seems to get more coverage than the positive. But let me offer one observation: negative views drive action and generate better news coverage. Thus, interest groups wanting more federal spending for, say, clean air, argue that the glass is half-empty.

Good news is surprising to many of us because it is so rarely reported and the public, therefore, is rarely encouraged to look back on how much progress actually has been made.

We should not hesitate to acknowledge success stories when they happen – both because the facts deserve such acknowledgement and people need to base their votes, and policy decisions, on facts and not myths.

Things are getting better in the United States and we should build on these successes rather than always look for problems.

The United States is perpetually pessimistic, which is why we always seem to be in a fiscal or environmental crisis.

 Posted by at 5:00 pm

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