Fr. Dwight Longenecker: Each Day in Every Way We’re Getting Better … Or Are We? The Paradox of Progress

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By Fr. Dwight Longenecker, The Stream, June 3, 2019

Dwight LongeneckerThe pessimists should exchange their frowns for smiles.

The “glass is half empty” people need to change sides. 

The naysayers need to be yeasayers and the party poopers need to be party whoopers.

Why? Because each and every day in each and every way we are getting better.

The numbers don’t lie. Life on planet Earth is improving in a whole range of areas.

You can check out the statistics at this article, where Dylan Matthews posts thirty-five charts. Each one shows a different aspect of amazing progress for the human race. Did you know, for example, that extreme poverty is plummeting worldwide? In 1987, 35% of the world’s population lived on less than $2 a day. In 2013 that number had fallen to less than 11% (adjusted for inflation).

A drop in extreme poverty also means hunger is down. With better health care worldwide, infant mortality and maternal deaths in childbirth are dropping. Child labor is on the decline and food prices are falling.

Living Longer and Better

Contradicting the impression given by the bad news media, we are less violent than in ages past. Homicide rates in Europe and the USA have fallen dramatically over the last couple of hundred years. We have fewer nuclear weapons stockpiled and fewer people live under oppressive tyrannical regimes.

Other charts show a startling zoom upward. People are living longer. Life expectancy leveled out for centuries at about 35 or 40. In 1900, the trend began to move upward.  Now most people will live into their 70s. Furthermore, our quality of life is better in our later years, and longer lifespans are spreading rapidly to people in developing countries.

Across the world, more people are going to school for longer and literacy has zoomed upward. Access to technology and the internet has skyrocketed, and new forms of energy which are less environmentally damaging are becoming more abundant and cheaper.

We’ve Got the Power

Worried about overpopulation, the environment and the world’s resources being exhausted? There’s good news there too. This article by Stephen Moore lays out the facts:

  • Natural resources are more abundant and affordable today than ever before in history.

  • Energy is the master resource; and it is super abundant. Today, in the new age of oil and gas thanks to fracking, the United States has hundreds of years of petroleum and an estimated 300 years of coal. We’re not running out of energy, we are running into it.

  • Air and water are cleaner than ever.

  • There is no looming overpopulation. Birth rates have fallen by about one-half around the world over the last 50 years.

  • Global per capita food production is 40 percent higher today than 1950. In most nations the nutrition problem today is obesity. Furthermore, the price of food has fallen steadily in the United States, and most other nations, for the last 200 years.

  • The rate of death and physical destruction from natural disasters or severe weather changes has plummeted over the last century. Loss of life from extreme weather conditions is at record lows.

There is no doubt that the world has become a better place.

We’re conquering diseases, solving problems, taming the climate, devising brighter and better technology, overcoming hunger and learning to live longer and better. Physically we are healthier and wealthier than we’ve ever been.

So Why Are We Close to Despair?

But there is more to the human race than the physical realm. While our health and wealth are better than ever, there is another sickness that is harder to chart.

It is soul sickness. 

Other charts remind us of a grim shadow that stalks the amazing growth of our physical wealth and well being. Drug and alcohol addiction are on the rise. This website records the grim statistics. 

  • Over 20 million Americans over the age of 12 have an addiction.

  • 100 people die every day from drug overdoses. This rate has tripled in the past 20 years.

  • 2.6 million people with addictions have a dependence on both alcohol and illicit drugs.

  • 6.8 million people with an addiction have a mental illness.

  • Rates of illicit drug use are highest among those aged 18 to 25.

  • Over 90% of those with an addiction began drinking, smoking or using illicit drugs before the age of 18.  

The scourge of addiction indicates a heart of darkness and despair lurking beneath the good news. Linked with addiction and dependency is the curse of suicide. 

A Suicide Epidemic

In the countries where there should be everything to live for, an increasing number of people decide there is nothing to live for.

This website informs us that in 2017 over 1,400,000 people attempted suicide and 47,000 succeeded. Between 1999-2017, the suicide rate in the USA increased 33%.

We Don’t See the Skull Beneath the Skin

While our physical well being is improving, our spiritual life is declining. Statistics for religious commitment mirror the physical statistics, but in reverse. When we are healthy and wealthy, awareness of the eternal fades away. An increasing number of people simply conclude that they don’t need God.

We should rejoice that our world is improving physically. But unless our physical wealth and health is matched with spiritual well being, there will continue to be an empty space beneath the outwardly abundant life we enjoy.

At the heart of addiction and suicide is loneliness and despair. Wallets might be full, but hearts are empty, and the only thing that can fill that void is a power and love that is eternal. Why? Because we were created as eternal beings, and we will not be satisfied with anything less.

Visit Dwight Longenecker’s blog, listen to his podcasts, browse his books and be in touch at


Fr. Dwight Longenecker is a Catholic priest, author and speaker. Read Dwight Longenecker’s blog, listen to his podcasts, browse his books and be in touch at