Dr Natasha Moore on The Pleasures of Pessimism and Are Things as Bad We Think

Dr Natasha Moore is a research fellow at the Center for Public Christianity. She has a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Cambridge and is the author of For the Love of God How the Church is Better and Worse Than You Ever Imagined. And we explore that in this podcast, as well as her more recent book, The Pleasures of Pessimism. She's worked at the Center for Public Christianity since 2014 and written on topics that include books, movies, politics, food, domestic violence, scriptures in the School for Thanksgiving and the Freedom of Speech.

Dr Natasha Moore on The Pleasures of Pessimism and Are Things as Bad We Think Introduction

Well, we’re surrounded by pessimism and the news is always bad. People are making predictions about destruction and how things how bad the world is shaping up. So I wanted to explore the pleasures of pessimism. Yes, the pleasures and the reason I am is because the author of that book is Dr. Natasha Moore, my guest today on the podcast.

Natasha is a research fellow at the Center for Public Christianity. She has a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Cambridge and is the author of For the Love of God How the Church is Better and Worse Than You Ever Imagined. And we explore that in this podcast, as well as her more recent book, The Pleasures of Pessimism.

She’s worked at the Center for Public Christianity since 2014 and written on topics that include books, movies, politics, food, domestic violence, scriptures in the School for Thanksgiving and the Freedom of Speech. I hope you enjoyed this conversation I had with Dr. Natasha Moore.

Podcast Transcript

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:00:07] I’d like to acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the traditional custodians of our land, Australia, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation are the traditional custodians of this place. We now call Sydney, where I record this podcast.

The Unstress podcast is proud to be an ongoing supporter of the Healing Foundation, a national Aboriginal organization that partners with communities to address ongoing trauma caused by actions like the Stolen Generation. We have so much to learn from our First Nations people. This land always was and always will be Aboriginal.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:00:49] Hello and welcome to Unstress. My name is Dr Ron Ehrlich. Well, we’re surrounded by pessimism and the news is always bad. People are making predictions about destruction and how things how bad the world is shaping up. So I wanted to explore the pleasures of pessimism. Yes, the pleasures and the reason I am is because the author of that book is Dr. Natasha Moore, my guest today on the podcast.

Natasha is a research fellow at the Center for Public Christianity. She has a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Cambridge and is the author of For the Love of God How the Church is Better and Worse Than You Ever Imagined. And we explore that in this podcast, as well as her more recent book, The Pleasures of Pessimism.

She’s worked at the Center for Public Christianity since 2014 and written on topics that include books, movies, politics, food, domestic violence, scriptures in the School for Thanksgiving and the Freedom of Speech. I hope you enjoyed this conversation I had with Dr. Natasha Moore. Welcome to the show, Natasha.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:02:04] Thanks so much for having me, Natasha.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:02:07] So much I wanted to talk to you about today. And the doctor aspect of it is, is one that we just touched on before we came on. But I think this will come up. As I asked you, what brought you I’m interested in your journey and what brought you to this point professionally.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:02:23] Mm. I my background is in English literature. I love books. I’m a book person. This is not staged behind me.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:02:33] This is you know, we just.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:02:36] Got to get the books in the corner.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:02:38] This is 2020. Right. Books credibility. And so I did my PhD over in the UK in Victorian poetry and I fully intended to be an academic. That was kind of my plan. I love the university as an institution. I love research and teaching and so on. Finish my PhD in at the end of 2011.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:03:00] There were no jobs in my field. Surprise, surprise. So I kind of did a few things on and off here and in the UK and in the US and worked with your lovely wife at UNSW wonderful boss that she was.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:03:20] She was humbled, incidentally, to have a PhD as a research assistant. She was.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:03:26] Well I was delighted to have that job. It was not an easy job market for us, for PhDs. And then the job that I currently do came up as kind of a one-year maternity cover job. And I was like, I definitely want to be an academic. But this was in media kind of uniting interests of mine.

So as someone who’s a Christian and as someone with an interest in kind of academic research, I felt like, you know, learning to write for the media on those two in those two areas would be kind of a helpful thing to have to my bar. And then it turned out to be the best job in the world. And I haven’t looked back.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:04:08] So I’ve been at the Center for Public Christianity nearly seven years now. And, you know, we kind of we’re a media company. We exist to be a Christian voice in the public square. So religion is something that’s not often well understood or well covered or well represented within the media or within some parts of the media.

And often the Christian voices that are heard in public are kind of the ones that the extreme ends and don’t necessarily represent what most people of faith believe or think about the world. And so we really wanted to kind of contribute to a public square that is more generous to those who disagree, that’s more engaged across lines of difference, where we can talk about the things that we believe about reality and about the big questions of our day in ways that are positive and constructive and not just kind of shouting matches.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:05:11] Well, it’s not it’s nice to hear the term that this center ground is being inhabited and it got a voice, because I know I had the pleasure of seeing one of your projects, which was a documentary that you’d done with your team For The Love of God, how the church is better and worse than you ever imagined. And it was terrific. I really we really enjoyed it. Can you tell us a bit about that documentary?

For The Love of God how the church is better and worse than you ever imagined

Dr Natasha Moore [00:05:37] Yeah, this is a really large project, something we started working on soon after I came on board with CPX. And we kind of because we looked around and.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:05:49] The conversations we’re having as a culture and particularly around religion and history and realize that people, whereas maybe 20 or 30 years ago people might say, oh, Christianity is kind of irrelevant and outdated and it doesn’t really have anything to do with my life, that much more people were saying, actually, I’m really suspicious of religion and suspicious of the church because religion poisons everything.

In the words of Christopher Hitchens in his book, God is Not Great, that actually the church causes all this harm and its history is terrible. It’s some all these awful things. So, you know, I would never kind of listen to anything that they have to say and we’ll all be better off without religion. And so we really wanted to kind of dove into that conversation that people actually having you know, every time that we write something for the ABC or the Sydney Morning Herald or ever it might be, we’d get comments which were like the Bible promotes genocide and Christians are just they just hate lots of people.

And so we were like, OK, well, this is something that we want to engage with. And first and foremost, to acknowledge that there are a lot of skeletons in the church’s closet. You know, that’s these things aren’t coming out of nowhere. There is fire when there’s some of this smoke. So we wanted to emphasize that the church is better and worse than you ever imagined to say. Yeah.

Let’s talk about some of those awful things about crusades and inquisitions and child abuse and, you know, greed, so many kind of failures and harm that the church has done. But at the same time, there’s another story which people don’t know, including a lot of Christians don’t know, which is how Christianity is actually shaped the world that we inhabit. And a lot of the things that we like about the world we inhabit, things like human rights and universal health care, things like humility as a virtue, all these things that we kind of take for granted that are really not self-evident.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:08:01] And we’re not the case two thousand years ago and are actually so ingrained that we’ve forgotten that they have a history. So we really kind of wanted to tell those stories as well and give people the tools to.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:08:16] You know, we use an analogy in the documentary, and I wrote the book afterwards writing up all this material. We talk about the difference between a composition and its performance. So we talk about kind of Bach’s cello suites, some of the most beautiful music ever composed. And one of my colleagues, John Dixon, is one of the presenters of the documentary. He sits down. He is a musician, but it’s not a cello player. And he sits down and tries to play the cello suites, the first cello suite.

And of course, you know, it doesn’t sound anything like it should, but we know not to judge Bach based on the performance of one person, doesn’t know how to play the cello. And so we want to talk about, you know, the teachings of Jesus, his life, his example, following him as kind of that he wrote this beautiful tune.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:09:12] And when Christian people have played in tune with him, that’s done that’s achieved great things in the world. You know, civil rights, care for the poor, abolition of slavery, all these things that we value when Christians have played out of tune, that’s been really awful and caused a lot of harm. But, you know, that’s a helpful way of kind of going back to the original source and going, okay, well, what did Jesus say? And is what Christians are doing and saying is what the church is doing in line with that, or is it a departure from that?

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:09:46] Yes. Well, boy, we could divert at this point and go off on it. There’s a lot there. There’s a lot there. There’s a lot. Natasha because, you know.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:09:55] Well, you made the qualifier at the beginning by saying there are extremes on either side. And the Center for Public Christianity is a voice for that middle ground. And, you know, I think we need louder voices for the middle ground right across the board.

I mean, I actually am a firm believer. And this gets to the point of what we’re talking about today, the pleasures of pessimism. I actually believe the vast majority of people are really good, want the best for their themselves and their family and the community. It’s just the louder voices tend to be the extreme voices.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:10:30] And we get distracted by that,.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:10:32] The exhausted middle exhaustion. I mean, the problem is that you know, you can’t be generous and open and honest and moderate in some ways in a shouty way like those are mutually exclusive. So the people who are shouting are often going to be easier to hear. And you kind of have to go looking for voices that are more reasoned and reasonable and worth engaging with, I think. So there’s the advantage of shouting, but I think ultimately it’s self-defeating.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:11:07] Well, I’m going to we’re going to touch on a little bit later on about how communication has come back to bite us and polarizers. And you’ve touched on that. And I was going to ask you, because the byline of the documentary, and I think you kind of touched on it already because the bottom line is how the church is better and worse than you ever imagined. And I was interested that you had gone through this intense period of producing the documentary in the book. And so for you personally, what how the church is better than you ever imagined. What did you come away from it thinking? Wow, that was it’s even better than I thought.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:11:49] You know, I really did. It was a really interesting process for me researching this, because I feel as though, you know, I have some degrees, like by any general standard. I’m highly educated. I’m also I’ve been a Christian for a couple of decades, so I’ve been in churches. I’m kind of interested in this stuff. So you think the combination of those things would mean? I’d know about a lot of this history, but I really didn’t.

I think I really had kind of bought into a lot of the sort of the rhetoric that’s cycling about. I was kind of like, I know the history of the church. There’s a lot of crap there. And I didn’t know things like I probably would have believed that human rights comes out of the Enlightenment or the French Revolution and not have, like, connected it to these ideas that are central to Christianity and also to Judaism about every human being made in the image of God.

This is kind of like probably the most revolutionary idea in history. But I kind of didn’t know about that genealogy of, you know, these underpinning ideas to our culture. And so for me, it was you know, there was a lot of I wouldn’t I think it’s overclaiming to say trauma. I don’t want to use that word. But it was kind of intense and difficult to read about some of the really awful things and to dove into that and immerse myself in that.

It was also really heartening to be like, oh, well, actually things are dramatically different to how they were 20 years ago and a lot of things are way better. There are things that we take for granted that I’m actually once you look at the history, I’m like, I’m really glad that we’re here and not there. And so I found that really heartening. I kind of this question of like, well, does religion do harm? Does it do good? Like, is Christianity good for people, bad for people or whatever? It’s a different question to is it true? Right. And I don’t I’m not all for like, oh, well, we should have more religion because it’s good for you or it’s good for society because it’s not true, then, you know, what are we doing? But I think that it is interesting and suggestive.

And for me, as someone who does believe it, I kind of go, oh, the fact that it has kind of transformed things very slowly and very kind it with a very patchy record. That’s what you would expect to happen, really, if it were true, if God actually has acted in history and sent his son and people who follow him are people who are kind of being reconnected and in a slow kind of stumbling way trying to do good, you would expect that to have an impact. And so for me, it was kind of like, oh, yeah, this does actually make sense. Why haven’t I thought of this before?

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:14:40] I think the you know, the thing that you pulled out there that we all made in God’s image is such an interesting concept, really, because I guess up until that point, it was maybe some worshiping or other idolatry worshiping, but bringing it down to a human level would have made it a lot easier to relate to in many ways. But then taking that too far, one could almost argue that that gave permission for humans to take on this godlike role, which we seem to have done in society. So it’s a loaded gun in many ways.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:15:18] Yeah, that’s interesting because, you know, in the ancient world, you had this idea of the image of God. In some cultures, you know, the pharaoh was an image of God, like the important people were kind of God on earth, b00ut most people were worth nothing.

You know, like you have kind of many, many people are slaves. Many people are women or children. They’re just not worth anything. They’re disposable. It’s like a brutal culture. It’s a brutal society. And so then to say, actually, no, every single person has something of the divine, this like imprint on them. And you can’t just treat them like they’re not worth anything is dramatic.

I guess, you know, within kind of Judaism, that Judeo-Christian idea and value system, you the value of the person is guaranteed in relation to the God. So, you know, the Bible is kind of like, well, you can’t treat people like that because God values them. And if you want to obey him, if you want to kind of be in line with what he’s doing, you can’t treat them like they’re not valuable. I guess once you take that out of the picture but want to keep the image of God like the individual value of humans, then that could go in all kinds of directions. So it can erode.

It can be like, well, who says humans are equal? They’re not self evidently equal. Like, we’re pretty different, actually. And do we all have to treat each other the same? Or I guess it can go in the direction you’re talking about that we go, well, we can make of ourselves whatever we want and maybe even the more transhumanist kind of directions that are being suggested, suggested now of, well, can we kind of make this leap in evolution where we become a completely different race and we have our fate in our own hands. And, you know, I read a lot of dystopian novels, so I’m not super optimistic about that.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:17:15] Well, I don’t think we’ll have an argument about saying that. We have certainly shaped the world in perhaps in many positive ways, but also in very negative ways. But that brings us to the book, which is The Pleasures of Pessimism. And I was certainly drawn to the title. You know, what is the difference between prudence and pessimism?

What is the difference between prudence and pessimism?

Dr Natasha Moore [00:17:37] Depends who you ask, doesn’t it? I’m asking you because every pessimist would just say there a realist wouldn’t say every person there, they’re just being prudent. And, you know, I because the way that I started thinking about this topic was that I read some things about cultural pessimism.

So, you know, we’re kind of as individuals, we have slightly optimistic or pessimistic or extremely optimistic, pessimistic bents. But I think as a culture, the way that we think about, well, how is our collective life going? Is it getting better and better, onwards and upwards, is it kind of all falling apart? We’ve we’ve become more and more, I think, on the negative scale of that. And I think.

To some extent, you could judge the distinction at that level between prudence and pessimism by its outcomes. It does. It does our concern, our anxieties about the future, our fears for the future. Do they make us more engaged, more eager to kind of meet the challenges that we have to fix the problems to engage with each other? Well, to build something good? Or do they make us kind of paralyzed and apathetic? Do they make us more suspicious of each other? And I think that’s a pretty strong argument that that that’s.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:19:06] Mostly what’s happening, right, go on Twitter.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:19:09] Yes,.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:19:10] What’s happening is.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:19:11] Yes, well, we seem to be creating our own reality, but we’re also really drawn to catastrophe. There’s something we love about it. We’re almost addicted to it, I think. Did you use the word there was a catastrophe or apocalypse or?

Dr Natasha Moore [00:19:25] Apocaholic,.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:19:26] Apocaholic. Yes. And, you know,.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:19:28] I didn’t coin it, by the way. I wish I had, but I haven’t.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:19:31] That’s okay. But, you know, we love horror movies. We love crime, you know, and you’ve outlined a whole smorgasbord of other catastrophes. Just run a few of those past us.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:19:45] Well, there’s kind of fictional ones. And then there’s the news ones. Right. So certainly we’ve been telling ourselves like we have a steady diet of dystopian postapocalyptic disaster stories, that we feed ourselves from zombie apocalypse to kind of more Orwellian futures. And we just can’t get enough of that.

You know, that that picture of the future, that’s terrifying and just very bleak that instead of having progress, we have massive decline and we do love those stories. And then, of course, we have the news, which is in some ways not that different, even pre 2020, which is kind of, you know, being relevant to this discussion. Um, you know, so much of what we think about in terms of the way that the future is going to go, we catch not just it’s like, oh, this might go wrong, but we catch in kind of apocalyptic terms.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:20:48] So do you want me to show you a few kind of headlines of I so strange? Oh, I think you have to.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:20:55] Hang on. I have to give you permission to share. Oh, hang on. What have I done? .

Dr Natasha Moore [00:21:16] So let me. So if this works, so you can see this, so I curates are dropping, we might be entering an antibiotic, a post-antibiotic age, weapons of mass destruction. This is a book that my book club read earlier this year. Cancer culture. Have smartphones destroyed a generation? This is one of my favorite favorites, Tinder and the Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:21:45] You mentioned that. I love that.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:21:47] I just that idea of it’s not just this might be getting worse. It’s actually this is the end of the world in this particular pocket of our culture. And, you know, I’ve came across this term early this year, which kind of makes sense of 2020, of dooms scrolling that this is a how we’ve developed that, you know, we don’t just kind of think, oh, some things might be going wrong.

We actually go, everything is doom and gloom and are we going off a cliff kind of thing. So I think we’ve developed this habit and the news cycle kind of reinforces this. Right, because to get attention, the kind of clickbaity habits we’ve developed, you really have to catch things as a disaster or people won’t pay attention.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:22:39] But often it’s not just the news, it’s the experts that are very focused in their narrow area to see and almost reinforce the apocalypse. I mean, the current pandemic is a good example. I think the early predictions were that we would in Australia alone, have 40 or 50 thousand deaths and it would be an apocalypse.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:23:02] And that was coming from the experts. So, you know, how come. Experts are getting it so wrong. What do you think?

Dr Natasha Moore [00:23:09] I mean I don’t know about and it depends on which data you’re looking at and predictions and how they catch them, because, of course, part of the reason for laying out these kinds of dire timelines is so that we can do something about it and avoid it.

So if you compare the projections in the US and the projections here, will the projections in the US have come true or even worse than they thought? Whereas here we acted early and made sacrifices, made good decisions, and we’re also lucky in a lot of ways. And so, you know, thankfully it hasn’t gone that way.

So I you know, I couldn’t really make a pronounced I’m no expert on this as to whether the modeling was wrong. But, you know, in that case, I certainly seems to have done the job that we took it seriously and therefore where we can have Christmas the way we normally do.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:24:07] Yes, amazing I mean. I mean, we I, I reflect and I’ve spoken to many people on the from America, from the States and actually the UK as well. And it’s not a pretty picture. And yet and yet they reflected on what we were doing and saying, God, you’re like a fascist, it’s a fascist country.

You’re living in looks and demanding this lockdown. And I kind of see what’s going on as a choice between the collective good or the individual right to do whatever I want to do. I think essentially the response is a choice between that.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:24:46] Mhm. Yeah. I mean and if you don’t have the levels of public trust, if that’s been eroded as it has, particularly in the US over the past several years, it’s very hard to marshal the goodwill or the willingness to believe that your government is for you and is worth heeding.

I mean, in terms of the kind of apocalyptic predictions I found living through an actual pandemic. So, you know, obviously, it’s been terrible, horrific in a lot of ways. But there are a lot of things that are fascinating about an experience like this, particularly when you’re in the situation we’re in, where we’ve been so fortunate as to not experience the worst of it. But I right at the start, back in March, when things were starting to kind of get really serious and a bit scary, I read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mendel. And I don’t know if you know the novel. It’s a I think it’s from 2014 and it’s a novel about a civilization-ending flu pandemic. Okay, it’s brilliant.

It’s written kind of partly at the time and partly, you know, 20 years later, from the point of view of this traveling group of actors and musicians who are going round to the few settlements that remain in North America performing Shakespeare, because that’s what people want.

They kind of because survival is not enough, is the Star Trek kind of moral malaise. But reading this, you know, this is a. A flu that kind of you catch it and you’re dead within 24 hours or almost nobody survives. So it’s a very different sort of thing to what we’ve been experiencing this year. And I think that’s quite instructive because a lot of the apocalyptic scenarios we project, which are always like everybody dies and actually like not that that’s impossible. There are extinction. The possibility of an extinction-level event is it’s not impossible.

But actually, most of the time, even the most extreme situations that we find ourselves in as societies and as individuals, it’s more of a muddle through. And like you have to navigate a lot more complexity than just, oh, everything is over. Civilization is over. Now, we have to kind of scrounge something out of nothing. So actually, a lot of those scenarios haven’t helped us that much in thinking through. OK, well, here’s a very serious illness that we have to take dramatic steps to address, but it’s not going to kill everybody. And we do have to care about the economy. There’s still a government. It’s not it’s not the end of the world.

And those are the kinds of like that kind of engagement with reality is what we need as it’s not it doesn’t make as interesting a movie. Right. But it’s those kinds of engagement with, like, um, difficult, complex, messy reality that we actually have to marshal to meet the challenges that we really have and not the kind of imaginary blockbuster ones.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:28:04] Yeah, it’s interesting because when experts are consulted, they’re invariably experts in their field and it’s easy to lose sight of the whole picture. And a word that comes to mind, it’s come to my mind professionally for almost 40 years is holistic. And on the one hand, it’s often well, it is seen as some kind of new-age philosophy, but it actually just happens to be the way the world works. So how you get on board.

But listen, there was another thing that you I loved you had this quote from Woody Allen, who wrote, More than any time in history, mankind faces Crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray. We have the wisdom to correctly choose correctly. So that was in 1979. How do you think we’re doing?

Dr Natasha Moore [00:29:00] I think we could use some of his sense of humor about our own apocaholism. Yes. What I think and I don’t say that because I think we should minimize the very real kind of problems that we face, but because I think that, know, he’s kind of satirizing there our tendency to be negative about the future. All our choices are terrible.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:29:28] And who better than Woody Allen?

Dr Natasha Moore [00:29:29] That’s right. He does grumpy and.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:29:32] He just does it very well. It’s almost like this. First, you identified as the golden past. But, you know, the evidence and let’s face it, evidence counts for something here. It doesn’t really stack up. And you reference a fellow by the name of Hans Rosling.

I wonder if you might share with that listener who he is. And then we might share another screen in a moment. Oh, this is so good, Natasha. I mean, we’re going audio on this as well as videos. So we will make this work audio-wise. But this is a good reminder as to why people should tune in on the. That’s right. Tell us about Hans Rosling, because I.

Tell us about Hans Rosling

Dr Natasha Moore [00:30:12] Yeah, so one of the things that I was kind of going around in circles on is I thought about this topic of pessimism was on the one hand, you have kind of the doomsayers and there’s a lot going for them. You know, you look at what’s happening with climate change, you know, like, yeah, this is really dire. Maybe everything is going to like it’s heading somewhere very bad. And on the other hand, you have these kind of optimists who are like, hey, look, there is no golden age of the past.

People have been saying for centuries that everything is just about this is this is the end of all human progress and everything’s downhill from here. And look, that hasn’t really happened so far. Let’s chill a bit. And they marshal plenty of data for that as well. And so I was like, well, I care about that data. And then. Right, like PJ O’Rourke, the humorous talks about how if you think there was a golden age from the past, I’ve got one word for you.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:31:08] Dentistry is relevant quotation for you.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:31:12] Yes. That’s so true.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:31:14] You don’t want to live one hundred or two hundred or six hundred years ago. Our teeth don’t. But someone who resolved this quite helpfully for me was reading Hans Rosling’s book Factfulness. He was a Swedish public health expert, a doctor. He worked with Doctors Without Borders. He discovered a new disease somewhere in Africa when he was younger. He has been working for decades.

You know, he kind of threw everything up and went to help with the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. That’s when that was. So, you know, he’s kind of a front-line guy. And then for decades, he’s been going around talking to kind of people from the U.N., from governments, from aid and development organizations to students to politicians and talking to them about, OK, what do we know about the world?

Dr Natasha Moore [00:32:13] You know, how is it changing? How has it changed? And he wants to say, actually, things are a lot better than even those people who are most involved with fighting the problems. Even they don’t realize how much has changed for the better. And what I really liked about his take. So he’s kind of agreeing with a lot of the data that the optimists are pushing at us. But he says that doesn’t mean that it’s all okay and that we should look away.

If people kind of hear it as, oh, things are getting better and they go, therefore, I don’t need to worry about it anymore. And he’s like, no, things can be both bad and better. So he’s not someone who’s like, it’s fine, shush. He cares a lot about extreme poverty. He worries a lot about he actually quotes in the book. I think he lists five things that he’s like, these are the things that keep me up at night that could go really wrong.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:33:12] And one of those is a global pandemic. So, you know, he was not kind of unrealistic or unaware of what could go wrong and he has done a lot of work to make things better in the world. And I found that kind of approach where he’s like, OK, we need to pay attention to the actual data and work with that, partly so that we can keep making things get better. And he’s just I mean, I really recommend the book to everyone because it’s such a lovely read. He’s so likable. And everything that he has to kind of tell us is so, so surprising. But also, once you think about it so obvious,.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:34:03] Well, he sadly, he’s no longer with us. And he was very famous for presenting really eloquently on YouTube. You can go on and look at some of his amazing presentations and he usually finishes the presentation by demonstrating a sword swallowing technique because you see that. And I think he also put together this questionnaire that you answer and you kind of have to keep in touch with reality in the modern world.

And I might have you got that up on your screen,. The Factfulness quiz. Yeah. Yeah, I think we do. The fact well, let’s do it. And we don’t have to. Well, yeah. Let’s go through a few questions and see how we go. I think this is a good thing for our listeners to see how in touch with reality you are. I mean I you should you screen really nicely last time.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:34:58] Let’s see if this is the right. Oh, this is not the right one. I think I can. Here it is. Can you say the faithfulness quiz.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:35:06] I can, yes. Test your knowledge. Do you know the facts. Test the knowledge. Well, let’s start it up.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:35:13] Okay. Let’s start.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:35:15] Go for it.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:35:16] Okay. In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school? Twenty percent. 40 percent or 60 percent. How are we going to do this?

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:35:25] Are we going to put what we really let’s put it what we think you? Well, you know, I’ve read the I’ve done it to say let’s not do it. But let’s put in 60 personnel. Let’s put it it is 60 Minutes. Answer to how we.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:35:41] So where does the majority of the world population live? Low-income countries, middle-income countries or high-income countries? So we know that the answer is actually middle-income countries, even though most people would probably say low-income countries. In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has almost doubled, remained more or less the same, or almost halved.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:36:06] And actually, we know that it’s worth pausing at that point because that does surprise people. And I think it’s worth defining what extreme poverty is. And it is extreme poverty. I mean, I think it’s earning a lot less than a dollar a day.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:36:23] I think a dollar ninety is the.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:36:27] A Day or a week. A day. Yeah, but it’s also having a dirt floor and no electricity, you know, so extreme poverty is, as it says, extreme poverty. Yeah.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:36:41] What is the life expectancy of the world today? 50 years, 60 years, 70 years. And I think a lot of us would say, well, you know, it’s up in kind of the 70s in the developed world, but not elsewhere. But actually, the average across the world is 70 years. And then there are questions about there are two billion children in the world today.

How many will that be in the twenty? One hundred. And actually, even though we have these nightmare scenarios in our head of runaway global population, the population of the world is expected to level out by the end of the year. So it’s actually that they’ll be, we think, the same amount of children in twenty one hundred as they are now And maybe they’ll actually have a slide, which we could do the whole quiz. But, you know, it’s all that kind of.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:37:29] Yeah, yeah. No that’s good. And I recommend people do it because it’s actually really insightful as to how, how real and as you say, how improved the world has actually improved. Lots to do. Lots to do. And you’ve identified he’s got five things that he’s concerned about. And I’m fairly sure that environment would be up there among the five of them.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:37:55] And he kind of is. So if I have a couple of slides around this that I think there he is have.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:38:03] Yes.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:38:04] That he died because he wasn’t old at all. No. So he died just before the book came out. But so, you know, this is he does these great kinds of graphs. Usually, these are kind of colorful, but the one that didn’t have the year on that I had the black and white one. So and he says this is how most of us picture the world. There’s a bubble graph with most people in the world have big families and many children die in the developed world.

People have small families and not many children die, low infant mortality, low numbers of children. And we think that that’s the majority of the world’s population is down that end of the graph. And only some of us are at this end of the graph. And he says that is an accurate picture of the world in nineteen sixty-five. That is not what it looks like today. This is what it looks like today, is that there are only a few people.

Well I mean in raw numbers, it’s still far too many people, of course, who are in the big families. Lots of children die box, but actually, the world has been getting wealthier and in many ways better off. And if we think, you know, one of the problems with thinking actually that’s not the case, we’re thinking that this picture, the former picture is how the world is and how it’s always going to be means that we get a bit like, well, what can we do about it?

We’ve been like going on about extreme poverty, particularly since the 80s. And look, it’s never going to change. Whereas to celebrate that change and to say, look, some of the things we’ve been doing have changed people’s lives dramatically and are having an effect. Let’s celebrate that and use that as a launching point to continue to make things happen. Whereas, of course, you know, this is an as.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:39:52] The answer is, on those questions.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:39:53] Yeah, this is one of the questions as an example. So he goes round to or he went round to all these kind of conferences and organizations and all these different countries and did that quiz. And people got the answers so wrong. Like not just he says if you had a chimp throwing bananas at like A, B, and C randomly not knowing what the questions were, the chimp would do better than almost everyone.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:40:21] Is this question that you’ve got up in front of. This is the response to question nine, which asked how many of the world’s one-year-olds today have been vaccinated against some disease, and the correct answer is 80 percent and in one-year-olds,.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:40:40] You know, and that’s globally. So, you know, the options, I think were kind of maybe 40 percent, 60 percent or 80 percent and not many people. So, you know, the Swedish did the best in this question. Twenty-one percent of people got it correct. Got it down in France and Germany and Japan, it was six percent. Australians got 14, 14 percent of us who he did this year. Right.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:41:03] It’s a real indication, isn’t it, to us, to across the world how wrong we’ve got it. Which is interesting, because another thing you mention in your book and is that when people are asked about how life is for them, they invariably say, yes, it’s good, it’s better than it was. But out there in the world, it’s much, much worse, which is maybe one of the pleasures of pessimism or maybe it’s what effects of pessimism.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:41:31] But that’s right. And Rosling talks about this as a thing to think about that we kind of go, oh, well, out there, all these terrible things happen. And the world is kind of a terrible place. And he says, well, of course, more bad things happen out there than where you live, because almost regardless of where you live. Right.

Because out there is a much bigger place. And we only hear about so many of these places when terrible things happen. And the rest of the time we’re oblivious. And, you know, I think this particularly feeds into it. So partly that’s a function of just, you know, that’s how the world is. We hear a lot of the bad news from all these different places, but there are also a lot of good things happening that we don’t hear about that.

On the other hand, there’s a kind of there’s something else going on there, which I think really feeds into the polarization of our kind of cultural experience and conversation, which is that and I found this particularly interesting in terms of the US. There’s surveys done and this is even this is before 2016 before Donald Trump was elected, where people going around the country doing surveys found that there was this massive gap between, you know, if you ask how is the country going, you know, what are things like at this kind of up here national collective level? And people would be like very badly. Is America going in the right direction? No.

But when asked about their own lives and their own capacity for pursuing the American dream, they’d be like, oh, yeah, it’s good. So they’re their actual experience of their lives and their communities doesn’t match up to this narrative they have in their heads about the country as a whole. And that’s it was kind of true across party lines as well. And, you know, they’d have different ideas about what’s wrong with the country at large.

But it’s interesting that, you know, people kind of go, I believe this thing about the nation that I have no direct experience of, I only know about it through the news. And that has note that doesn’t bear any resemblance to my real experience of my life and the lives of people around me. That is important, I think.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:43:51] Yeah. And what you brought this up is the next thing I was going to ask you really about polarization. You know, we live in an extremely polarized world and you ask this very relevant question in your book, which do you value more, the common good or my side to be right. And I’m fascinated about our ability to communicate. I mean, there’s no argument.

It’s brought us to the top of the food chain and controlling our environment. But I kind of seeing that our ability to communicate is coming back to bite us, you know, how do you think we can reconnect as our individual realities? Because that’s really what’s going on into some sort of cohesive society if ever such a thing existed. But I mean, the Center for Public Christianity is attempting to do just that. How do we get on how do we do that?

Dr Natasha Moore [00:44:45] We’re trying to do our bit. Can I share with you a quote that this is actually the quote that got me started on the whole kind of pessimism journey.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:44:57] Let me get to a different slide. And with low screenshots, I’ll find the quote and then come back to you. OK.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:45:19] OK, do you see this one? Yes. OK, this is from one of my favorite writers, Marilynne Robinson. She’s an American writer, novelist and essayist, and she writes that she says this was in the middle of an essay. And I kind of just read it and was like, whoa, I hadn’t kind of thought of this in these terms, but this so describes the water we’re swimming in.

She says cultural pessimism is always fashionable, and since we are human, there are always grounds for it. It has the negative consequence of depressing the level of aspiration, the sense of the possible. And from time to time, it has the extremely negative consequence of encouraging a kind of somber panic, a collective dream state in which recourse to terrible remedies is inspired by delusions of mortal threat.

If there is anything in the life of any cultural period that gives good grounds for alarm. It is the rise of cultural pessimism whose major passion is bitter hostility toward many or most of the people within the very culture. The pessimists always feel they are intent on rescuing, and she goes on.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:46:28] But I think that’s worth kind of pausing on that idea that actually cultural pessimism becomes sort of itself poisonous and self-fulfilling because our pessimism is not just like, oh, no, things are going badly. I think there’s this really partisan element to our pessimism where it’s like it’s not just that things are going off the rails.

Actually, those people over there, whoever they might be for us, they’re driving it there. And so if we’ve lost that sense of lack of actually where we’re on that train together, we’re going somewhere together and we want all of us to kind of get there in one piece once we’ve lost that. And it’s like, oh, I just want my people to be OK. And I don’t care about those people.

If we don’t have that sense of a common good, then that makes it very difficult to tackle particularly large-scale things like climate change. So she goes on. She says and this is part of I think you’re the answer to your question about what do we do about it? She says when panic on one side is creating alarm on the other, it is easy to forget that there are always as good grounds for optimism as for pessimism, exactly the same grounds.

In fact, that is because we are human. We still have every potential for good we have ever had and the same presumptive claim to respect our own respect and one another’s. We are still creatures of singular interest and value. There’s that kind of value thing for me.

The image of God, the agile of soul as we have always been and as we will continue to be, even despite our errors and depredations, for as long as we abide on this Earth, to value one another is our greatest safety and to indulge in fear and contempt is our greatest era. I think that last line is just I used to kind of have it on a Post-it note about the computer at work, because when you’re working in media, there’s a lot of there are a lot of things where it’s easy to have a fearful response or a response of contempt for people who say things that you think are just ridiculous. But if we don’t value the people who disagree with us, it makes it very difficult for us to.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:48:34] Will you do anything together?

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:48:35] You always you also reference the second law of thermodynamics in your book. And this is that we inherently move towards chaos and destruction. What is the word? Entropy, entropy, entropy above that, that we need to constantly be working on it, even just to stay in the same place?

Dr Natasha Moore [00:48:58] Yeah. And one of the texts that I use for this, which comes from the Bible, from the Jewish scriptures and the Book of Ecclesiastes, which is a very kind of shocking it feels almost nihilistic as a book. And it’s the kind of famous, like, meaningless, meaningless. Everything is meaningless. There’s nothing new under the sun. Everything the water flows this way in that place, that way, and nothing changes. And it really kind of brings out that sense of like, oh, what’s the point in any of this?

But the teacher in that book also has that passage made famous by the song there is a time for everything, a time to be born and a time to die, a time to scatter stones, a time to gather them, a time to laugh, a time to mourn. All that kind of that seasonal sense, that sense of rhythm to human life. So I look at those two kinds of passages are those two kinds of moods towards the chaos and the frustration of living in the world that we do. And I go actually, I think this is a helpful picture for our political reality and how we engage with it, because it can become very disillusioning to be like, why does everything always go to pot?

Like, why? Why doesn’t anything ever stay put? And I think particularly if we are over-optimistic actually about human nature or human achievements, if we go, oh, everything’s getting better and better, and surely we can just sort out this problem in that problem and then things go wrong. Politicians prove to be less than honest or upright and things get undone. The other party, whoever they are, to get into power, you know, we can become very disillusioned with each other. And these it’s almost like a game of whack a mole, you know, like no problem ever stays fixed.

You have to keep going, keep going, keep going. This is the story of, like, educating every generation, right? You can never just fix something in place and be like, OK, we’ve got it sorted. Democracy, democracy is the best. Democracy is like sorted. It’s become very clear that that’s not the case. You actually have to argue for it and you have to gear up to be like, OK, this requires a lot of effort just to stay in the same place.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:51:31] You know, it’s interesting because I think this idea that it requires constant attention and nurturing to move it along. When I read that, I kind of thought, wow, this is so much like I know in my own relationship that I love coming up with solutions. And I think that’s a very male thing. Whereas women tend to be more interested in the process, and I think part of our problem in society is that we’ve given too many men too much power. There it is. I said it.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:52:04]  Too interested in the quick fix.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:52:06] Yes, yes, yes. We need to be more focused on the process. And I think actually it’s interesting to take that a little bit further and look at the countries that have fared very well, you know, in our world. As to how many of those have been led by men and how many have led by women and others, and I grant that Scott Morrison has done very well in Australia, but I feel in a way that he wasn’t given much choice when just Centera just went hard and fast or low.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:52:36] Well, Gladys’s done very well.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:52:38] And Gladys has done very well, as well as Daniel Andrews and all anybody associated,.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:52:43] Depending on who you ask.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:52:44] Well, let’s not go let’s go through the whole world. But I think the idea of process rather than focused on solution and I’ve got that right, let’s move on is not a particularly helpful way of thinking the world.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:52:57] Yeah, well, and I think as well, there’s a question here about I mean, humility is one way of putting it, being willing to be wrong. And, you know, I wonder if this is a thing that we will agree, but also maybe partly disagree on. You know, we started out talking about you said something like, I think we believe that humans are mostly good, are basically good, which I half agree with, but also do it right. And this comes out of my Christian worldview as well, that I go.

Well, the Bible does say actually where amazing made in the image of God. There’s something brilliant about humans, agile of soul, as Marilynne Robinson puts it. But also there’s something really bleak and dark and twisted, distorted at the heart of humans. We are messed up and we mess things up. And to an astounding extent, actually, like, wait, you think that things are going to be OK and that just if we have the right amount of education or whatever it is, surely it’s going to be OK. And humans let us we let each other down again and again.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:54:04] And I think that’s almost part of the problem with this kind of quick-fix mentality, is that we’re if we think that humans are basically good, then we’ll constantly be surprised and disillusioned when humans do awful things and fail at lots of things. And even the whole system of democracy is based on this idea. You have kind of you can oppose something like the French Revolution just based on this idea of like the perfectibility of humans. If you can just get the right system, you’re kind of saying with communism, if you can just get the right system, humans are basically good. So it will all be swell. Whereas actually the idea of democracy is humans cannot be trusted, like humans are messed up as things up. And therefore you have to put in these checks and balances.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:54:54] You have to put this system, which is itself messy and imperfect, and the outcomes are not always stellar, but it’s there’s a safety there that we don’t give humans too much power. And we don’t expect that humans are going to necessarily make good choices. And that’s why we need to build that into the system. That’s kind of the best we’ve got. And if we’re not kind of making that argument over and over again, then no wonder in surveys, young people kind of guard, is democracy the best system? I don’t know. Maybe autocracy will work out a bit better. Disillusioned with this democracy thing, it doesn’t seem to achieve that much, whereas actually it’s very hard to achieve anything.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:55:37] I don’t want I don’t want to go around into a theological discussion. But it’s interesting because I do think original sin has a really big part to play in Christianity. And I describe myself honestly as an agnostic Jew. And so I often joke with my Christian friends and say, you know, the difference between Christians and Jews, certainly agnostic Jews, is that Christians if they sin, will go to hell. And yet if Jews in, they’re going to make their mother very angry and I’m not sure which is worse. Okay, so but anyway, let’s not get down that liquid covid some great territory here.

Dr Natasha Moore [00:56:18] And I wanted to take a step back from your role in the public Christianity movement there and as an academic too and PhD English, which taking a step back from all of that because we’re all on a health journey together in our modern world. And I wondered if you might share with us what you thought was the biggest challenge in that journey for an individual. Sorry. In my journey. Like my professional.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:56:48] Yeah, no, no. Just personal journey. We’re all trying to be as healthy as we can. We’re all trying to make as much sense of the world as we can. And in this modern world, what do you think the biggest challenges for individuals?

The Biggest Health Challenge

Dr Natasha Moore [00:57:00] Hmm. Great question. I don’t know if I feel like I should have prepped for this one. So I don’t know about if I’m going to nail like this is that’s okay. That’s not that one that comes to mind that is very has become very important to me. And I think actually this. Came out of the final year of my PhD, and it’s the question of rest, which is, of course, something that you’ve thought about a lot.

I know and I’ve done a lot of work on and not expressly about sleep, but about you know, we have this culture of productivity, what I would call the tyranny of productivity for a lot of us, where we feel like if we’re not achieving something all of the time, then what’s the point? And there’s there’s a lot that’s bound up with that historically and sociologically and all the rest of it. But I in the middle of my just before I started the third year of my PhD, I read a paragraph.

It’s all about reading from the books is where I get started. And this also kind of comes from the angle of my faith. I was writing a book by William Wilberforce and he made a kind of comment in passing in this book about Sabbath, which is a gift that the that Judaism has given to the world and by Christianity as well.

This idea of one day out of every seven, you just cease from work. You may do no work. It was like it’s one of the Ten Commandments, you and your maidservant and your ox. All of you must not work on this day, which is kind of astonishing is like of a fundamental command, a religious command. Don’t do any work, stop working. But I and I kind of wasn’t really doing that because, you know, Christians are like, oh, it’s you know, like it’s figurative and all the rest of it.

But actually, because doing a PhD, I had become very like I feel guilty all the time that I’m not working. I can’t work all the time. So I don’t. But I always feel like I should be. And so I get really just tired and guilty and worried. And so I started every Sunday just being like, no, no work is allowed on this day. I can do whatever I like. I can hang out with people and not feel angsty about it. I can read stuff that’s purely for fun and not for work. And it completely transformed my life actually, because just having that space that productivity can’t encroach on anything is demanded of you. You are not in charge of the world.

The world’s going to get by just fine without you. You can leave your to do list for a while. And I think particularly these days, we actually have to cultivate the capacity for proper rest. It’s easy to trade, even recreation and play as a sort of achieving something.

You know, having meditation apps where you take off goals like what are we doing? That is not how that works. So it’s, you know, something I am doing better at sometimes and worse sometimes. But rest, I think it’s a big one.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [01:00:24] Well, what a great note to finish on. And Natasha, thank you so much for joining us. And we will, of course, have links to your book and the and the documentary and the center as well. So thank you so much. Thank you.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [01:00:38] Now, if you’re a regular listener to this podcast, you’ll know that I often ask my guests what they think the biggest challenges on our health journey moving forward through this modern world. And I think it’s a great question because people come up with different answers and sometimes similar answers from a slightly different perspective.

And actually, we are going to put this all those answers together in a whole book, because I think they deserve to be there are some real pearls. And I thought it was terrific that Natasha actually mentioned rest. And Drew on the Sabbath is a good example for that enforced, legitimized ability to rest on a regular basis, because we’ve on this podcast spoken many times about sleep and people can get pretty stressed out if they’re not sleeping.

And I think that’s actually a really important message that Natasha shared with us. And a good reminder for me to remind you that we should never underestimate the power of rest and the importance of it. And interestingly, the podcast I did with the sleep whisperer, Dr Chris Winter, would have been a year or two ago.

He also discussed the power and the importance of rest. So that was a timely reminder. And I think when I read Natasha’s book The Pleasures of Pessimism, and we are surrounded by so much pessimism, it’s such a wonderful read. It’s not a long book. It’s only around 50 or 60 pages, but it’s beautifully written. And I heard her give the public presentation.

On this very subject, so I just thought it was so worth sharing that with you and the documentary that I referenced as well that she had done is really worth looking at. And I really enjoyed the book and I enjoyed the documentary. And I certainly enjoyed talking to Dr. Natasha Moore. And we will have links to all of her, the sites that she mentioned, and also to that questionnaire, which I encourage you all to do from Hans Rosling, the Swedish doctor statistician who asks these 12 or 13 questions to sort of give you an idea of how in touch you are with the reality of what is actually going on in this world. So I hope you found that enjoyable. I certainly did. Now, don’t forget, again, we’re kicking off a new year and we want to really promote this podcast. And with your help, we can do that.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [01:03:20] So spend a moment and just share a review on iTunes that pushes up the ratings and get this message out to a much broader audience. Again, we’ve got some great stuff on this year. Download the app Unstress with Dr Ron Ehrlich. It will keep you in touch with all that is going on. I hope this finds you well until next time. This is Dr Ron Ehrlich. Be well.


This podcast provides general information and discussion about medicine, health, and related subjects. The content is not intended and should not be construed as medical advice or as a substitute for care by a qualified medical practitioner. If you or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately qualified medical practitioner. Guests who speak in this podcast express their own opinions, experiences, and conclusions.