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We live in the greatest time on Earth.
The world is getting better in almost every way. Life is getting easier for people everywhere, with the steady dissipation of global poverty and the glaring emergence of a global middle class, and there is no sign this trend will be put to rest anytime soon.
As a writer, that is not what you want to hear. Journalists make a living by reporting the sensational, the statistical aberrations that scare and embolden the masses. Much of the media derives its power from having us believe that the sky is falling, that every individual mishap is a global epidemic, that everything we hear in the news could happen to us on a whim—so we tune in even more intently and feed them their delicious ratings.
The fact is, peace and prosperity are not newsworthy, even though we have more of those things as a species than ever before.
In his recent book, Enlightenment Now, the famous psychologist Steven Pinker sheds light on the steady, and often quiet, march of human progress—from the rise in health and longevity, the increase in safety and the decrease in violence, the development of equal rights worldwide, the global and national decline of racism, the lessening of war and poverty, to the upsurge of literacy.
Where journalists cherry-pick data, reporting rare events that give the false impression of sweeping tragedy rather than the boring everyday affairs of peace and safety, Dr. Pinker draws from data which “aggregate all of the cherries,” allowing us to understand long-term trends instead of short-term ebbs and spurts.
This is no knock on journalism, of course, because it is the moral obligation of reporters to keep people from descending into a passive slumber and must thereby focus on the negative to remind us of that we have a long way to go. But (and this is a big “but”) this can give us the false impression that things are getting worse, giving us perpetual amnesia toward how far we have actually come as a society and how grateful we ought to be for our progress.
According to Pinker, we are drawn toward regressive hyperbole and knee-jerk reaction because of two things: what he calls the “availability bias” and the “negativity bias,” both arising from evolutionary developments that fail to serve us in the modern world.
The first bias is constituted by our inclination to believe that available information is ostensibly true—whether it be something we have recently seen on the news or have encountered in our lives. We assume this must be happening everywhere, simply because it is immediate to us. The second bias comes from our heightened sensitivity to negative stimuli, reacting more deeply to the bad while taking the good for granted. The biases come together to formulate what Pinker calls “Progressophobia,” a resistance to any sign of human progress—because it simply does not register in our brains.
This is not a perfect world. We are surrounded by human suffering, degradation, tragedy, and despair. If there is some impending nexus point in the unforeseeable future where suffering will be completely ameliorated and human tragedy will be considered a historical artifact, we are certainly a long ways away from it. We have always been a messy creature, despite the unshakable feeling that we come from a golden age and need only embrace our innate perfection.
We have always believed that utopia is right around the corner, and compared with utopia, the present moment will always seem pretty sh*tty. But this is a flaw in our wiring. Imperfection is embedded in the human experience—we are born, we suffer, and we die alone—it is built into our DNA. Though when we compare the present moment with the past, where we come from, the harsh reality of history, we evoke a feeling of deep gratitude for everything we are and everything we have.
We were never meant to make it. We were always doomed. The unequivocal fact that things are getting better for the entire world is a tribute to the depths of the human spirit, our ability to solve problems on the fly and surmount the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that have always stood in our path. The flow of human progress is not merely something to be grateful for, it is something to be proud of—a pride in our own humanity for coming this far against all odds.
In a piece for Quillette magazine marking the one year anniversary of Enlightenment Now, Pinker writes:
“Progress does not mean that everything gets better for everyone everywhere all the time. That would not be progress. That would be a miracle. Progress is not a miracle; it’s the result of solving problems. Problems are inevitable, and solutions create new problems that must be solved in their turn. For this reason, some aspects of life can improve while others stand still or go backward. Progress would still be a reality if most of humanity is better off than they were before—if, as Obama put, the answer to the question ‘When would you choose to live if you didn’t know who you would be?’ is ‘Now.’ The wrong way to determine whether progress has occurred is to compile a list of everything that is currently going wrong anywhere in the world—the gimmick that columnists periodically rediscover as a way to scare the bejesus out of their readers and assume the mantle of a prophet.”
It is crucial that we understand what human progress actually means, not simply as an abstraction to be explored but a lived reality to be embraced. Moreover, it is a moral necessity that we recognize how far we have come, the full spectrum of human flourishing that has arisen in the face of unimaginable adversity, to participate in our progress and avoid falling into a hapless despair. In other words, we have come this far—let’s not blow it.
“But what we should do now very much depends on how we understand progress. If you believe that all of humanity’s efforts to make the world a better place have failed—that all is vanity, the poor will always be with you, and the best-laid plans of mice and men always go awry—the appropriate response is stop throwing bad money after good and to enjoy life while you can. If you believe that things could not be worse, and all of our institutions are failing and beyond hope of reform, then the appropriate response is to burn the empire to the ground in the hope that anything that rises out of the ashes will be better than what we have now. Or to empower a strongman who promises, ‘Only I can fix it’ and seeks to make the declining country great again. But if applying reason and science to make people better off has succeeded in the past, however piecemeal and incompletely, the appropriate response is to deepen our understanding of the world and to improve and mobilize our institutions to make more people better off still.”
The following is a list of developments cited by the political economist Angus Hervey in 2018 alone.
See if this brightens your day:
>> 46 measures to reduce greenhouse gas emission
>> 19 expansions of protected areas, including the largest tropical rain forest park in the world (in Colombia)
>> 9 successes in conservation, including jaguars, mountain gorillas, sea turtles, island foxes, long-nosed bats, Gangetic dolphins, three coral reefs, and four rare Polynesian bird species
>> 18 measures to reduce plastic in the environment
>> 8 additional successes in pollution control and sustainability
>> 24 improvements in health, including the near-disappearance of Zika; a major vaccination drive against cholera; a drop in HIV/AIDS which could eliminate infections within a dozen years; and the eradication of malaria in Paraguay, Guinea Worm in South Sudan, trachoma in Ghana, and elephantiasis in Togo
>> 6 milestones in reducing poverty, including a report that more than half of the world now can be classified as middle class, and record low rates of poverty for American children and African American men
>> 11 improvements in the rights of women, including the repeal of discriminatory laws in Tunisia, Morocco, India, and Nepal, and a doubling of the proportion of women in the world’s legislatures
>> 8 advances in human rights, including the abolition of the death penalty in Malaysia and the decriminalization of homosexuality in India, Lebanon, and Trinidad and Tobago
>> 11 reductions in violent crime, including a halving of the homicide rate in the world’s most murderous country, Honduras, as well as drops in the rates of homicide, incarceration, and recidivism in the United States
>> 6 advances in peace, including a global decline in battle deaths for the third year in a row, and the end of hostilities between Ethiopia and Eritrea which had killed more than 100,000 people
>> Not a single crash of a commercial passenger plane, and an all-time low in deaths from natural disasters
>> A record number of democracies and people living in them, including improvements in Indonesia, Pakistan, Nepal, Somaliland, and Armenia
>> A drop in global suicide rates