The world is becoming a better place—despite appearances to the contraryby Philip Ball / February 21, 2018 / Leave a comment
Anyone can see that the world is going to hell in a handcart. The great European project looks sick; war and fundamentalism ravage the Middle East; and we’re running out of clean water and usable antibiotics. Most worryingly, a pathological liar in the White House is taunting a nuclear-armed North Korean despot with schoolboy tweets.
But the Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has a cure for your despair. In his new book Enlightenment Now, Pinker claims that in the long view things are getting better on pretty much every front. To prove his argument, he offers a profusion of graphs that show positive trends in life expectancy, crime, poverty, the global spread of democracy and all manner of other metrics of progress. For much of the world today, life is better than it has ever been. Enlightenment ideals of tolerance, reason and humanism are winning.
Pinker knows he will be derided as a Pollyanna. But if we’re gloomy, he argues, it’s because of media bias towards bad news, coupled with our innate tendency to expect the worst as an insurance policy against disappointment. In addition, our poor statistical intuition (and appetite for catastrophism) gives undue emphasis to scary but small risks such as terrorist attacks.
At first I was sceptical, but Pinker’s case is compelling. He points out that pessimism is largely western-centric. Life for the average person in China has improved vastly since the death of Mao Zedong. Yes, the air and water quality are often appalling, and the country’s economic growth has brought new pressures and inequalities—yet most Chinese people are optimistic about the future.
Over in the developed west, we have become accustomed to luxuries beyond the dreams of our grandparents’ generation. Poverty and inequality remain deplorable; but statistics show that within living memory many things were far worse.
Pinker began writing his book—a follow-up to and expansion of The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), which argued that global violence has decreased over time—before the election of Donald Trump. It would read very differently in a world in which Barack Obama had been followed by Hillary Clinton. (Some of his friends advised that he should end each chapter with a warning that…