Humankind’s best days lie ahead...
Steven Pinker | cognitive scientist, psychologist, linguist, popular science author
Declinists speak of a faith or belief in progress but there’s nothing faith-based about it. Our understanding of the human condition must not be grounded in myths of a fall from Eden or a rise to Utopia, nor on genes for a sunny or morose temperament, nor on which side of the bed you got out of this morning.
And it must not come from the headlines. Journalists report plane crashes, not planes that take off. As long as bad things haven’t vanished from the earth altogether, there will always be enough of them to fill the news. And people will believe, as they have for centuries, that the world is falling apart.
No, the only way to understand the fate of the world is with facts and numbers. That is to plot the incidents of good and bad things over time, not just for charmed places like Canada but for the world as a whole, see which way the lines are going, and identify the forces that are pushing them around.
Allow me to do this for ten of the good things in life. First, life itself. A century and a half ago, the human lifespan was thirty years. Today, it is seventy and it shows no signs of levelling off.
Second, health. Look up smallpox and cattle plague in Wikipedia. The definitions are in the past tense, “smallpox was a disease”, indicating that two of the greatest sources of misery in human existence have been eradicated forever. The same will soon be true for polio and guinea worm and we are currently decimating hookworm, malaria, filariasis, measles, rubella and yaws.
Third, prosperity. Two centuries ago eighty-five percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Today, that’s down to ten percent and, according to the UN, by 2030, it could be zero. On every continent, people are working fewer hours and can afford more food, clothes, lighting, entertainment, travel, phone calls, data, and beer.
Fourth, peace. The most destructive human activity, war between powerful nations, is obsolescent. Developed countries have not fought a war for seventy years, great powers for sixty years. Civil wars continue to exist but they are less destructive than interstate wars and there are fewer of them.
This pin is a souvenir from a trip earlier this week to Colombia, which is in the process of ending the last war in the Western Hemisphere.
Globally, the annual death rate from wars has been in bumpy decline, from 300 per 100,000 during World War II, to 22 in the 1950s, 9 in the ‘70s, 5 in the ‘80s, 1.5 in the ‘90s and 0.2 in the ‘00s. Even the horrific civil war in Syria has only budged the numbers back up to where they were in 2000.
Fifth, safety. Global rates of violent crime are falling in many places precipitously. The world’s leading criminologists have calculated that, within thirty years, we can cut the global rate of homicide in half.
Sixth, freedom. Despite backsliding in this or that country, the global democracy index is at an all-time high. More than sixty percent of the world’s population now lives in open societies, the highest percentage ever.
Seven, knowledge. In 1820, seventeen percent of people had a basic education. Today, eighty-two percent do and the percentage is rapidly heading to a hundred.
Eight, human rights. Ongoing global campaigns have targeted child labour, capital punishment, human trafficking, violence against women, female genital mutilation, and the criminalization of homosexuality. Each has made measureable inroads and, if history is a guide, these barbaric customs will go the way of human sacrifice, cannibalism, infanticide, chattel slavery, heretic burning, torture executions, public hangings, debt bondage, duelling, harems, eunuchs, freak shows, foot binding, laughing at the insane, and the designated goon in hockey.
Nine, gender equity. Global data show that woman are getting better educated, marrying later, earning more, and in more positions of power and influence.
Finally, intelligence. In every country, IQ has been rising by three points a decade.
So, what is the response of the declinists to all of this depressing good news? It is, “Just you wait. Any day now a catastrophe will halt this progress or push it into reverse.”
But, with the possible exception of war, none of these indicators is subject to chaotic bubbles and crashes like the stock market. Each is gradual and cumulative. And, collectively, they build on one another.
A richer world can better afford to clean up the environment, police its gangs, and teach and heal its citizens. A better-educated and more female-empowered world will indulge fewer autocrats and start fewer stupid wars.
The technological advances that have propelled this progress will only accelerate, Moore’s law is continuing and genomics, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, material science, and evidence-based policy are skyrocketing.
What about the science fiction dystopias? Most of them, like rampaging cyborgs and engulfment by nanobots, are entirely fanciful and will go the way of the Y2K bug and other silly techno-panics.
Two others are serious, but solvable. Despite prophecies of thermonuclear World War III and Hollywood-style nuclear terrorism, remember that no nuclear weapon has been used since Nagasaki, the Cold War ended, sixteen states have given up nuclear weapons programs (including this year, Iran), the number of nuclear weapons has been reduced by more than eighty percent, and a 2010 global agreement locked down loose nukes and fissile material.
More importantly, the world may only have to extend its seventy-year streak another few decades. A road map for the phased elimination of all nuclear weapons has been endorsed in principle by major world leaders, including those of Russia and the United States.
The other threat is climate change. This may be humanity’s toughest problem but economists agree it is a solvable one. A global carbon tax would incentivize billions of people to conserve, innovate, and switch to low-carbon energy sources, while accelerated R&D in renewable energy, fourth-generation nuclear power, and carbon capture would lower their costs.
Will the world suicidally ignore these solutions? Well, here are three Time Magazine headlines from just the last month: “China shows it’s serious about climate change”, “Wal-Mart, McDonald’s and 79 others commit to fight global warming” and “Americans’ denial of climate change hits record low”.
A better world, to be sure, is not a perfect world. As a conspicuous defender of the idea of human nature, I believe that out of the crooked timber of humanity, no truly straight thing can be made. And, to misquote a great Canadian, “We are not stardust, we are not golden, and there’s no way we’re getting back to the garden.”
In the glorious future I am envisioning, there will be disease and poverty, there will be terrorism and oppression, and war and violent crime. But there will be much, much less of these scourges, which means that billions of people will be better off than they are today.
- Transcript from 2015 Munk Debates