Before you move to Canada, before you leave me for some place better, have one more think. Please? I found a pair of glasses, so to speak, that will make things look brighter for you and for me and for the human race.
I know it looks bad. Creationism on the rise. Incarceration rates on the rise. Suicide rates on the rise. Global temperatures and drowning seawater on the rise. The gerrymandering that dooms our hopes for a more democratic system. Our cancerous national debt. And we have only ourselves to blame for electing this guy. With all these wrong kinds of rises, it can seem like our world is sinking, or turning backwards. If we’re not careful, we’ll all be running with the lemmings for the cliffs, or Canada.
Look again. Here’s how you see what you’ve never seen before. Count. Count with Steven Pinker. Count big and think big. Pinker shows us how to count and think about the world in his most recent book Enlightenment Now (2018). Through his lenses, when you learn to count as Pinker counts, our world and the human race look different than the one we see on the news. Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard, has been doing this kind of counting for a while. This is his eleventh book. You may have heard of his eighth book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011). His optimism is well tested.
Look at the big numbers for life expectancy, health, nutrition, wealth, economic inequality (poverty), the environment, war, safety, terrorism, democracy, civil rights, knowledge, quality of life, and happiness. The short version of this book can be seen in a glance at the 75 graphs sprinkled throughout its 453 pages. Here are a few of my favorites:
Life expectancy 1771-2015
Child mortality 1751-2013
Childhood stunting 1966-2014
Famine deaths 1860-2016
Gross domestic product per capita 1600-2015
Global inequality 1820-2011
Social spending 1880-2016
Income gains 1988-2008
Poverty US 1960-2016
Oil spills 1970-2016
Battle deaths 1946-2016
Death penalty abolitions 1863-2016
Executions US 1780-2016
Hate crimes US 1996-2015
IQ gains 1909-2013
In graph after graph the curves move dramatically in the direction of progress. And it’s hard to fudge these numbers. Our world is improving in almost every way you can look at it, and has been for hundreds of years. The key to this kind of vision is to first ask the questions, then choose long or large enough windows that allow you to see the big picture over time, then gather the data. And keep it simple.
In spite of two horrific world wars, battle deaths declined dramatically in the 20th century and are still dropping. Same with homicide rates and rates of extreme poverty. The trend to progress penetrates every big question Pinker asks about the state of the world. His conclusion is that progress, especially since the 18th century Enlightenment, is a juggernaut that can’t be stopped by our relatively minor failings, such as world wars, tyrannical communism, or the election of a narcissistic throwback. Pinker is sober about the work we have to do on the problems that face us (such as climate change, renewable energy, and the perversions of democracy), but the human race has a good track record for solving thornier problems than these.
If you find yourself thinking our world is turning the wrong way, think again about the issues that in your lifetime were once considered “progressive” or liberal or radical, and now are relatively mainstream. I’m 67 and here’s what my list looks like:
Long hair on men
Mini-skirts and braless tops
Opposition to war (peaceniks)
Opposition to the death penalty
Accommodations for the disabled
Civil rights for minorities, women, animals, gays, immigrants
Small, energy-efficient cars
Seeking treatment for a psychiatric disorder
Women in medicine, politics, CEO offices
African-Americans in commercials for soap, cars, insurance
What used to be the front edge of progress is now our current standard of living. If you look at the human race through Pinker’s glasses, we’ve done pretty well against steep odds. Survival used to be much harder to achieve. Threats were harder to overcome. The good life we live today was beyond the imaginations of even our grandparents a century ago: freedom from wars between the great powers, dramatic reductions in infectious diseases, steady improvements in health and longevity, widespread increases in wealth and decreases in extreme poverty, free communication across the continents, safe and affordable travel around the globe, unrestricted access to information, the expansion of civil rights to previously unrecognized groups.
Yes, we’ve got our messes to clean up. We have always had our troubles to manage and our problems to solve. Our failings and our apparent about-faces slow this rate of progress, but progress has moved us forward in ways that are dangerously easy to forget. As we raise our standards, we’re troubled now by things we used to overlook or take for granted. Sexual harassment, blatant racial discrimination, lynchings, and public torture were at various times so commonplace that they were not considered illegal or even troubling to most citizens. The recent benefits of peacekeeping forces and poverty reductions and the near eradication of polio and the absence of smallpox don’t dominate the news. These quiet advances escape our fearful attentions in favor of the latest tweet from the White House or the hurricane forecast.
So don’t move to Canada. It’s cold up there. You can count on that. And you can count on the fact that America was never greater than it is today. And in so many ways all over the world the human race is greater now than it has ever been. Let us count the ways. Once you put these glasses on, you can’t take them off.