It’s very easy to abandon hope and become cynical about the state of humanity. Daily, the 24 hour news cycle batters us with its dystopian worldview. The war in Syria, mass murder in our nation’s schools, global warming, extreme political division. There is plenty to be depressed about.
Steven Pinker offers optimism in this darkness. Pinker uses extensive research and hard data to argue that – despite what you read or hear in the news – the world continues to become a better place for humanity.
In a recent Slate interview, Pinker discusses his new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress:
The heart of the book is a set of graphs showing that measures of human well-being have improved over time. Contrary to the impression that you might get from the newspapers—that we’re living in a time of epidemics and war and crime—the curves show that humanity has been getting better, that we’re living longer, we are fighting fewer wars, and fewer people are being killed in the wars. Our rate of homicide is down. Violence against women is down. More children are going to school, girls included. More of the world is literate. We have more leisure time than our ancestors did. Diseases are being decimated. Famines are becoming rarer, so virtually anything that you could measure that you’d want to call human well-being has improved over the last two centuries, but also over the last couple of decades.
Claudia & Federico, bright lights illuminating the darkness
I recently had a powerful experience of humanity’s inherent capacity for goodness that challenged my growing cynicism and compelled me to reconsider Pinker’s more expansive worldview.
While hiking in Argentina’s Glacier National Park, we received an email summoning us home to be with my wife’s elderly mom, whose health had suddenly declined. Getting Pat from remote El Chaltén, Argentina to Orchard Park, NY as soon as possible involved quite the effort and the kindness, generosity and assistance of many people.
Our hosteria had poor WiFi and no international phone service. When Pat connected to the local cellular service, it did not allow her to make calls but did manage to screw up her phone. Then there was the language barrier and numerous other constraints.
But Argentines were incredibly helpful. The tourist information center in the bus station let us use their phone for a 30 minute international call to rearrange our flights all the while tending to Pat, bringing her tea and hugs.
“Kindness is a universal language”
I called Posada Karut Josh, the B & B where we stayed the previous two nights in El Calafate, and the proprietor Federico answered. After explaining the situation, I said, “Federico, we need your help.” Without hesitation, he replied, “We will do whatever you need us to do.” Then his dear wife Claudia took over, providing multiple options for getting us to our rescheduled LATAM flight departing from Puerto Natales, Chile.
While we drove from El Chaltén back to El Calafate, Claudia and Federico spent a few hours of their Sunday afternoon driving around town buying us bus tickets and getting us a hotel room – all this while managing a fully booked B & B at the height of tourist season. As I told them in a subsequent email: “You two have been bright lights illuminating the darkness, reminding us of the goodness inherent in humanity.”
Pat captured the experience well in an email to our kids: “Kindness is a universal language. From the cleaning lady and employees at the information center, multiple hosts at our hosterias, the car rental man and a gentleman from Germany who we ran into randomly in two different towns, there were multiple acts of support and generosity both large and small.”
After five, intense hours, we had a plan. And after three days including seven hours (car), six hours (bus), 16 hours (on four planes), and four passport controls, we were home, exactly where we needed to be.
Blips, setbacks and horrific lurches
It’s always intellectually hazardous to generalize from a small set, in this case a single anecdote. (Of course, generalizing from a small set is exactly what the 24 hour news cycle does, cherry picking and in some cases manufacturing crises to prey upon and profit from viewers’ strong loss aversion bias.)
But that’s not my intention. Rather, I simply recount a personal experience that forced me to challenge the prevailing cynicism – my own included – and to reconsider the larger perspective offered by Pinker.
In a Washington Post interview, Pinker elaborates on his thesis, explaining why people think the world is getting worse when the data shows that in fact it’s getting much better for humanity:
Think about it: If you arrived in a new city and saw that it was raining, would you conclude, “The rain has gotten worse”? How could you tell, unless you knew how much it had rained before that day? Yet people read about a war or terrorist attack this morning and conclude that violence is increasing, which is just as illogical. In fact, rates of war have been roller-coastering downward since 1946, rates of American homicide have plunged since 1992, and rates of disease, starvation, extreme poverty, illiteracy and dictatorship, when they are measured by a constant yardstick, have all decreased – not to zero, but by a lot…
Progress is not the same as magic. There are always blips and setbacks, and sometimes horrific lurches, like the Spanish flu pandemic, World War II and the post-1960s crime boom. Progress takes place when the setbacks are fewer, less severe or stop altogether. Clearly we have to be mindful of the worst possible setback, namely nuclear war, and of the risk of permanent reversals, such as the worst-case climate change scenarios. Of course life is bad for those people with the worst possible lives, and that will be true until the rates of war, crime, disease and poverty are exactly zero. The point is that there are far fewer people living in nightmares of war and disease.
Become engaged – in politics, charity and advocating for positive change
Whether we’re experiencing a blip, setback or horrific lurch, we can all benefit from Pinker’s long view of human progress. When asked “How has your understanding of the improvement of the human lot impacted you, your behavior, choices and ideas?” Pinker replies:
It’s made me far more engaged – in politics, in charity, in advocating for positive change. Before learning how life had improved, I was more fatalistic: resigned to violent conflict, pessimistic about poverty, jaded about both government and civil-society activism. I now see hopes for human improvement as not just uplifting but practicable.