Is the world becoming a worse place to live? Or is it getting better?
We live in a world with many problems and it is often a violent and dangerous place. It can be pretty scary out there for a lot of people and it often seems like things are getting worse. We can identify the greatest problems and challenges in the world are warfare, poverty, corruption, oppression, disease, and environmental degradation. It sometimes seems like the world is worse now than it has ever been. Some people imagine the world being a better place in times past. This is the sentiment behind any phrase of the form “Make (whatever country) Great Again”. The implication of such phrases is that things used to be great and now things are worse.
The facts is, however, that the world is in many ways doing better than it ever has in history. Although there are indeed many serious problems and challenges in the world today, we also know that this is probably the best time in history to be alive, since the world is less violent, more stable, and more prosperous than it has ever been. In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker presented an abundance of objective evidence that there have been several positive trends for humanity in recent centuries. The evidence shows that these positive trends started in ancient times and continued through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the early modern period, over the course of the Twentieth Century, and even through the Twenty First Century so far.
Pinker explains how violent conflicts have become far more rare and less deadly, how the average human life span has dramatically increased, how plagues have become less frequent and less lethal, and how famine has gone away throughout most of the world, among many other positive developments. These facts might seem counterintuitive to many, but Pinker provides detailed evidence to support these conclusions. The truth is that the world used to be much more violent, difficult, and painful for people. This was certainly the case centuries ago, and to an extent it was even the case mere decades ago.
Pinker explains why the world has become a better place to live for most people of the world, as compared to past ages. The most significant reasons are the development of modern science and technology, which allowed revolutionary advances in agriculture, health care, education, commerce, and governance. Through these developments, human civilization also became more respectful of people’s rights and their overall well-being. The rights of previously marginalized groups such as women, children, and ethnic minorities are now respected far more than generations past because of our “better angels” of empathy and self-control overcoming our “inner demons” of predation, dominance, revenge, and sadism.
In his more recent book Enlightenment Now, Pinker provided a more detailed analysis of the specific reasons why people are on average healthier and happier than was the case generations ago, and he attributes this to the increasing embrace of enlightenment ideals, namely reason, science, and humanism, and the corresponding decline of Medieval mentality, with its emphasis on obedience to authority, adherence to tradition, and rampant superstition.
Pinker’s main thesis is that we need to further the embrace of these same ideals, far and wide throughout the Earth, in order to address the greatest problems and challenges of our time. Pinker argues that it is only through the widespread adoption of these ideals throughout human society that we will be able to rise to these challenges and continue the march of making the world a better place to live. Pinker believes that if more people let go of ancient superstitions, become better educated, embrace modern science, and understand how to apply reason to life, then the coming generations will continue to live in a better world than their predecessors. Pinker’s contention it is that only through these intellectual tools that we will be able to alleviate the greatest problems in the world.
We acknowledge that the world has in the past been a much worse place to live and that right now might well be the overall best time in history to be alive. Despite the problems and challenges that exist in the world in which we find ourselves, we understand that things have been much worse in the past. This fact, however, does not mean that we should be complacent and accept this (admittedly lower) level of violence and suffering. The global society made great strides and advancements to get to this point, and this work is still a work in progress. Things could be better than they are, and we do not need to accept this level of poverty, inequality, injustice, oppression, and violence. The world isn’t going to get better on its own – we need to be a part of the solution.
Humanity overcame the darker periods of the past through the work of people who had a vision of a better future, and they made it happen. Innovations were necessary to get to the point that we’re at, and innovations will be necessary to get us to a better place. In fact, without innovation and without improvement, it becomes more likely that things would start to fall apart, and we would regress into a more sorrowful and violent state. Indeed, it is possible that if we let our guard down and become complacent, the world could backslide and become an overall worse place to live. It is not a given that the quality of life the average human will improve with each generation. Yes, we realize that it is possible that overall violence could again rise, that education levels could fall, that average life spans could shorten, and that overall human well-being could decrease in other ways as well. Although the world’s greatest problems and challenges seem so immense to us to be almost inconceivable, we also know that it is possible for these to swell further and for our hard-fought progress to become reversed and for the future world to be significantly worse than our present world.
Although Pinker’s books are excellent and provide us with much-needed understanding of the arc of human progress, he is overly optimistic in some ways and he does not take certain threats to our well-being seriously enough. For one, he doesn’t seem to recognize the existential threat that environment degradation and climate change pose to human civilization. To be fair, he does acknowledge these are significant threats and that we need to take serious action, but he dismisses the need for deep structural reforms to the economic and political systems that some people urge are needed to overcome the entrenched power structures that wish to maintain the status quo. Quite notably, he fails to see that immense wealth inequality is a huge problem that continues to worsen and that has the potential to destabilize the world order. At several points in this book, he explained why he thought it is increasingly unlikely that there would be major disruptive events in the near future that would upend life as we know it. He specifically considers contagious diseases and how they have decreased in frequency and severity in recent decades and he even gave reasons why he didn’t think a that highly deadly pandemic was likely to occur anytime soon. Of course, not many people in the world predicted that anything like the Covid-19 pandemic would occur and take hundreds of thousands of lives and cause immense destruction to the world’s economy, but this episode shows the detriment of overly optimistic thinking.
To his credit, Pinker does acknowledge that there are significant threats and problems in the world, but he thinks that we already have the intellectual tools to best deal with these challenges. Pinker believes that since it was a combination of reason, science, and humanism that brought the world out of the dark ages and into our more healthy, happy, and prosperous contemporary world, we need a fullhearted embrace of these same ideals in order to continue this progress.
He, and many other eminent thinkers of the world today, believe that we only really need to utilize that which we have already developed and to deploy it further and deeper into our global society in order to address the greatest challenges of our time. This approach is reasonable, and the world would likely benefit if something like this were to happen. We could certainly do worse than what they are advocating, but the authors of the forthcoming book Seeking a More Enlightened Worldview believe that it does not go far enough. We believe that this proposed plan for addressing the world’s biggest problems is inadequate because we will need to develop new intellectual tools, new methods, and new paradigms in order to begin to address the unique challenges of our time.
In recent years, we have seen the rise of authoritarian populist demagoguery, relentless disinformation campaigns, gross income inequality, and entrenched ideological tribalism. We can recognize that we are living through a global cold civil war, which might well flare up into a renewal of mass violence at some point in the near future. We cannot rely on more of the same to lead us into the future because we have unique challenges that will require innovation. Our global society is likely to stagnate or decrease in overall well-being if we don’t implement new intellectual tools and innovations in social organization.
What, if anything, do you think can be done to lead to greater peace in this world? Let your voice be heard in the Forum.