Came across a recent excerpt from author Steven Pinker's new book "Enlightenment Now: The case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress" due for release on Feb 13. Pinker is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.
Foundational thesis in the essay is that "…we can only understand where we are if we know how far we've come." Pinker states "Don't listen to the gloom-sayers. The world has improved by every measure of human flourishing over the past two centuries, and the progress continues."
I think if you were to poll the average American, you'd hear a lot of negativity and concern centered on the topics of terrorism, inequality, racism, pollution and global warming. A dose of continued decay and decline in the areas of religion, family, community and nature for equal measure.
Pinker reminds us in his book that such gloominess is decidedly in-American. The U.S. was founded on optimism and enlightenment. That human ingenuity and benevolence could be channeled by institutions and result in progress. To reiterate, Pinker asserts "…we can only understand where we are if we know how far we've come."
You can easily fool yourself into seeing decline with day after day headlines from the news.
Let's look at a few metrics from three decades ago compared to today:
Homicides: 8.5 (30 years ago) to 5.3 (today) per 100,000
Consumption Poverty: 11% (30 years ago) to 3% (today)
Climate: 20 million tons sulfur dioxide and 34.5 million tons of particulate matter (30 years ago) to 4 million tons sulfur dioxide and 20.6 million tons of particulate matter respectively today
Wars: 23 killing 3.4 per 100,000 (30 years ago) versus 12 wars and 1.2 per 100,000 today (today)
Nuclear weapons: 60,780 (30 years ago) to 10,325 (today)
Democracies: (45 (thirty years ago) to 103 (today)
Life Expectancy: for newborn: 71 (thirty years ag0) versus 81 today)
The list goes on and you get the general idea.
Pinker's base thesis: The Enlightenment is Working. "Our ancestors replaced dogma, tradition and authority with reason, debate and institutions of truth-seeking." Universal human flourishing. Gradual and uneven progress certainly, and progress nonetheless if we measure quantitatively.
Isn't it good to be pessimistic? Pinker says no. Indiscriminate pessimism leads to fatalism (why should we continually throw time and money at hopeless solutions) and radicalism (smash the machine). Therefore, it's more important to be accurate. In other words, we need to be aware when these things happen that take us off course, and we also need to be equally aware of prompt corrective action to get us back on track.
In closing, Pinker asks is progress inevitable? Unequivocally NO! The world is fluid. Solutions today create new problems tomorrow thus you cannot operate in a vacuum. You can get blindsided by every turn.
My takeaways here–excellent thesis—the glass is half-full rather than half-empty—get the book. Thought my readers should now.