Global trends are healthier than most people think

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by Hans Dembowski

Steven Pinker lists reasons for global optimism

The new edition of The Economist includes a review of a book I hope to read soon. In “Enlightenment Now”, Steven Pinker of Harvard University elaborates why and how the world has been getting better in recent decades.

The Economist sums up a few examples: “The world is about 100 times wealthier than 200 years ago and, contrary to popular belief, its wealth is more evenly distributed. The share of people killed annually in wars is less than a quarter of that in the 1980s and half a percent of the toll in the second world war. During the 20th century Americans became 96 % less likely to die in a car crash, 92 % less likely to perish in a fire and 95 % less likely to expire on the job.”

The Economist points out other positive trends: “Street hawkers in South Sudan have better mobile phones than the brick that Gordon Gekko, a fictional tycoon, flaunted in ‘Wall Street’ in 1987. It is not just that better medicine and sanitation allow people to live longer, healthier lives, or that labour-saving devices have given people more free time, or that Amazon and Apple offer a dazzling variety of entertainment to fill it. People are also growing more intelligent, and more humane. In every part of the world IQ scores have been rising, by a whopping 30 points in 100 years, meaning that the average person today scores better than 98 % of people a century ago. How can this be, given that intelligence is highly heritable, and clever folk breed no more prolifically than less gifted ones? The answer is better nutrition ('brains are greedy organs') and more stimulation. Children are far likelier to go to school than they were in 1900, while ‘outside the schoolhouse, analytic thinking is encouraged by a culture that trades in visual symbols (subway maps, digital displays), analytic tools (spreadsheets, stock reports) and academic concepts that trickle down into common parlance (supply and demand, on average, human rights).’”

In spite of such positive developments, a sense of gloom currently pervades public discourse in many countries. It is important to pay attention to things that are going well – or have been going well, as I argued in an earlier blog post this year. My favourite figures are still that, while the world population has more than doubled in the past 50 years, the number of undernourished people has stayed roughly constant and probably even declined, perhaps even by up to 20 %.

To gather from The Economist’s review, Pinker’s message is that reason-based thinking still makes sense and that problems cannot only be solved, but are actually likely to be solved. Apparently, he is confident that liberal democracy and global exchange are here to stay and will not be undone by populist insurgencies.

The big question, of course, is why many people feel so miserable. One cause that Pinker points out is that that the media emphasise what is going wrong, while they struggle to cover slow trends that slowly improve things. A plane crash makes headlines, but it goes unnoticed that ever more people are using airliners, which are less prone to accidents than they were in the past. Whether more people flying is good or bad news in times of climate change is another question - in terms of personal prosperity, it certianly is.

Another issue, I believe, is ideology. Some people believe that global trade makes the poor poorer or that capitalism means misery, and they refuse to let go of these ideas. To a large extent, their world view was supported by the misery caused by global financial crisis in the past decade. No doubt, people's experiences have been rough in many places. Nonetheless, humankind is overall better off today than before the crisis.

The problem, of course, is that one cannot predict the future based simply on what happened in the past. Humankind does indeed face serious problems, and they should not be downplayed.

The most important challenges are probably climate change and how to feed up to 11 billion people by the end of this century. Success is not guaranteed. Things can also go badly wrong in regard to war and peace. Most people who attended this year’s security conference in Munich said that the outlook had never been so bleak as this time because major powers are no longer interacting systematically with one another.

As The Economist writes, pessimism serves a function if it helps us to prevent what worries us. A general sense of gloom, according to which things are only deteriorating, is certainly unhealthy however. Neglecting what our species has achieved and focusing only on risks, ill make us lose the confidence we need to make further progress – and to tackle the dangers that worry us. Excessive gloom is not grounded in the experience of recent decades, though many people think it is.

I’ll read Pinker’s book as soon as possible. I guess I’ll agree with the general thrust, but not with every detail. I’ll keep you briefed.

 

Book
Pinker, S. 2018: Enlightenment Now: The case for reason, science, humanism and progress. New York: Viking, London: Allen Lane

 

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