It’s in a better place than it ever has been.
No, the World Isn’t Screwed
People who know me well know that I’m an avid reader. I hoped this would help me conjure up an idea for this article, but I was astounded at the amount of inspiration that didn’t strike me. With my lack of a reading-inspired solution, I got a bit frustrated and started thinking about everything that bothered me — not in a pathologically cynical way or anything — but I must confess, my mind did get creative.
Now, apart from my occasional grumpiness when my girlfriend forces me to exercise on the cold mornings, one of the things that I genuinely dislike is negativity. Rich coming from someone who can be a bit judgmental at times, I know, but give me a chance. What I mean here is a slightly different kind of negativity to the usual fluctuations of one’s mood — rather, a pessimism about the state of the world, if you will.
I’ve never understood it when people are overly negative about the world we live in. Sure, there’s a lot that needs work, and we Homo Sapiens have a long way to go as a society, but when people say the world is falling apart, they’re taking it a bit too far. I think we’re overlooking a key aspect of the human condition — progress.
Just a quick segue before I get into that.
This somewhat shared negative mindset about the world might have a point of origin. I believe one contributor to this mindset might be the generally negative tone of our news.
You’re far more likely to see a negative headline than a positive one, which makes sense.
That’s because news and media outlets report on events as they happen. It means every article, headline or news broadcast portrays the world as it is at a particular moment — a snapshot frozen in time.
As Steven Pinker puts it:
“We never see a journalist saying to the camera, “I’m reporting live from a country where a war has not broken out” — or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up. As long as bad things have not vanished from the face of the earth, there will always be enough incidents to fill the news, especially when billions of smartphones turn most of the world’s population into crime reporters and war correspondents.” — Steven Pinker
News is ill-equipped to report on progress. By its very nature, progress demands time. It is all too easy to fall prey to the negativity of the news, and so to remain hopeful of the human condition, we need to look elsewhere. The danger lies not with the nature of news, but in the inferences we draw from it.
We tend to equate news headlines with the human condition, understandably so, because they play to our cognitive biases. In particular, the availability and negativity biases work together to draw our attention toward the most negative and readily available information at our disposal, often at the intersection between news and technology.
While the news is undeniably important and great for keeping current, it fails to consider the whole picture.
Progress, not perfection, should be the metric
Instead of equating grisly headlines with the human condition, we should look to a more resolute metric of evaluating the human condition. I believe progress is the ultimate measure of the state of society.
When we examine the world by its continued progress, we begin to see a very different picture unfolding. We see that the world is not descending into turmoil, and as time progresses, we are making leaps and bounds towards a better society in almost every way conceivable.
Progress and the state of humanity seem like fairly difficult concepts to quantify, and I’d tend to agree. One could certainly debate tirelessly on the meaning of progress — how to define it, how to quantify it, or any one of its endless permutations.
Here is where I can once again lean on the work of Pinker, who puts progress into deceptively simple terms (but which he defends with an impressive armoury of graphs and statistics). Quite simply, he posits that:
“Most people agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness.
Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination. Literacy is better than illiteracy. Knowledge is better than ignorance. Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness. Happiness is better than misery. Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony. All these things can be measured.” — Steven Pinker
When we put progress in these terms, we find that by almost every measure, things are getting better; and continue to get better over time.
That said, it is also glaringly obvious that several aspects of human behaviour have had and continue to have disastrous effects on humanity. Think racism, sexism, climate change, intolerance, nationalism. We haven’t yet managed to stamp these out of existence, but what we have managed is progress — significant progress.
The world is more tolerant now than ever before, wealth has increased for everyone, and we live longer, healthier, and happier lives than we have ever lived.
Sure, we have a long way to go, but that’s not the point.
I’ve made a few references to Enlightenment Now and Pinker analyses progress in the kind of detail that would make this article a 4-day read instead of a 4-minute one, but I could not recommend it more. It’s a fascinating read for anyone interest in the human condition or the state of the world.
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