On February 9th, the Wall Street Journal published an essay titled “The Enlightenment is Working.” You can read the piece in its entirety here, but the Journal rotates which of its articles are publicly available, and it might require a subscription to access. However, it’s one of the best editorials I’ve read in years, and I wanted to reflect upon it here.
Writer Steven Pinker begins by noting that, if we take media’s (both social and professional) depiction of current events at face value, the state of the world is rapidly declining: “Whether the decline is visible in inequality, racism and pollution, or in terrorism, crime and moral decay, both [the left and right] see profound failings in modernity and a deepening crisis in the West.” At first glance, this is certainly true. I heard plenty of folks call 2016 the “worst year ever”: in 2016, the world dealt with the Zika virus, a refugee crisis in Syria, multiple mass shootings, Brexit, a toxic U.S. election, and exploding Samsung phones. Not to be outdone, at the end of 2017, many of the same people proclaimed a new “worst year ever”: the Las Vegas massacre, Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Maria, wildfires, and terrorist attacks in London, St Petersburg, Stockholm, Manchester, Barcelona, and New York City. And, in 2018 we’ve already seen more of the same, and we’re only three months in. I’m sure by years’ end we’ll see another slew of proclamations that we’ve just had—you guessed it—the worst year ever. This time, perhaps I’ll even agree, given that the Minnesota Vikings took a massive, steaming shit on the entirety of my hopes and dreams during the 2018 NFC championship. I joke to provide levity, though, because nothing is farther from the truth. As Pinker writes: “You can always fool yourself into seeing a decline if you compare rose-tinted images of the past with bleeding headlines of the present.”
The truth is, just about every measure of human progress has improved over time. In the article, Pinker cites numerous metrics, starting with the U.S. thirty years ago: the annual homicide rate was 8.5 per 100,000, eleven percent of citizens fell below the consumption poverty line, and the pollution rate was 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide and 34.5 million tons of particulate. Today, the most recent homicide rate is 5.3, three percent fall below the consumption poverty line, and the pollution rate is 4 million tons of sulfur dioxide and 20.6 million tons of particulates. Globally: “in 1988, 23 wars raged, killing people at a rate of 3.4 per 100,000; today it’s 12 wars killing 1.2 per 100,000. The number of nuclear weapons has fallen from 60,780 to 10,325. In 1988, the world had just 45 democracies, embracing two billion people; today it has 103, embracing 4.1 billion. That year saw 46 oil spills; 2016, just five. And 37% of the population lived in extreme poverty, barely able to feed themselves, compared with 9.6% today. True, 2016 was a bad year for terrorism in Western Europe, with 238 deaths. But 1988 was even worse, with 440.”
Numerous other measures have improved, too. In the 1800s, life expectancy was 30 years, compared to 71 globally today and 81 in developed countries; global literacy in the same period was 12% and now it’s at 85%. In the U.S, “over the past century, Americans have become 96% less likely to be killed in an auto accident, 88% less likely to be mowed down on the sidewalk, 99% less likely to die in a plane crash, 59% less likely to fall to their deaths, 92% less likely to die by fire, 90% less likely to drown, 92% less likely to be asphyxiated, and 95% less likely to be killed on the job.” Globally, “at the turn of the 20th century, women could vote in just one country; today they can vote in every country where men can vote save one (Vatican City). Laws that criminalize homosexuality continue to be stricken down, and attitudes toward minorities, women and gay people are becoming steadily more tolerant, particularly among the young, a portent of the world’s future. Violence against women, children and minorities is in long-term decline, as is the exploitation of children for their labor.”
Can we do better? Of course we can. Progress cannot be an excuse for complacency, but it is still progress. I’m at the age where many of my friends are beginning to have children—and yet I’ve heard some people say they are unsure of bringing a child into this world, citing concerns such as an uncertain political future, the deterioration of our earth’s climate, and the rise of cyberbullying. However, such an outlook is both myopic and ridiculous. Ten thousand years ago, having a child meant they might get devoured by a saber-toothed tiger. Two thousand years ago, having a child meant their enemies might crucify them upside down. Seven hundred years ago, having a child meant they might erupt in lesions and die of bubonic plague. Seventy-five years ago, having a child meant they might get killed in a concentration camp. Humanity bested the Dark Ages, and some of us are now afraid to have children because a politician might post an offensive tweet?
That’s not to say we shouldn’t tackle today’s important issues head on—aforementioned Twitter accounts among them—but I count myself blessed to grapple the issues we face today rather than those of the past. In his closing comments, Pinker writes: “Isn’t it good to be pessimistic, many activists ask—to rake the muck, afflict the comfortable, speak truth to power? The answer is no: It’s good to be accurate.” Those who are familiar with other entries in my blog know that I write epic fantasy, and all epic fantasies share two universal truths: one, that evil exists, and two, that good can defeat it. I’ve always seen the genre as a mechanism for portraying, in a more literal fashion, the trials and triumphs we experience every day. Sure, maybe we’re not fighting three-headed monsters in the depths of a snow-swept mountain range, but we do face demons of a more figurative nature, and we can beat them. Things aren’t getting worse; they are getting better, and toxic echo chambers serve no good. We have a chance to get this one right—so let’s go out and get it right, then.