In 2018, Harvard psychologist and pop intellectual Steven Pinker wrote a book that made a lot of smart people very mad. He argued that, on the global whole, quality of life was continuing its trend of getting better for humans. It was the continuation on a theme from a book he wrote in 2011.
His argument was that we are so (understandably) focused on the immediate pain, suffering and injustice of the day that we feel heartless to zoom out and acknowledge broader trends. Diseases are eradicated. Global poverty is down. Life expectancy is up. As Pinker often put it: We remember stories about airplane crashes but we ignore stories of airplane takeoffs. (In fact, there’s a movement among journalists to respond to that last point.)
Those aren’t trivial accomplishments for the world. Yet many intellectuals waved Pinker off as an overly-optimistic privileged pollyanna who went beyond his expertise.
He discounts nuclear war. He underestimates climate change. He over-simplifies human history. Current Affairs magazine called him the world’s most annoying man. How dare he imply anything is working in a world in which even in the United States, human trafficking remains, hunger persists and racial inequality feels immobile — there are just 19 majority-Black prosperous U.S. zip codes. Global happiness is mixed.
Noam Chomsky said he “didn’t think much” of Pinker’s take. He preferred historian Robert Gordon’s argument that the United States led a “special century” for the world between 1870 and 1970 and, at best, we’ve been stuck in neutral since. They said Pinker mistook that exceptional century for a trend we can expect to continue.
In a 2015 Munk Debate on the topic of global optimism, journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell plainly teased Pinker for his view. Gladwell argued that the risks society now faces have been “reconfigured” into something far more dangerous, not diminished. Climate change alone appears to threaten the established world order. No need to mention technical risk and the societal volatility that is coming with a return of income inequality, brought on by generations-old declining upward mobility and sped by an unsettlingly unequal pandemic.
I’ve spent a lot of the last year wrestling with this seemingly simple question: is the world still becoming a better place to live for most people?
The answer to the question, of course, is that it is complicated. The polarizing ‘elephant chart’ from 2013 persists: billions of people are in a far better position today than in 1988, including many professionals in developing countries (uh, yes, and the super rich). Meanwhile the globe’s poorest and the rich world’s middle income are in a worse place, on average. Both of those sentences are true. It’s made trickier still on the individual level.
A different way to ask that question of mine is to personalize it: in what year would you have most preferred to have been born if not when you were? That is a very different question for a middle-class white American man or an educated Black American woman, or a Saudi woman or a gay Colombian man, or for you.
In the United States, income is increasingly a more accurate predictor of well-being than race. In fall 2019, unemployment for Black and brown Americans reached the lowest rates in recorded history. Despite horrifying setbacks, on the whole global human rights progresses. The global scientific community just produced impressively effective vaccines for a pandemic with unprecedented speed. That is an historic triumph — though amid a public health collapse.
Your individual story might align with those trends, or your circumstances could better — or you could be worse off than those trends. It’s personal. Though your personal story matters a lot, those big trends are good things, in my estimation. So as Pinker put it: “Why do progressives hate progress?
For one, it’s easy to confuse “on the whole, things are getting better” with “everything is going to be great for everyone.” Simpler still, no passionate advocate responding to a crisis today cares about the progress that brought us here.
If your house is on fire, you’re unlikely to have much patience for someone reminding you that “the number of house fires in the United States has been steadily declining since the 1970s.” And to some, that is exactly what smug Pinker is doing, staring in the face of racial injustice and inequality and environmental catastrophe and saying, “well actually…“
Those most sympathetic with the difficult plight of others, then, are unlikely to be soothed by sterile charts of global progress. As historian Deirdre Mccloskey has put it: “For reasons I have never understood, people like to hear that the world is going to hell.”
After a year or so reading, listening and interviewing on the topic, in addition to adjacent reporting through the years, where do I land on the question? Progress is real; threats loom. We quickly forget how much crueler the world was not so long ago. More importantly, though, celebrating progress won’t reduce commitment to a cause. It’s the opposite. Behavioral psychologists teach us that whether we’re thinking about our work, our households or even societies, small wins toward a higher goal keep us motivated.
For whatever cause, crusade or crisis that is most important to you, familiarize yourself with what progress has been made. Not to support the narrative from some smarmy academic, but because that’s an effective way to build and maintain support on your cause.