These days, being an optimist is hard. In some cases, you’ll get laughed out of the room for not thinking the world is on a steady descent into a dystopian hellscape in the mold of “Mad Max,” “1984,” or “Idiocracy.” I don’t deny that current events, especially after the 2016 Election, have made optimism difficult. However, that’s exactly why it’s worth talking about.
I do consider myself an optimist, at heart. I sincerely believe that, on the whole, things are getting better for the world, the human race, and everything in between. I’ve even tried to make my case through personal experience and through empirical data. I don’t imagine I’ve changed too many opinions, but I still think it’s important to put that perspective out there.
With a new year upon us, I think that perspective is worth belaboring once more. This time, however, I’m not alone in my optimistic sentiment. There are others who share in my optimistic outlook. Some of those individuals are far smarter, far more accomplished, and far more charismatic than I’ll ever be.
By those standards, Steven Pinker checks all the necessary boxes. While he’s somewhat of a controversial figure in some circles, the man has some solid credentials. He’s an accomplished professor at Harvard and has written multiple books on issues ranging from language to psychology to human nature.
His seminal work, though, is his book, “The Better Angels Of Our Nature.” If you want a compelling reason to believe that the world is getting better by most measures, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It’s not just about looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. Mr. Pinker provides real, verifiable information that the world is getting better and human nature is far better than we give it credit for.
Beyond his books and his famous TED Talks, Mr. Pinker continues to make his case for a more upbeat outlook in various ways. Recently, his work was cited in an op-ed article in the New York Times entitled “Why 2017 Was The Best Year In Human History.”
Granted, a title like that is a bit heavy on hyperbole, but the writer, Nicholas Kristoff, is dead serious in making that case. Link Mr. Pinker, he doesn’t just interpret all the ongoing trends in the world through the mind of a stoned hippie. He puts the state of the world into a context that goes beyond all the horrible headlines we saw in 2017.
He, and other optimists like him, tend to look at the broader trends in human society. The data is out there, but it’s hard to put into a compelling headline. That doesn’t stop men like Kristoff and Pinker from making a concerted effort, though.
We all know that the world is going to hell. Given the rising risk of nuclear war with North Korea, the paralysis in Congress, warfare in Yemen and Syria, atrocities in Myanmar and a president who may be going cuckoo, you might think 2017 was the worst year ever.
But you’d be wrong. In fact, 2017 was probably the very best year in the long history of humanity.
A smaller share of the world’s people were hungry, impoverished or illiterate than at any time before. A smaller proportion of children died than ever before. The proportion disfigured by leprosy, blinded by diseases like trachoma or suffering from other ailments also fell.
Again, these trends are hard to see and harder to report on because they don’t happen all at once. If tomorrow, all poverty was magically wiped out, that would be a big news story. However, human progress doesn’t work that way. It’s slow, gradual, and sometimes boring. It does happen, though. The events of 2017 were no exception.
Violent went down. Poverty went down. In fact, they went down to their lowest levels in modern history. Compared to a year ago, 5 years ago, or 50 years ago, the trends we saw in 2017 were all improvements by most objective measures. A lot of these trends are things Mr. Pinker has been talking about for years. Mr. Kristoff simply builds on them.
Every day, the number of people around the world living in extreme poverty (less than about $2 a day) goes down by 217,000, according to calculations by Max Roser, an Oxford University economist who runs a website called Our World in Data. Every day, 325,000 more people gain access to electricity. And 300,000 more gain access to clean drinking water.
For most individuals, these trends are difficult to notice. That’s largely because they’re driven by forces that most people don’t notice or understand beyond their personal existence. Even in a world that’s so connected and becoming more connected with each passing day, it’s easy to overlook this kind of progress.
It’s also a lot harder when the news is largely dominated by negative headlines that highlight how dissatisfied the general public is with the direction of society. Again, there is a context here and one that I’ve tried to point out before. It’s one of the first lessons I learned in college when interpreting media of any kind, be it the news or superhero comics.
The reason why all these negative headlines are headlines in the first place isn’t because they’re common. It’s because they’re so rare. Stories such as mass shootings, brutal murders, and war crimes make the news because they don’t happen every day. That’s why they qualify as news. They’re aberrations and not normal occurrences.
Conversely, good headlines rarely make the front page because they lack the same novelty and emotional impact as bad news. Naturally, people are going to react more strongly to a horrific headline because our survival instincts compel us to devote more energy to the bloodier, more dangerous information.
That’s why, even if 2017 was the best year in the history of the human race, our caveman brains aren’t going to process that because it’s so focused on all the negative news that came out over the past year. That news may very well be a tiny sliver of the events that transpired in 2017, but that news will still garner more attention, especially in the current digital economy.
We can still take comfort in the progress that happened in 2017, though. No matter how many negative headlines there were, that doesn’t undo the genuinely good things that transpired in the past year. Mr. Kristoff even went out of his way to provide an anecdote, of sorts, that highlighted just how much good can come from even the worst parts of the world.
Granted, this column may feel weird to you. Those of us in the columny gig are always bemoaning this or that, and now I’m saying that life is great? That’s because most of the time, quite rightly, we focus on things going wrong. But it’s also important to step back periodically. Professor Roser notes that there was never a headline saying, “The Industrial Revolution Is Happening,” even though that was the most important news of the last 250 years.
I had a visit the other day from Sultana, a young Afghan woman from the Taliban heartland. She had been forced to drop out of elementary school. But her home had internet, so she taught herself English, then algebra and calculus with the help of the Khan Academy, Coursera and EdX websites. Without leaving her house, she moved on to physics and string theory, wrestled with Kant and read The New York Times on the side, and began emailing a distinguished American astrophysicist, Lawrence M. Krauss.
Think about that story, for a moment, and reflect on how 2017 made it possible. Thanks to all the progress made in global communications, a woman in Afghanistan in 2017 was able to pursue opportunities that would’ve been impossible a mere 20 years ago.
This woman, despite living in one of the most war torn parts of the world, still managed to gain access to the kind of education and informational resources that were once reserved for aristocrats and academics. That, by any measure, is an astonishing accomplishment for humanity.
In many respects, 2017 was the best year ever because it continued the trends had been going on for years. As a result, more people have access to information, education, and the basic necessities of life than at any other point in human history. That, more than anything, is why it’s not unreasonable to say that 2017 was the best year ever.
The fact that concerns over celebrity scandals is a greater concern than poverty, war, or famine shows that we are making more progress than we think. It also bodes well for 2018 being an even better year than 2017. Despite what negative headlines may say, the human race is on an unprecedented winning streak and I hope, along with men like Mr. Pinker and Mr. Kristoff, that the streak continues into 2018 and beyond.