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Why 2017 Was The Best Year In Human History (Seriously)

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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.

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Just How Close Have We Come (And How Close ARE We) To Nuclear War?

For most of human history, we could take comfort in one simple fact. No matter how brutish, crude, or stupid we were, from burning witches to fighting wars over a stray dog, we could never screw up so badly that we would destroy our entire world. Sure, we could leave some pretty noticeable scars, but we could never outright destroy it.

That all changed on July 16, 1945 in Los Alamos, New Mexico when the first atomic bomb was detonated. It’s impossible to overstate how significant that moment was in the history of the human race and not just because it helped end World War II, thereby inspiring countless war movies for decades to come.

For the first time in the history of planet Earth, a species that had evolved to hunt, gather, and pick nuts out of elephant shit had the means to wipe itself out, along with most other life. At the height of the Cold War, there were approximately 64,500 active nuclear warheads. That’s enough destructive power to kill every person in the world, and their pets, many times over.

While the number of live nuclear warheads at the global level has decreased, they still have plenty of destructive power to both wipe out our species and render large chunks of the world uninhabitable to any species less hardy than a cockroach. These are, by and large, the most dangerous items mankind has ever created and that includes machine guns, nerve gas, and fidget spinners.

The very existence of these weapons says a lot about the state of our species and where it came from, more so than I can cover in a single blog post. However, in wake of the 35th anniversary of the day when the world, as we know it, almost ended, I think it’s worth emphasizing just how skilled/lucky/crazy we are to still live in an intact world.

Despite the undeniable danger of nuclear weapons, we don’t always treat them with the same care that we would treat the latest iPhone. Several years ago, John Oliver dedicated an entire show to highlighting the sorry state of America’s nuclear arsenal. Even if you only believe half of what a comedy news show tells you, it’s hard to take much comfort when weapons of mass destruction are involved.

What happened on September 26th, 1983 was terrifying in just how close we came to nuclear war. Many would make the argument that this incident was the closest we, as a species, came to destroying ourselves. I would tend to agree with that argument. Unfortunately, it’s one of those arguments that has an uncomfortable breadth of details.

It’s true. There have been more incidents that could’ve easily escalated to terrifying levels. Some were simple accidents that could’ve warranted far more than a demotion. Some where intense, geopolitical ordeals that went onto inspire major Hollywood movies starring Kevin Costner.

In any case, the stakes were painfully high. You literally can’t get much higher than a nuclear war that wipes out billions. We’ve managed to avoid it, but we’ve come so uncomfortably close that it’s a miracle the world is still spinning. A video from the YouTube channel AllTimeTop10s nicely documents some of these incidents. If you feel like you’re having a bad day, this should help provide some context.

I’ll give everyone a moment to catch their breath, vomit, or a combination of the two. I promise nobody would blame you. Knowing how close we came to nuclear war and how bad it could’ve been, we should all share in a collective sigh of relief every day.

However, as bad as these past cases have been, there’s no guarantee that we won’t face something similar in the future. There’s also no guarantee that there will be someone like Santislav Petrov to make the right decision when those situations come around.

That said, the situation today is very different than what it was during the Cold War. Say what you will about ongoing talking points about Russia. It’s not even in the same hemisphere at it was in the 50s and 60s when the United States and Russia seemed eager for an opportunity to go to war.

The world of geopolitics has evolved, in many ways, beyond the concept of two competing superpowers engaging in a nuclear dick-measuring contest. These days, increased globalism and a more interconnected economy makes that kind of geopolitical strategy untenable and counterproductive.

In a sense, globalization and the economic bounty that came with it made war of any kind, nuclear or otherwise, a losing endeavor. As I’ve noted before, even the most evil billionaires in the world prefer that the world remain intact so they can keep enjoying their billions. That’s just common sense and shameless self-interest.

That might offer some comfort, but there are those much smarter than I’ll ever be who still have concerns. According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, who have been gauging the likelihood of nuclear war for decades, we’re two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. This is their statement on the matter.

For the last two years, the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock stayed set at three minutes before the hour, the closest it had been to midnight since the early 1980s. In its two most recent annual announcements on the Clock, the Science and Security Board warned: “The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.” In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent. It is two and a half minutes to midnight, the Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.

Since I’m an aspiring erotica/romance writer and not an atomic scientist, I am woefully unqualified to contest the conclusions of these individuals, let alone argue them. They cite a new wave of tensions between Russia and the United States, as well as the nuclear ambitions of North Korea. These are not the same conflicts that fueled the Cold War and that uncertainty has many understandably spooked.

Me being the optimist I am, I tend to believe that world leaders, however deranged or misguided they may be, prefer that the world remain intact. Nobody wants to be the leader of a smoldering pile of ash. There’s no way to build a palace, a harem, or a giant golden statue of themselves on a foundation of ash. That’s as good an incentive as anyone can hope for in avoiding nuclear war.

Unfortunately, human beings don’t always act rationally and are prone to making stupid decisions that change the course of history. One mistake in a situation involving nuclear weapons might be all it takes. Only time will tell, but the extent to which we’ve survived thus far should give us all reasons to be hopeful and thankful.

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