Steven Pinker: Why We Should Be Hopeful for the Future
What will the next 100 years bring? Our collective future is actually pretty bright.
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In honor of the 100th anniversary of Reader’s Digest, we are looking back at some of our best moments from the past ten decades. Head here for more on our milestone anniversary.
When we look beyond the headlines to the trend lines, we find that humanity overall is healthier, richer, longer-lived, better fed, better educated, and safer from war, murder, and accidents than in decades and centuries past.
Having documented these changes in two books, I’m often asked whether I “believe in progress.” The answer is no. Like the humorist Fran Lebowitz, I don’t believe in anything you have to believe in.
Although many measures of human well-being, when plotted over time, show a gratifying increase (though not always or everywhere), it’s not because of some force or dialectic or evolutionary law that lifts us ever upward. On the contrary, nature has no regard for our well-being, and often, as with pandemics and natural disasters, it looks as if it’s trying to grind us down.
“Progress” is shorthand for a set of pushbacks and victories wrung out of an unforgiving universe. It is a phenomenon that needs to be explained.
The explanation is rationality. When humans set themselves the goal of improving the welfare of their fellow beings (as opposed to other dubious pursuits such as glory or redemption), and they apply their ingenuity in institutions that pool it with others’, they occasionally succeed. When they retain the successes and take note of the failures, the benefits can accumulate, and we call the big picture “progress.”
Here are four areas of great progress we have made together. With this in mind, perhaps the future isn’t as dire as doomsayers might imagine. In fact, we have much to hope for as we look to the future.
We live longer.
Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, life expectancy at birth rose from its historic average of around 30 years and is now 72.4 years worldwide—83 years in the most fortunate countries. This gift of life was not dropped onto our doorsteps. It was the hard-won dividend of advances in public health (motto: “Saving lives, millions at a time”), particularly after the germ theory of disease displaced other causal theories, such as miasmas, spirits, conspiracies, and divine retribution. The lifesavers included chlorination and other means of safeguarding drinking water, the lowly toilet and sewer, the control of disease vectors such as mosquitoes and fleas, programs for large-scale vaccination, the promotion of handwashing, and developments in basic prenatal and perinatal care, such as encouraging nursing and body contact.
When disease and injuries do strike, advances in medicine keep them from killing as many people as they did in the era of folk healers and barber-surgeons. Those advances include antibiotics, antisepsis, anesthesia, transfusions, drugs, and oral rehydration therapy (a salt and sugar solution that stops fatal diarrhea).
We have enough to eat.
Humanity has always struggled to grow and gather enough calories and protein to feed itself, with famine often just one bad harvest away. But hunger today has been decimated in most of the world. Undernourishment and stunting are in decline, and famines now afflict only the most remote and war-ravaged regions, a problem not of too little food but of barriers to getting it to the hungry. The additional calories that now exist did not come in heavenly manna or from a cornucopia held by Abundantia, the Roman goddess of plenty, but from advances in agronomy.
These advances include crop rotation to replenish depleted soils; technologies for planting and harvesting, such as seed drills, plows, tractors, and combine harvesters; synthetic fertilizer (credited with saving 2.7 billion lives); a transportation and storage network to bring food from farm to table that includes railroads, canals, trucks, granaries, and refrigeration; national and international markets that allow a surplus in one area to fill a shortage in another; and the Green Revolution of the 1960s, which spread productive and vigorous hybrid crops.
We have more money overall.
For most of history, around 90 percent of humanity lived in what we today would call extreme poverty. In 2020, less than 9 percent do—an amount still too high but targeted for elimination in the next decade. The great material enrichment of humanity began with the industrial revolution of the 19th century. It was literally powered by the capture of energy from coal, oil, wind, and falling water, and later from the sun, the earth, and nuclear fission. The energy was fed into machines that turn heat into work, factories with mass production, and conveyances such as railroads, canals, highways, and container ships.
Material technologies depended on financial ones, particularly banking, finance, and insurance. And neither of these types of technologies could have been parlayed into widespread prosperity without governments to enforce contracts, minimize both force and fraud, smooth out financial lurches by creating central banks and reliable money, and invest in wealth-generating public goods such as infrastructure, basic research, and universal education.
We fight less.
The world has not yet put an end to war, as the folk singers of the 1960s dreamed, but it has dramatically reduced the number of wars and their lethality, from a toll of 21.9 battle deaths per 100,000 people in 1950 to just 0.7 in 2019. Peter, Paul, and Mary deserve only some of the credit. More goes to institutions designed to reduce the incentives of nations to go to war, beginning with Immanuel Kant’s plan for “perpetual peace” in 1795.
One of them is democracy, which really does reduce the chance of war, presumably because a country’s cannon fodder is less keen on the pastime than its kings and generals. Another is international trade and investment, which make it cheaper to buy things than to steal them—and make it unwise for countries to kill their customers and debtors. (The European Union, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, grew out of a trade organization, the European Coal and Steel Community.)
Yet another is a network of international organizations, particularly the United Nations, which knits countries into a community, mobilizes peacekeeping forces, immortalizes states, grandfathers in borders, and outlaws and stigmatizes war while providing alternative means of resolving disputes.
A movement for change
Brainchildren of human ingenuity have also underwritten other historical boosts in well-being, such as safety, leisure, travel, and access to art and entertainment. Though many of today’s gadgets and bureaucracies grew organically and were perfected through trial and error, not one was an accident. People at the time advocated for them with arguments driven by logic and evidence, costs and benefits, cause and effect, and trade-offs between individual advantage and the common good. Our ingenuity will have to be redoubled to deal with the trials we face today, particularly carbon. We’ll have to apply brainpower to develop technologies that make clean energy cheap, pricing that makes dirty energy expensive, policies that prevent factions from becoming spoilers, and treaties to make the sacrifices global and equitable.
But progress consists of more than gains in our safety and material well-being. It consists also of gains in how we treat each other: in equality, benevolence, and rights. Many cruel and unjust practices have declined over the course of history. They include human sacrifice, slavery, despotism, blood sports, eunuchism, harems, foot-binding, sadistic corporal and capital punishments, the persecution of heretics and dissidents, and the oppression of women and of religious, racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities. None has been extirpated from the face of the earth, but when we chart the historical changes, in every case we see descents and, in some cases, plunges.
How did we come to enjoy this progress? Theodore Parker and, a century later, Martin Luther King Jr. divined a moral arc bending toward justice. But the nature of the arc and its power to pull the levers of human behavior are mysterious. One can imagine more prosaic pathways: changing fashions, shaming campaigns, appeals to the heart, popular protest movements, and religious and moralistic crusades.
A popular view is that moral progress is advanced through struggle—the powerful never hand over their privileges, which must be wrested from them by the might of people acting in solidarity.
Sound arguments have guided, and should guide, movements for change. They make the difference between moral force and brute force, between marches for justice and lynch mobs, between human progress and breaking things. And it will be sound arguments—both to reveal moral blights and to discover feasible remedies—that we will need to ensure that moral progress will continue, that the abominable practices of today will become as incredible to our descendants as heretic burnings and slave auctions are to us.
We’ve looked to the future. Now reminisce with these vintage Reader’s Digest covers that will take you back.
Steven Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard University. From the book Rationality by Steven Pinker, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Steven Pinker.