Is progress a pipe dream? Or are things getting better? I debated this question last month at Stevens Institute of Technology with my pal Garry Dobbins, a philosopher who’s even more of a curmudgeon than I am. In a blurb for the debate, Garry asserted that “we tend to deceive ourselves about having made progress." In the wake of Trump's victory, Garry's pessimism looks all too apt. I'm nonetheless re-posting my pro-progress arguments below. Now, more than ever, we need to remember how far we've come, so we don't lose faith in ourselves. –John Horgan
Ours is a glum age. Pessimism is rampant not only among old people, like my colleague, Prof. Dobbins, but also among people just starting out in life, like students here at Stevens. When I ask if they think things are getting better, my students usually shake their heads. They think progress is a pipe dream.
I know progressives who doubt progress. Progress-deniers seem to believe in conservation of misery. If things get better today, they must get worse tomorrow. Progress here means regress there.
I understand why many people think things are bad and getting worse. We face serious problems: war, terrorism, nuclear weapons, racism, religious extremism, inequality, climate change, AIDS, the Zika virus, political corruption. Trump.
But progress-pessimism is wrong-headed, for two reasons. First of all, it can be self-fulfilling if it foments apathy or despair, which undercut efforts to solve problems. Progress-denial also flies in the face of the enormous progress we’ve achieved over the past couple of centuries. Humanity is healthier, wealthier, more peaceful and more free than ever. Denial of this progress is delusional.
Here are statistics on progress, many of which come from “Our World in Data,” a terrific website created by Oxford economist Max Roser.
WE ARE HEALTHIER THAN EVER. Average life expectancy for almost all of human history and pre-history was about 30 years, in part because maternal and child mortality were so high. Since 1900 global life expectancy has more than doubled--from just over 30 to almost 70--as a result of improved water and sewage treatment, medical hygiene, vaccines, antibiotics and other health-measures. Maternal and child mortality have plummeted. In the U.S., life expectancy is almost 80 years.
Pessimists might think, Yeah, but longer life spans mean overpopulation. There’s some truth to that, but take heart. The rate of population growth has fallen by almost 50 percent since peaking in 1962, because women are choosing to have fewer children.
WE ARE WEALTHIER THAN EVER. For most of human history, the vast majority of humans were extremely poor, living a hand to mouth existence. Then the industrial revolution brought about what economist Deirdre McCloskey calls “the great enrichment." Beginning in the late 18th century, average global income has surged by a factor of more than 10. Some people have gotten much richer than others, but this is not a zero-sum trend. Humanity as a whole has become less poor. The percentage of people who live in extreme poverty, defined as $1.25 a day or less, dropped in the last few decades from over 50 percent to less than 20 percent.
WE ARE MORE PEACEFUL. Many of my students were toddlers on September 11, 2001, so they cannot remember a time when your country was not at war. Nevertheless, we are living in a relatively peaceful era, especially compared to the previous century.
Estimates of war deaths should vary widely and hence should be taken with a grain of salt, but a clear trend emerges from data presented by Roser and other groups (see here and here). According to my estimate, global war-related deaths have averaged about 200,000 people a year since 2000. That includes casualties of the war in Syria, which has killed an average of 80,000 people a year since 2011. In the first half of the 20th century, about 4 million people a year on average were killed by war and genocide. Almost 1 million people a year were killed between 1950 and 2000. (These latter figures come from my book The End of War.) As a percentage of population, war casualties have fallen by roughly two orders of magnitude over the past century.
More good news: The threat of global nuclear war has receded since the Cold War ended in the early 1990s. There are about 15,000 nuclear warheads in the world, down from a high of almost 70,000 in the 1980s. Terror attacks, like the recent bombing in New York City, have us all spooked. But your annual risk of being killed by in a terror attack in the United States since 2000 is less than your risk of drowning in a bathtub.
Ordinary homicide claims more than twice as many lives today as war, terrorism and genocide combined, and homicide rates are falling in many regions of the world. The murder rate in the U.S. has dropped by 50 percent since the early 1990s.
As psychologist Steven Pinker documented in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, violence at all scales, from child abuse to international war, has declined. I’ve knocked Pinker for overstating levels of prehistoric violence, but I applaud him for rebutting widespread fear that the world is “falling apart.”
WE ARE MORE FREE THAN EVER. 100 years ago a tiny minority of nations were democracies. If you define a democracy as a society in which women can vote, not a single nation was democratic. Today, a majority of nations are democratic (indicated by green line above). About two thirds of the global population lives under a democratic or partly democratic regime, according to the non-profit Freedom House.
In the U.S., there have been tremendous advances in civil rights. When I was a kid, the south was still segregated. Some states still banned marriage between blacks and whites. Homosexuality was a crime, and so was abortion.
So we shouldn’t despair, but we shouldn’t be complacent, either. Progress isn’t easy or inevitable. We’ve come far, but we still have much further to go to solve problems like environmental despoliation, poverty and war. We also have to make sure we don’t lose what we’ve gained.
THE TRUMP PROBLEM. And that brings me to Donald Trump, who was just elected President. If I were making the case for pessimism, Trump would be my primary piece of evidence. Trump is an anti-progressive if ever there was one. His election reveals that many Americans feel threatened by progress, especially rights for women and minorities.
Trump embodies a paradox of democracy. We are free to elect someone who can do us great harm. But American democracy has proved resilient. We have survived terrible Presidents, like Richard Nixon, and George Bush. We will survive Trump, too, as long as we don’t succumb to irrational fear, anger and despair, the very emotions that have fueled his rise. Then we will continue our long, perilous trek toward paradise.