I was once an eco-pessimist. I’ll admit it. I believed that the world was doomed and humanity was stunting its own growth. I could not have been further from the truth. It is now a popular trend to jump on the doomsayer bandwagon and depict the world as a tale of woe. Not only is this trope detached from reality, more importantly it is not based on evidence.
It is rather easy to fall into the trap of thinking that despite the Enlightenment’s championing of reason, science, humanism and moral progress, modern life has not got much better. Just look at existence of terrorism, drones, sweatshops, gangs, trafficking, refugees and inequalities, an eco-pessimist would say. In fact, you will rarely see anyone provide an optimistic view of the world and this progressophobia stems from an unpreparedness for the possibility that the human condition has improved.
The non-monotonicity of social data provides an easy formula for news outlets to accentuate the negative. Then there is the availability heuristic, which stipulates that the more vivid, gory or upsetting a story is, the more people will overestimate how likely it is in the world. Pessimism has also been equated with moral seriousness.
Here are my gripes with the doomsayers: technology has reduced the need for physical labour, mortality rates are down (newborns will live more than eight decades), IQ scores are on the rise, wars are less frequent and deadly, markets are overflowing with food, critics of the powerful are not jailed or shot and the world’s knowledge is available in a shirt pocket – and yet, these triumphs are unsung.
In the experience of those in less fortunate parts of the world, war, scarcity, disease, ignorance and lethal menace are a natural part of existence. However, the world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human wellbeing and here is the shocker: almost no one knows about it.
Two hundred and fifty years after the Enlightenment, violence and the conditions that foster it have declined, major wars tapered off after 1945, the rate of child mortality has plunged a hundredfold and chronic undernourishment has been in decline.
In the mid-18th century, life expectancy for the world as a whole was 29 years. By 1950, it had grown to around 60 in Europe and the Americas. In Kenya, life expectancy has increased by almost 10 years between 2003 and 2013. The global child mortality rate has fallen from 18 to 4 per cent.
In just two decades, poor countries such as Bangladesh and Kenya have seen the rate of stunting child growth cut in half, according to Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, in his book Enlightenment Now. Countries like Colombia and China have managed to bring them even lower. What’s more, vulnerability to famine appears to have been virtually eradicated from all regions outside of Africa. Pinker observes that the 20th century will go down as the last during which millions of people died due to lack of access to food.
This is not to say that war is any less haunting or tragic for those who are affected by violence today. For instance, over 11 million people are currently in need of emergency aid in war-torn Syria and the country produces more refugees than any other nation. Malnutrition is also a universal issue with 20 million babies being born underweight each year globally. A third of child deaths in the world are as a result of malnutrition. We have also seen a resurgence of authoritarianism worldwide with some 94 countries suffering under tyrants or military juntas. With that being said, the majority of the world’s countries are still democracies.
Indeed, the idea that the world is better than it was and can get better still fell out of fashion among the clerisy long ago. It is probably the reason why you have heard of The Idea of Decline in Western History, but the book Infinite Progress: How the Internet and Technology Will End Ignorance, Disease, Poverty, Hunger, and War does not ring a bell. In fact, recent Pulitzers in nonfiction have been given out to four books on genocide, three on terrorism, two on cancer and one on extinction, while no books on progress have been recognised with a major prize.
Whether or not the world really is getting worse, the nature of news will interact with the nature of cognition to make us think that it is. Pinker argues that the reason for this could be that “optimists sound like they are trying to sell you something”. Whatever the case may be, knowledge of science is a moral imperative because it can alleviate suffering on a global scale by curing disease, feeding the hungry, saving the lives of infants and mothers, and allowing women to control their fertility.
I put eco-pessimism down to ignorance – a shortfall of knowledge of how best to solve our problems. The solution to eco-pessimism? Enough intellectual honesty to admit that now is the best time to be alive than at any point in human history. Life is getting better, there is just no way around it.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies