The case for optimism

un world food prog.PNG

Several months ago a colleague of mine challenged me to demonstrate how the United Nations was a positive influence in the world. I remember giving examples of its peacekeeping work, but as soon as they left my lips they fizzled into uncompelling whimpers. We were in the middle of a broader conversation about whether the world has become a better place, in the stumbling, ignorant way lay people are wont to do.

I don’t think at the end of the conversation I moved her to my position. I suspect as much because cynicism is almost always socially profitable and because of a general lack of a fuller appreciation of how much humanity has improved his condition.

Digging into the works of pro-enlightenment public intellectuals including Yuval Noah Harari, Steven Pinker and advisedly Jordan Peterson has enhanced my own appreciation for our accomplishments (and faults), tempered my cynicism and prepared me to better rebut my colleague’s generally baseless apathy. In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harari charts the rise of civilisation — language, trade, law — from its dreadful infancy and with all its fits and starts. A complicated picture emerges of a world of ever-increasing efficiencies (food became more plentiful even as the required acreage and man-hours reduced), improved quality of life and prolonged peacetime. Pinker covers the same ground and more in his bestsellers The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now.

The log line is that on almost every measure —  death due to war, crime and disease; the number of democracies, standard of living, literacy, life expectancy, leisure time, poverty, hunger, infant mortality and even IQ — our lot worldwide has improved. In fact, many of the remaining obstacles to well-being are caused by excess: the greying of developed countries imperils their workforce and their improved life expectancy strains their socialised healthcare systems (the notable exception remains the United States as I mention in another blog). Not one to yield the top spot, however, the United States has recorded stunning levels of obesity and car accidents claim tens of thousands every year, as do guns (half or more from suicide).

One of the most interesting improvements to me is in IQ, a controversial topic hotly dismissed by the left as unimportant and suspicious, and relished by fringe elements of the right to assert racial superiority. IQ scores have risen in every region of the world every decade by three per cent, a phenomenon called the Flynn Effect, after intelligence researcher James Flynn. Africa has the lowest score but it’s also rising. This is likely linked to the increasing penetration of technology and nutrition and literacy levels on the continent.

Average IQ points across the world have increased over decades. Source: and Voracek

Many of these gains are the fruits of capitalism, democracies and global institutions. The United Nations oversaw the astonishing reduction in worldwide extreme poverty and hunger, the former by more than half in just three decades. It so thoroughly exceeded some of its Millennial Goals that the targets had to be revised upwards. Wished I had known that going into the debate.

Apart from ignorance, what also worked against me as I attempted to answer my colleague is that it’s harder to appreciate something that has not happened than something that did happen, like the countless lives not lost due to the cessation of a prolonged civil war or the invention of new medicine. This is the fallacy of counting the hits and not the misses; the United Nations deserves credit not only for active missions like reducing conflict around the world but also preventative actions such as what is called preventative diplomacy.

This well-known tendency to focus on obvious, recent and easy-to-recall events rather than trends and statistics is called the availability bias. Another widely possessed tendency is to focus disproportionately on negative things (perhaps advisable since such things pose a larger threat to life, limb and mind than fluffy clouds and unicorns, which may induce rays of hope and delirium), something called the negativity effect. These biases, combined with the fact that people readily adapt to their circumstances (who saves more when they make more money?) create a blind spot in our cognition that breeds unwarranted pessimism.

Of course, some pessimism is warranted. That all of this progress has been made does not mean there isn’t a multitude of problems left to solve; climate change rages on, a nuclear winter is an ever-present possibility and there have been reports of UN peacekeepers sexually abusing children (hence my dubious whimper about their peacekeeping work). It means that we should, more often than we do, take stock of how much better off we are than those who came before us. Progress is messy but undeniable.

It has taken untold toil to afford the fruits of modernity; as sure as the second law of thermodynamics is settled physical law, wealth requires an explanation, poverty does not, Pinker has remarked. And Peterson often lectures that we should at once be terrified of and humbled by the long shadow that generations of construction workers, inventors and literary giants cast on our vastly more privileged lives (this came in a rant that included a mercurial indictment of college students protesting the 1% while failing to recognise that they are also in the 1% globally — I did say I heed him advisedly).

We simply don’t know how good we have it.

Featured image copyright UNHCR/F.


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