There have been a spate of (excellent) articles recently, each rehashing a long held belief of mine: the world is a better place today than it was any time in history. (For people, at least; maybe not for trees and bunnies.) Indur Goklany (Cato Institute) reminds us in his recent article in Reason that life expectancy is up and infant mortality is down. Furthermore, people are more literate, freer and healthier than ever before and this is true in the first world as well as the third.
The New Republic pointed out that, in spite of genocide in Darfur and the Abu Ghraib tortures, violence is on the wane in modern society. The article opens with the telling example that, “cat-burning” is no longer a popular form of entertainment! By the way, that article is written by Steven Pinker, the MIT nee Harvard psychologist who proposed the theory of evolutionary psychology and was interviewed recently by Stephen Colbert. Colbert asks ‘Describe for me how the brain works. Five words or less!’ Pinker thinks a moment and then ‘Brain cells fire in patterns.’ Smart guy, this Pinker. As I was saying…
That such an optimistic view was published in the libertarian magazine Reason is not surprising. Faith in human progress is a cornerstone of libertarian philosophy. It’s much more exciting when it’s coming from traditionally liberal sources such as the New Republic. I’ve heard liberals justify draconian regulations on corporations and vigorous redistribution of wealth in order to stem the otherwise inevitable rising up of the poor huddling masses against the hording rich.
Even comedian Jon Stewart, whose satire depends on the average person expecting the worst from politicians understands what’s really going on:says:
“In general, the more egregious flaws of our country have, over time, become less egregious,” he says. “That’s not to say that we don’t have enormous problems of poverty and race, but they are no longer so clearcut as during the times of slavery, segregation or when women couldn’t vote. In our big ticket items we’re down to gay people getting married. That’s a lot of progress over the past few hundred years, considering where we came from.”
Even as the political press and pop-culture begin to acknowledge the true progress we’ve made, the average person still thinks the sky is falling. What about Islamist terrorists and war in Iraq? What about wire-tapping and prisoners detained indefinitely at Guantanamo? I am as angry and concerned as the next person about this realities, but the fact is, go back one hundred years ago and prison tortures wouldn’t even be news! We’re more outraged today because we expect things to be better and don’t simply accept them for business as usual. We’re comfortable enough in front of televisions, that we have enough time to worry about the plight of others less fortunate. This, my dear readers, isn’t an example of moral decay, it’s proof how much better society as a whole is.
So who stands to gain from the continued decay of society? It doesn’t hurt the media. It’s always more newsworthy to report of moral decay and disaster than to show another human interest story of people having enough food to eat. The religious-right doesn’t mind either. All this destruction of the planet is fuel for the end-of-days fire predicted (over and over again) in Revelations. (See, for example,,here or better still here. Better get thee to a church and line up behind the Moral Majority, because the news proves that the end of days is nigh. Religious leaders have been warning us for about two millenia now and it’s time to wonder if maybe those predicting the end don’t actually have a direct line on the wisdom of god.
It’s time to stop worrying about the impending doom of the human race. Let’s draw courage from the enormous successes we have already made and start working on the challenges still before us! Maybe we can make the world a better place for trees and bunnies too, and not just people. They were here first after all.