Humanity’s Steady, Gradual Improvement

Imagine that there exist two planets. One of them is an impoverished world, with 90% of the global population living in extreme poverty. It is also a very violent world and the major powers are in a near-constant state of war with each other. Deaths from war, genocide, and homicide are commonplace, killing off the population at a horrifying rate. Almost everyone is illiterate, except for a privileged 10% sliver of the populace. Personal freedom and human rights are nearly unheard of concepts. Dictatorships are the norm, and only 1% of the planet’s people live in a democracy. Let’s call this planet Backwards World.

The other planet is much safer and more enlightened. More than half the people live in some form of democracy, and basic freedoms and human rights are commonplace. Less than 10% live in extreme poverty. Tensions often run high among the major powers, but full-scale war is usually avoided. The rates of violent deaths per 100,000 people is less frequent by an order of magnitude, at least. Education is much more valued in this world, and over 90% are literate. Let’s call this planet Sunny World.

Now let’s fast-forward 200 years into the future. What would we expect to become of these two planets? Backwards World, with its illiterate, impoverished, war-mongering peoples, does not look like the kind of environment that could nurture any movements towards progress. We would probably expect them to backslide even further, and to quickly devolve into some kind of apocalyptic Max-Max style hellhole, even more-so than it already has, if that’s possible. But we’re in for a surprise. We actually know exactly what the future would hold – Backwards World is Earth in the year 1800, and Sunny World is Earth today. Despite all of its disadvantages, past Earth has made truly miraculous gains towards the goals that most of us agree are essential to human flourishing. This really makes me stop and think. I honestly wouldn’t have predicted that so much progress could arise from such an environment.

So here’s my question: If you start with a planet that is a complete hellhole with seemingly nothing but disadvantages, we know that it will make massive amounts of progress towards peace, freedom, health, etc. What happens if you start from a planet that has made orders of magnitude of progress on all of those metrics?

I think the past gives us an important clue about what the future trends of Earth might look like. Despite the ubiquitous doomsayers and fatalists, the evidence is overwhelming that progress arises from even the most abysmal of circumstances. Therefore, isn’t it possible that progress would be even more likely when starting from where we are today?

But is world peace even possible, given human nature?

If the global trends towards progress continue for the next 50 years, then I’m optimistic that we could achieve a state of permanent stability. With a few more decades of rising standards of living plus continued steps towards freedom and democracy, I think we’d be a lot closer than people realize. Historically, prosperous democratic nations have been less likely to go to war with each other than other types of states. As the standard of living rises, citizens become better educated, more tolerant, and more likely to resist nationalistic, imperialistic, religious, or other motivations for war. Extremists and terrorists lose their footholds. Societies converge to more moderate views. In this environment, I expect the frequency of war to take a nosedive. I also suspect that there’s a positive feedback loop which makes it more difficult to start a war after a long stretch of world peace. As peace becomes the new norm, the full attention of the globe would turn to anyone trying to break that peace. Enormous pressure would be exerted to stop it. So a twenty-year peace very well might turn into a thirty-year peace, which then would further strengthen the positive feedback loop. And for a world at peace, I think the sky is the limit for humanity’s potential. With time and experience, we could continually improve our institutions, technology, cultures, ideas, and norms. Each incremental improvement would make it easier to stay the course.

So the big question is… will current progress continue? I don’t know, but I like our odds. I think that the world’s progress is remarkably under-appreciated. As I mentioned in my last post, Steven Pinker has cataloged much of this success in his book and TED talk. He says that not only is progress a fact, it is “the greatest fact in human history.” That’s is quite a bold claim! And I think I’m inclined to agree with him. For the first time in history, half the world has climbed into the middle class or better. When a child is born today, her chances of surviving to adulthood, gaining an education, escaping poverty, avoiding violence, and living in freedom are far greater than at any other time in history. Progress might be the greatest fact in human history, and yet if you poll people on the street, I’d bet that half of them would say that the world is getting more dangerous and going backwards. That is absurd!


I don’t deny that horrible problems and great suffering exist, and that we should focus our attention and energy on them. But we should do so with the contextual knowledge of just how much we’ve been winning across the globe. We need to learn from these successes, and keep pushing forward! The pessimistic worldview is not helpful when it is divorced from reality and encourages hopelessness and resignation.

Steven Pinker:

The other danger of thoughtless pessimism is radicalism. If our institutions are all failing and beyond hope for reform, a natural response is to seek to smash the machine, drain the swamp, burn the empire to the ground, on the hope that whatever rises out of the ashes is bound to be better than what we have now.

To some, the current balance of power around the globe might look extremely fragile. It might look like it could all fall apart and revert to chaos and war at a moment’s notice. I admit this danger. But I look at the steadily climbing GDP numbers around the globe and the rising standards of living, and I’m hopeful. To me, prosperous, developed nations all look like they’ve followed similar paths, and started to arrive at similar beliefs and ideals. They all look a lot less likely to start wars for the frivolous reasons of the past. And I believe that some of humanity’s baser notions do not re-emerge easily once they have been beaten back by the march of progress. For example, slavery was ubiquitous and unchallenged in almost every civilization throughout most of recorded history. Today, it has been forced to the fringes of civilization. In the long run, I believe that good ideas win out over bad ideas, and will continue to do so.

I haven’t even mentioned technological innovation as a source of progress because I think it’s possible to achieve this outcome for the world even without massive advances. But I do think there will be tremendous breakthroughs in the future that will help make everyone’s lives a bit easier. I believe that people are often as good as circumstances allow them to be, and technology can improve circumstances tremendously.

One other objection to progress is the intriguing claim that primitive hunter-gatherer societies were happier than us moderns. So not only are we headed in the wrong direction, but everything we’ve accomplished has only taken us further from the idyllic lifestyle we once had. I don’t buy it, but even if I did, I don’t think it’s a fair comparison at all. Our ancestors had hundreds of thousands of years to evolve and adapt to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Us moderns are brand new at living in this digital world. A decade ago everything was different. And a decade from now, everything will be different again. And people are surprised that we’re not optimized to survive in our modern environment? Of course we’re not! We’re in the middle a period of blistering, meteoric change. Wait until change slows down, then give us 100,000 years to adapt, and then come back and check on us. I bet you a hundred bucks we’ll be happier than the hunter-gatherers ever were. And I bet we’ll have a life expectancy above 29, to boot!

I think that world peace is possible and sustainable, but certainly not inevitable. We’ll need to make smart decisions that bring us closer to the target, but the momentum is with us. We’re riding a wave of tremendous progress, and I’m looking forward to seeing how far it takes us. Humans are not destined to spend forever running in a hamster wheel that never gets anywhere.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s