RWatching and watching the media over the last year, you could be forgiven for thinking that we are facing the collapse of civilization. We have a shrinking economy, a fuel crisis that could lead to energy rationing and forced blackouts, extreme weather events, an increased likelihood of nuclear war, and the risk of another pandemic growing on top of the last one. The Doomsday Clock – a symbol created by scientists to represent the likelihood of a man-made catastrophe – shows that we are just 100 seconds to midnight, the closest we have come to Armageddon in the project’s 75-year history.

In the face of these threats, it can be hard to maintain a rosy outlook on the future — unless you’re Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. In 2018, his book Enlightenment now argued that our interpretation of news events makes us too gloomy. There has never been a better time to be alive, he said, thanks to the social, economic, political, technological and medical advances of the past 300 years.

At the time of its publication, Pinker’s book was met with as much scorn as praise. One common criticism was that he oversimplified complex subjects and neglected any phenomena that might indicate a lack of progress. However, Pinker has attempted to respond to many of the criticisms, and the recent challenges facing the world do not seem to have changed his opinion.

On radio 4 today program last week, he revised the arguments Enlightenment now to explain why he believes there is still reason to be optimistic in 2022. “We must remember that there are no laws of nature that separate bad things,” he said. “Bad things happen, and they will come in groups, but that doesn’t mean we’re being punished for our collective sins or that we’re in a uniquely dangerous moment.” He argues that humanity has the tools to deal with the problems we face.

There is certainly something comforting about seeing crises as reason for hope. But do we have reason for optimism? to find out The observer examines the four indicators of progress and how they have been affected by recent events.

Health in the time of covid

The Covid-19 pandemic is an obvious place to start. According to the World Health Organization, more than 6.4 million people have died from the infection since the virus appeared. In a sample of 37 countries British Medical Journal found that all but six had reduced life expectancy as a result. This is not to mention the burden of prolonged Covid, which is estimated to affect around two million people in the UK alone.

Pinker’s 2018 book Enlightenment Now drew scorn from some quarters when it was published, but the author continues to defend its message. Photo: Geoffroy van der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images

This is definitely a step backwards for global health care. But it should be noted that Pinker never claimed that we would see continuous progress without any setbacks. His arguments are more concerned with how we deal with problems and find possible solutions. Did we deal with the threat better than we could have in previous years?

The jury is still out on how the UK government responded to the crisis. But the rapid development of Covid vaccines is undoubtedly a triumph of scientific progress. According to a recent study by Imperial College’s Center for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, the vaccination program saved at least 14 million lives – and potentially as many as 19.8 million – in its first year.

This simply would not have been possible in years past; all previous vaccines took at least five years to develop, and at the start of the pandemic, many scientists considered the possibility of creating a new one from scratch naively optimistic. This may be reason for optimism about our ability to deal with future health threats.

Wealth and happiness

One of Enlightenment now the basic argument is that people today are much wealthier than people in previous decades, and that this has led to higher life satisfaction due to greater comfort, more leisure time, and better education. Pinker rejects the idea that inequality is the engine of unrest—he says that each person’s absolute wealth matters, which means we don’t need to worry too much if a large portion of a country’s GDP gains go disproportionately to the wealthiest echelons of society.

However, the evidence for this is not as clear-cut as Pinker would have it. Recent research by veteran economist Richard Easterlin has shown that recent economic growth in China and India has contributed very little to overall happiness. A study by Małgorzata Mikucka of the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium analyzed life satisfaction in 46 countries from 1981 to 2012. It found that an increase in GDP leads to greater happiness only when it is accompanied by a reduction in inequality and an increase in social capital. .

None of this bodes well for our lives in the next few months and years. The Office for National Statistics has just reported that UK GDP fell in the second quarter of 2022, suggesting we are on the brink of recession, while average earnings are set to lag inflation by 8% this year – the biggest drop in real earnings for more than 100 years. And according to the International Monetary Fund, the cost-of-living crisis is likely to widen inequality, hitting poor families hardest.

It’s worth remembering that until earlier this year, real wages had not fully recovered from the 2008 financial crisis, suggesting that this is more than a momentary drop in our living standards.

War and peace

One of Pinker’s most controversial claims concerns our propensity to kill each other. He claimed for the first time that human violence is at its lowest ebb The The best angels of our nature, published in 2011 and then revised the idea seven years later in Enlightenment now.

Much of Pinker’s argument is about war. Using data on the number of conflicts, their duration, the proportion of lives lost and the level of military investment, Pinker notes a downward trend over the centuries. Obviously there are exceptions – the huge number of lives lost in both world wars on the one hand; you can only come to his conclusion by looking at average numbers around the world over large periods of time.

Pinker argues that a variety of forces – such as the increasing importance of international trade, the growth of democracy, and the actions of institutions such as the United Nations – have made war far less desirable to most leaders, pushing us toward a period known by some historians as “the long peace.”

A Ukrainian soldier in uniform walks past a row of destroyed buildings
The war in Ukraine challenges Pinker’s view that human society, historically speaking, has entered a “long peace.” Photo: Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images

But many other scientists have questioned these findings. One analysis by Aaron Clauset of the University of Colorado at Boulder, for example, concluded that the “long world” may just be a statistical fluke. Any probabilistic events may cluster in certain periods and disappear in others. As an analogy, think about how many times you can toss a coin and it will land tails despite having a 50:50 chance. One can conclude that the coin is biased, but with more tosses, the total frequencies will tend to balance out. According to Clause’s article, the “long world” can be just as ephemeral.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and rising tensions over Taiwan have, of course, put the thought of global war on everyone’s mind. We can hope that diplomacy will avert disaster, but an optimistic historical analysis provides cold comfort when our fate may depend on the misguided decisions of dictators like Vladimir Putin.


With this year’s record heatwaves and the threat of bushfires sweeping the UK, it looks like we’re already witnessing the start of a climate emergency – and unless we take drastic action, it’s only going to get worse.

Pinker certainly does not deny climate change, which he admits is “a gigantic problem,” but he criticized “eco-pessimism” and the prevalence of what he sees as the polar green message. U enlightenment now he describes many environmental successes, such as the reduction of water pollution, the elimination of acid rain, and the recent slowdown in deforestation. He points to data showing that the CO of many countries2 emissions are now on a plateau. He points to ideas such as a carbon tax combined with reliance on nuclear power and technologies such as carbon capture, which cleans up CO, as escape routes from disaster.2 from power plants before being released and locked underground.

Climate change is a gigantic problem, but the idea that it threatens the inevitable extinction of humanity or the destruction of civilization is pernicious. This is not what science says; it is emotionally devastating; and it discourages action (why bother if we’re doomed?)

— Steven Pinker (@sapinker) August 23, 2021

Needless to say, “eco-pessimists” are not impressed. Technologies such as carbon capture do hold promise, but their effectiveness is unproven. And we will also need strong political will, which has been far from evident in the years since Pinker’s book. A 2021 UN report found that most governments “have not come close to the level of ambition needed to limit climate change to 1.5C and meet the goals of the Paris Agreement”, although it is possible that efforts to reduce dependence on Russian oil and gas could boost efforts to transition to renewable energy sources.

Pinker’s optimism rests on the fact that we – and our governments – will act rationally, according to Enlightenment principles of reason, science, and humanism. Our united minds may certainly have the power to solve the climate crisis, but trusting that our politicians will act in time may require a leap of faith.

David Robson is the author The Expectancy Effect: How Your Mindset Can Change Your Life

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