26 Charts and Maps that Show the World is Getting Much, Much Better, by Dylan Matthews.
GOOD NEWS: 14 Reasons 2014 May Be the Best Year Ever … by John Green.
A History of Violence by Steven Pinker.
Our world in data so many good things are improving, taken as a whole pretty much everything is improving everywhere for almost everyone—which is not to say we can’t do better or shouldn’t work harder or don’t have a long way to go.
- child morality is one of my favorite to point to, because I don’t think anyone can genuinely argue that a severe reduction in the number of children who die in birth or in early age isn’t progress
Are we facing the end of the world? The Big Questions, BBC One
People argue about whether or not the world is going to end, either for religious reasons (a rapture or whatever), but I think the truth is no one can really know. I don’t think there is any justifiable way to think that the species will go extinct any time soon, but I do think it’s reasonable to be concerned that the our impact on the world could make things very bad/difficult for ourselves. But I don’t think anyone can really know that yet. There are good reasons to be concerned, and good reasons to be optimistic.
I think the biggest hurdle we face as a species is actually religion. Belief in an “end times” of any sort undermines efforts to address concerns about the future wellbeing of our species & the planet, and according to Gallup, about a third of Americans believe the bible is literally true, according to Pew, about 40% of American Christians believe Jesus is coming back to end the world by 2050. This is a very big problem.
I recently came across a Bertrand Russell quote that has some interesting relevance to this:
- Belief in God and a future life makes it possible to go through life with less of stoic courage than is needed by skeptics. A great many young people lose faith in these dogmas at an age at which despair is easy, and thus have to face a much more intense unhappiness than that which falls to the lot of those who have never had a religious upbringing. Christianity offers reasons for not fearing death or the universe, and in so doing it fails to teach adequately the virtue of courage. The craving for religious faith being largely an outcome of fear, the advocates of faith tend to think that certain kinds of fear are not to be deprecated. In this, to my mind, they are gravely mistaken. To allow oneself to entertain pleasant beliefs as a means of avoiding fear is not to live in the best way. In so far as religion makes its appeal to fear, it is lowering to human dignity.
- p. 107, Education and the Social Order (1932)
Why 2017 Was the Best Year in Human History, by Nicholas Kristof for the NYT
Though I have some criticisms. In this column he says, “F. Scott Fitzgerald said the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time. I suggest these: The world is registering important progress, but it also faces mortal threats. The first belief should empower us to act on the second.” I don’t like the phrase “mortal threats”—I think it is probably hyperbolic to consider pollution, climate change, global warming or other impacts we have on the planet, to be existential threats to our species. I am skeptical that even a full scale nuclear war at the height of the US & Soviet arms race would have actually wiped out humans completely, given the sheer number of humans, their distribution across the entire planet, and human ingenuity.
He goes on to write, “Granted, this column may feel weird to you. Those of us in the columny gig are always bemoaning this or that, and now I’m saying that life is great? That’s because most of the time, quite rightly, we focus on things going wrong.” I disagree with this too. I think it’s crucial to recognize that the statements, “things are better than ever before” and “things are great,” are distinctly different ideas.
I believe recognizing that fact is required to understand most rights movements—women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, children’s rights—in each case we have come a very long way from where we were even just a few decades ago, but in each case we still have a very long way to go. Part of the frustration is that it’s so easy to imagine just how much better things could be, and yet progress moves so slowly relative to an individual’s life, and much of the things going on within our lives. New smartphones are introduced once or twice a year, but marital rape wasn’t recognized as a crime in all 50 states until 1993 (and even then there is room for improvement I believe). The end of slavery was just the first step in correcting one of the greatest atrocities humans have committed against other humans in the last few centuries. Jim Crow laws, lynchings, the KKK & other hate groups, segregation, interracial marriage, and now mass incarceration and police shootings, all illustrate just how long and slow the journey has been, as well as the fact that it’s not yet over.
Paul Krugman used the phrase generational forgetting, which if I remember right he said came from the drug rehab community, which faced the problem of younger generations having no knowledge of the scourge that the drug had previously inflicted on the community, because the older generation that experienced it directly dies out in time. Krugman brought it up to describe the Great Recession of 2008, and how following the Great Depression there were regulations put in place to try to ensure stability and prevent recurrence. But over the last few decades much of that has been dismantled, again, as the younger generation loses the understanding of just how dangerous the system can be in the absence of sufficient stability. Other phrases that come to mind are “a victim of it’s own success” and “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it”.
List of examples:
- economic regulation
- drug abuse
- environmental regulation
- Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act
- infrastructure (Stefan pointed this one out)
I think this problem of “solutions becoming victims of their own success” is quite common, seems like something we should have a name for—perhaps “generational forgetting” should just be expanded to apply to any such problem. The EPA was founded by Nixon at a time when smog plagued urban areas across the country, acid rain was eroding statues and building facades, and the Cuyahoga river had caught on fire more than a dozen times. But the environmental regulations really did work pretty well—there are still a lot of dirty areas that need cleaning up, and we could continue to improve standards, reduce emissions, and expect to see a significant benefit to the overall health of the country.
Vaccines are another prominent example. Many of the people alive today have no experience with measles, or whooping cough, because the vaccines for those diseases have been so effective that the diseases themselves have been rare experiences. But the rate of infection that measles causes is incredible, so it wouldn’t take long for an unvaccinated community to see it spread through virtually everyone, and some of those people will not fair well.
In high school I wanted to go into the visual effects industry, but at some point it occurred to me that the better the job a visual effects artist does, the less likely anyone will notice they did anything at all—the ideal goal a visual artist should strive for is that their work is indistinguishable from reality, which would leave the audience clueless to their participation—another example of a “victim of their own success” problem.
The Supreme Court ending the voting rights act restrictions on some states recently (a few years ago) is another example. [need to go cite the court saying the problems they were created to solve no longer exist—I think one justice even responded with how that’s because the solution is working. I guess we could ask the question, “how do we determine when a problem is solved enough that we can let down our defenses?” In the case of some diseases it’s obvious, once smallpox & rinderpest were eradicated we no longer need to vaccinate anyone (or anything, in the case of rinderpest) against it (correction: we still vaccinate people for smallpox in one case: when they’re researching the virus & could potentially be exposed to it. And it still exists in two laboratories: the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia, America and State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology VECTOR in Koltsovo, Russia). This will also apply to polio soon, and probably measles someday, and maybe whooping cough, and others, but not the influenza, because influenza viruses cross between species and so we can’t eradicate it with our current methods. (We’d need to figure out how to inoculate large populations of wild animals somehow.)]
Factfulness — or why things are a lot better than you think by John Ashmore.
The phrasing that always came to mind about women rights & racism are that we’ve come a very long way and yet we still have a very long way to go. And I think the same should be said of the state of the world more generally.