Steven Pinker has a new book called Enlightenment Now. I haven’t read it. But I have seen a number of articles recently discussing the book’s argument that the world is getting better, not worse.
For example, this article.
Bottom line, there’s a fair amount of evidence that many of the problems that have always plagued humanity really are getting better: Per capita, the world has less violence, more literacy, more freedom, a higher standard of living, and humans living longer, healthier lives than ever before.
Here’s what I’m struck by as I think about this:
How in the hell have we not destroyed ourselves yet?
It seems that humanity has always and continually been one step shy of self-annihilation. Oppressive tyrannies, genocide, war, etc. are just part of what we do. I just watched the film Gangs of New York (the story of which does have some grounding in history). I was astounded to see the utter chaos that seemed to reign in a time when, I would expect, order was emerging as modern society developed.
Modern apocalyptic fear assumes that we are closer to obliteration than we’ve ever been, that society is getting worse, and that our (very legitimate) fears of nuclear war, loss of meaning, loss of capacity for love and relating are recent developments. And in some sense those fears are recent developments: the particularities of how we may be on the verge of apocalypse are unique to our time. But it seems they are something of which every era has its own version.
So if we’re always on the verge of self-annihilation, how is it that things are getting better? I can’t get past it. Something invisible and unreasonable seems to be continually nudging our world towards goodness, little by little. I can’t make sense of how the universe could form out of chaos: planets and solar systems, water and land, life and culture. How the hell are there skyscrapers? Why isn’t everybody killing each other? And you mean to tell me that any time I flip this little switch on my wall—day or night—a light is going to turn on? And water is going to magically come out of the faucet just because I turn a little knob? And I’m going to hit “publish” on this post and someone in Japan will be able to read it in seconds? What is going on here?
Something seems to be nudging our world towards goodness. Something powerful. Something annoyingly patient and sparing in its involvement. I don’t get it. And it bothers me.
The poet Wordsworth said, “There is a dark invisible workmanship—that reconciles discordant elements—and makes them move in one society.” I think maybe this is what he was getting at.