One of my favorite bedtime stories as a kid was the story of Chicken Little. It’s a very old folk tale about a little chick who was hit on the head by a falling acorn. The chick believed the world was coming to an end, and set out to warn the King.
“Despair springs eternal,” as social and main stream media crank up their sky-is-falling examples and warnings of death, disaster, and destruction. But “news” rarely reports on all that’s going right. (“I am reporting live from the airport as we watch the 89th plane today land safely.” or “You’re watching live a combine harvesting and threshing as much wheat in six minutes, as it took 25 men to do in one day 150 years ago.”)
Harvard professor, researcher, and author Steven Pinker’s new book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, is a highly inspiring read that brings a strong dose of reality to the truly fake news of negativity and cynical hand wringing all around us. We live in the best times in the history of the world. In over six dozen graphs, Pinker provides powerful data showing how the pioneering leaders of late 18th Century enlightenment thinking is here now. We truly are living the dream.
Health, wealth, safety, poverty, war, democracy, inequality, knowledge, quality of life, happiness, violence, and a long list of other conditions are on dramatic and progressive upward curves that show little sign of slowing down. Pinker notes, “In the year 2000, all 189 members of the United Nations, together with two dozen international organizations, agreed on eight Millennium Development Goals for the year 2015…And here is a shocker: The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being. Here is a second shocker: Almost no one knows about it.”
This book is chock-full of powerful data, quotes, and insights. I filed over 130 of them in my digital research library. Here are a few points that especially stood out:
- We often mistake problems around us for how low the world has sunk, rather than how high our standards have risen.
- Rarely in history has well-being improved so dramatically, yet few people are aware of it.
- Bad things often happen quickly and often dramatically. Good things unfold gradually with little fanfare.
- Predicting the worst and end times has been the mark of prophets since Biblical times. Journalists and scholars are taken more seriously when they focus on what’s wrong, and show these as symptoms of a sick society.
- Psychological research shows we dread losses more than enjoy gains, dwell on setbacks more than savor successes, and are stung more by criticism than heartened by praise. The English language has many more words for negative than positive emotions.
- Wealth is on a steady and dramatic rise across the world because of knowledge and cooperation. This has led to massive improvements in health and well-being around the globe.
- Wealth creation is a major outcome of the Enlightenment. It comes from countries and large groups of people combining ingenuity and labor in unforeseeable and highly creative ways. The steady march of progress shows we can continue creating more of it.
The rapid rise of populism today feeds off the dark side of human nature steeped in pessimistic wallowing. Following the well-worn path of ancient prophets of doom, cynical and manipulative leaders are capitalizing on fear and prejudice. They’re determined to make the world unenlightened again, and take us back to a time when faith, dogma, authority, myopic ignorance, and gut feelings trumped science, humanism, reason, and progress.
Enlightenment Now brings an uplifting context and perspective to just how far we’ve come. And the overwhelming odds are that progress will continue. Pinker opens the Progress section of his book with the words of Barack Obama:
“If you had to choose a moment in history to be born, and you did not know ahead of time who you would be — you didn’t know whether you were going to be born into a wealthy family or a poor family, what country you’d be born in, whether you were going to be a man or a woman — if you had to choose blindly what moment you’d want to be born, you’d choose now.”
To paraphrase Mark Twain, media reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated. The sky isn’t falling. It’s just a few acorns.