Following is the full transcript of Canadian psychologist Steven Pinker’s TED Talk: Is the World Getting Better or Worse? A Look at the Numbers.
Many people face the news each morning with trepidation and dread. Every day, we read of shootings, inequality, pollution, dictatorship, war and the spread of nuclear weapons. These are some of the reasons that 2016 was called the “Worst Year Ever.” Until 2017 claimed that record — and left many people longing for earlier decades, when the world seemed safer, cleaner and more equal.
But is this a sensible way to understand the human condition in the 21st century? As Franklin Pierce Adams pointed out, “Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.” You can always fool yourself into seeing a decline if you compare bleeding headlines of the present with rose-tinted images of the past.
What does the trajectory of the world look like when we measure well-being over time using a constant yardstick? Let’s compare the most recent data on the present with the same measures 30 years ago.
Last year, Americans killed each other at a rate of 53 per hundred thousand, had 7% of their citizens in poverty and emitted 21 million tons of particulate matter and 4 million tons of sulfur dioxide. But 30 years ago, the homicide rate was 85 per hundred thousand, poverty rate was 12% and we emitted 35 million tons of particulate matter and 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide.