Is the World Getting Better or Worse? A Look at the Numbers: Steven Pinker (Transcript)

Steven Pinker

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.

What about the world as a whole? Last year, the world had 12 ongoing wars, 60 autocracies, 10% of the world population in extreme poverty and more than 10,000 nuclear weapons. But 30 years ago, there were 23 wars, 85 autocracies, 37% of the world population in extreme poverty and more than 60,000 nuclear weapons.

True, last year was a terrible year for terrorism in Western Europe, with 238 deaths, but 1988 was worse with 440 deaths. What’s going on? Was 1988 a particularly bad year? Or are these improvements a sign that the world, for all its struggles, gets better over time? Might we even invoke the admittedly old-fashioned notion of progress? To do so is to court a certain amount of derision, because I have found that intellectuals hate progress.

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And intellectuals who call themselves progressive really hate progress. Now, it’s not that they hate the fruits of progress, mind you. Most academics and pundits would rather have their surgery with anesthesia than without it. It’s the idea of progress that rankles the chattering class. If you believe that humans can improve their lot, I have been told, that means that you have a blind faith and a quasi-religious belief in the outmoded superstition and the false promise of the myth of the onward march of inexorable progress.

You are a cheerleader for vulgar American can-doism, with the rah-rah spirit of boardroom ideology, Silicon Valley and the Chamber of Commerce. You are a practitioner of Whig history, a naive optimist, a Pollyanna and, of course, a Pangloss, alluding to the Voltaire character who declared, “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”

Well, Professor Pangloss, as it happens, was a pessimist. A true optimist believes there can be much better worlds than the one we have today. But all of this is irrelevant, because the question of whether progress has taken place is not a matter of faith or having an optimistic temperament or seeing the glass as half full. It’s a testable hypothesis.

For all their differences, people largely agree on what goes into human well-being: life, health, sustenance, prosperity, peace, freedom, safety, knowledge, leisure, happiness. All of these things can be measured. If they have improved over time, that, I submit, is progress. Let’s go to the data, beginning with the most precious thing of all, life.

For most of human history, life expectancy at birth was around 30. Today, worldwide, it is more than 70, and in the developed parts of the world, more than 80. 250 years ago, in the richest countries of the world, a third of the children did not live to see their fifth birthday, before the risk was brought down a hundredfold. Today, that fate befalls less than 6% of children in the poorest countries of the world.

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Famine is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It could bring devastation to any part of the world. Today, famine has been banished to the most remote and war-ravaged regions. 200 years ago, 90% of the world’s population subsisted in extreme poverty. Today, fewer than 10% of people do. For most of human history, the powerful states and empires were pretty much always at war with each other, and peace was a mere interlude between wars.

Today, they are never at war with each other. The last great power war pitted the United States against China 65 years ago. More recently, wars of all kinds have become fewer and less deadly. The annual rate of war has fallen from about 22 per hundred thousand per year in the early ’50s to 12 today.

Democracy has suffered obvious setbacks in Venezuela, in Russia, in Turkey and is threatened by the rise of authoritarian populism in Eastern Europe and the United States. Yet the world has never been more democratic than it has been in the past decade, with two-thirds of the world’s people living in democracies.

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