The Residential Library

The sometimes demented, frequently irreverent, and occasionally stupid musings of Ron Hargrove

Enlightenment Now

By Steven Pinker   [2108]

It’s easy for the world’s problems to grab and hold our attention. However, the truth is that, on a macro level things have never been better. And we can thank the Enlightenment movement of the 1700s and 1800s, which introduced the principles of science, reason and humanism.

 
Humanism taught that religion can be destructive and that everyone is deserving of the same human rights regardless of the country they were born in.
 
Some of the main areas that have improved because of the Enlightenment follow.
 
1. Life spans. In the middle of the 1700s the global average life expectancy was 29 years. That was lower than the estimated 32 years of ancient hunter-gatherers. Now it’s 70 years.
 
2. Hunger. As recently as 1970, 35% of the world was malnourished. That number is now 13%.
 
3. Wealth. In 1820, 90% of the world was in extreme poverty. Between 1820-1900 global income tripled. Between 1900-1950 it tripled again. Between 1950-1983 it tripled yet again.
 
4. Inequality. Economist Simon Kuznets observed that jumps in wealth create inequality, but over time inequality naturally levels itself out. Also, at least in Europe, countries are spending way more on social programs and relief for the poor. In the early 1900s they spent 1.5% of earnings on these causes. Now that number is 22%.
 
5. Violence. Despite the fact that the US has been in one war or another since the end of WWII, wars globally have been few and far between. And while there are hundreds of thousands of refugees around the world today, their numbers are nowhere as bad as in the past. For example, 10 million people were displaced in 1971 during the Bangladesh War. In 1947, 14 million people in India were refugees. And in WWII, 60 million people fled the Nazis.
 
6. Democracy. In 1920, there were 12 democratic nations in the world. As of 2015, there were 103. This has led to less tyranny and anarchy, healthier economic growth, fewer genocides and better education. The increase in democracies is also credited for reduced racist and sexist attitudes and more equal rights laws.
 
7. Terrorism. Despite the non-stop news reports of atrocities committed by the Taliban, ISIS and other terrorist organizations in recent years, the threat of terrorism is at an all-time low. Americans are more likely to be killed by a bee sting than a terrorist. Worldwide, people are 125 times more likely to die in an accident than at the hands of a terrorist.
 
8. Populism. It’s distressing to see the uptick in populist movements in the US and Europe. However, in the US the justice system has constrained Trump somewhat and Congress may do so too in the near future. In Europe, populist candidates have received only 13% of the vote. And in Poland and Hungary where populists have had the most success, the populist voters are old and will soon be replaced by younger voters.
 
9. Religion. Younger generations across the globe are polling as more progressive, more tolerant and less religious than the previous generation. Even in traditionally religious countries like Poland, Turkey and Russia, there was an average 9% decrease in people who identify themselves as religious just within an 8-year period ending in 2012.
 
It can be discouraging to watch progress of recent years reversed by a destructive administration. But that doesn’t change the fact that larger trends are undeniably going in the right direction and will continue to do so.
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