Despite climate, war and Covid, is everything actually … getting better?

Show caption The rapid development of Covid vaccines supports Pinker’s thesis that humanity’s capacity to solve its problems is improving. Photograph: Amer Ghazzal/Rex/Shutterstock Psychology Despite climate, war and Covid, is everything actually … getting better? The psychologist Steven Pinker has long believed we should be more optimistic – and even current crises do not dissuade him David Robson Sun 14 Aug 2022 13.00 BST Share on Facebook

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Reading and watching the media over the past year, you might be forgiven for thinking that we are facing the collapse of civilisation. We have a shrinking economy, a fuel crisis that may bring on energy rationing and forced blackouts, extreme weather events, the increased chance of nuclear war, and risk of the growth of a new pandemic riding on the back of the last. The Doomsday Clock – a symbol created by scientists to represent the likelihood of a human-made catastrophe – places us at just 100 seconds before midnight, the closest we’ve been to Armageddon in the project’s 75-year history.

In the face of these threats, it may be hard to maintain a rose-tinted view of the future – unless, that is, you are the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. In 2018, his book Enlightenment Now argued that our interpretations of news events make us far too gloomy. There has never been a better time to be alive, he said, thanks to the social, economic, political, technological, and medical advances of the past 300 years.

At the time of its publication, Pinker’s book attracted as much scorn as praise. One common criticism was that he had oversimplified complex subjects and neglected any phenomena that might suggest a lack of progress. Pinker has, however, attempted to address many of the criticisms, and the recent challenges facing the world do not appear to have changed his opinion.

On Radio 4’s Today programme last week, he revisited the arguments of Enlightenment Now to explain why he believes there are still reasons to remain optimistic in 2022. “We have to remember that there’s no law of nature that spaces bad things apart,” he said. “Bad things happen, and they will appear to come in clusters – but it doesn’t mean that we’re being punished for our collective sins or that we’re in a uniquely dangerous moment.” He maintains humanity has the tools to deal with the challenges we face.

There is certainly something comforting about seeing cause for hope in crises. But do we really have good grounds for optimism? To find out, the Observer examines four indices of progress and the ways they have been affected by recent events.

Health in the time of Covid

The Covid-19 pandemic is the obvious place to start. According to the World Health Organization, more than 6.4 million have so far died of the infection, since the virus emerged. In a sample of 37 countries, the British Medical Journal found all but six had experienced a reduction in life expectancy as a result. That’s not to mention the burden of long Covid, which is thought to affect around two million people in the UK alone.

Pinker’s 2018 book Enlightenment Now attracted scorn from some quarters when it was published, but the author continues to defend its message. Photograph: Geoffroy van der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images

This is certainly a step backwards for global health. But it is worth noting that Pinker has never claimed that we will see continuous progress without any setbacks. His argument is more concerned with the ways we cope with problems and find potential solutions. Did we deal with the threat better than we would have been able to in years gone by?

The jury is still out on the UK government’s initial response to the crisis. But the rapid development of Covid vaccines is undoubtedly a triumph of scientific progress. According to a recent study from Imperial College’s Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, the vaccination programme saved at least 14 million people – and potentially as many as 19.8 million – in its first year.

This simply wouldn’t have been possible in years gone by; all previous vaccines had taken at least five years to develop, and at the start of the pandemic many scientists believed the possibility of creating a new one from scratch was naively optimistic. That may be some cause of optimism for our ability to deal with future health threats.

Wealth and happiness

One of Enlightenment Now’s core arguments is that people today are far wealthier than people in previous decades – and that this has resulted in higher life satisfaction, through greater comfort, more free time and better education. Pinker dismisses the idea that inequality is a driver of unrest – it is each person’s absolute wealth that matters, he says, which means we do not need to worry too much if much of a country’s gains in GDP go disproportionately to the richest echelons of society.

The evidence for this is not quite as clearcut as Pinker would claim, however. Recent research by veteran economist Richard Easterlin found that China’s and India’s recent economic growth have done very little for the population’s overall happiness. More comprehensively, a study by Małgorzata Mikucka at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium analysed life satisfaction in 46 countries from 1981 to 2012. It found that an increase in GDP only brought about greater happiness if it was accompanied by reduced inequality and increased social capital.

None of this bodes well for our lives over the next few months and years. The Office for National Statistics has just reported that the UK’s GDP has shrunk in the second quarter of 2022, suggesting that we are on the brink of a recession, while the average salary is set to fall behind inflation by 8% this year – the biggest drop in real wages in over 100 years. And according to the International Monetary Fund, the cost of living crisis is likely to widen inequality by hitting the poorest homes hardest.

It’s worth remembering that, by the start of this year, real wages had not fully recovered from the 2008 financial crisis – suggesting that this is more than a momentary blip in our living standards.

War and peace

One of Pinker’s most controversial claims concerns our propensity to kill each other. He first made the case that human violence is at an all-time low in The Better Angels of Our Nature, published in 2011, and then revisited the idea seven years later in Enlightenment Now.

Much of Pinker’s argument concerns warfare. Using data concerning the sheer number of conflicts, their length, the proportion of lives lost, and the level of military investment, Pinker notes a downward trend across the centuries. Clearly, there are exceptions – the huge numbers of lives lost in both world wars, for one; you can only reach his conclusion by looking at average numbers across the globe over large time periods.

Pinker argues that various forces – such as the increasing importance of international trade, the rise of democracy, and the actions of institutions such as the UN – have made war much less desirable for most leaders, pushing us into the period known by some historians as the “long peace”.

The war in Ukraine challenges Pinker’s view that human society has, historically speaking, entered a ‘long peace’. Photograph: Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images

But many other scholars have questioned these conclusions. One analysis by Aaron Clauset at the University of Colorado in Boulder, for example, concluded that the “long peace” may just be a statistical fluke. It is possible for any probabilistic events to cluster in certain periods and to disappear in others. For an analogy, consider how many times you can throw a coin and it lands on tails, despite the probability being 50:50. You might conclude that the coin is biased – but with more throws the overall frequencies will tend to balance out. According to Clauset’s paper, the “long peace” may be similarly ephemeral.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and growing tensions over Taiwan, have of course placed the thought of global war at the front of everyone’s minds. We can hope that diplomacy will prevent disaster, but optimistic historical analyses provide cold comfort when our fate can depend on the erratic decisions of dictators such as Vladimir Putin.

The environment

With the record-breaking heatwaves this year, and the threat of wildfires sweeping across the UK, it feels like we are already witnessing the start of the climate emergency – and unless we take drastic action, it is only set to worsen.

Pinker certainly doesn’t deny climate change, which he acknowledges is a “gargantuan problem”, but he has criticised “eco-pessimism” and the prevalence of what he considers to be alarmist green messaging. In Enlightenment Now, he describes many environmental successes, such as the reduction of water pollution, the elimination of acid rain and a recent deceleration in deforestation. He points to data showing that many countries’ CO 2 emissions are now plateauing. For an escape route from disaster, he points to ideas such as carbon taxing, combined with a reliance on nuclear power and technologies such as carbon capture, which involves scrubbing CO 2 from power stations before it is released and locking it underground.

Climate Change is a gargantuan problem, but the idea it threatens imminent human extinction or destruction of civilization is pernicious. It’s not what the science says; it’s emotionally destructive; & it discourages action (why bother if we’re doomed?) — Steven Pinker (@sapinker) August 23, 2021

Needless to say, the “eco-pessimists” are unimpressed. Technologies such as carbon capture do offer some promise, but their efficacy is unproven. And we will also require strong political will, which has been far from obvious in the years since Pinker’s book was published. A UN report from 2021 found most governments were “nowhere close to the level of ambition needed to limit climate change to 1.5C and meet the goals of the Paris Agreement”, though it is possible that a drive to reduce dependence on Russian oil and gas could galvanise efforts to switch to renewables.

Pinker’s optimism relies on the fact that we – and our governments – will act rationally, according to the Enlightenment principles of reason, science and humanism. Our combined brainpower may certainly have the capacity to solve the climate crisis, but to believe that our politicians will take action in time – that may require a leap of faith.

David Robson is the author of The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life