“The twenty-first century will be a magnificent time to be alive. Dare be an optimist.” —Matt Ridley
On November 12, 2014, the world watched with excitement as another historic human achievement unfolded: After a decade-long journey that covered 4 billion miles in space, the first human spacecraft landed on a comet. This remarkable event is just the latest in the story of human progress and advancement.
In the modern era, when new cycles are driven by “if it bleeds, it leads” and naysayers continue to insist that things are getting worse, it is easy to lose heart and think we are living a world descending into violence, stagnation, bigotry, and [insert your choice of social ill]. Too often, pessimistic voices and sensationalism drown out sober thinking. Dartmouth College economics professor Douglas Irwin noted in the Wall Street Journal earlier this month of another major humanitarian accomplishment that did not make the headlines:
The World Bank reported on Oct. 9 that the share of the world population living in extreme poverty had fallen to 15% in 2011 from 36% in 1990. Earlier this year, the International Labor Office reported that the number of workers in the world earning less than $1.25 a day has fallen to 375 million 2013 from 811 million in 1991.
Such stunning news seems to have escaped public notice, but it means something extraordinary: The past 25 years have witnessed the greatest reduction in global poverty in the history of the world.
A careful review of facts shows that public perception is often out of sync with reality, particularly when long-term trends are taken into account. Matt Ridley’s excellent book The Rational Optimist tells the uplifting side of the story. In his remarkable synthesis of history, evolutionary biology, anthropology, and economics, Ridley presents a very strong case that life is getting better, at an accelerating rate, for all peoples across the world. More than any other factor, Ridley credits the emergence of trade and specialization as the main drivers of cultural advance and material progress. As a result of exchange and the division of labor, innovation was facilitated and encouraged. The best ideas were able to come together to “meet and mate.”
Around 100,000 years ago, when humans began sharing a “collective brain,” “culture suddenly became cumulative, and the great headlong experiment of human economic ‘progress’ began.” In Ridley’s view, “the cumulative accretion of knowledge by specialists that allows each of us to consume more and more different things by each producing fewer and fewer is ...the central story of humanity.” Looking back at the grand enterprise of human history, disease retreated, poverty declined, violence fell, freedom expanded, and individual happiness increased. Fast forward to modern day, even when accounting for the hundreds of millions who still haven’t experienced all the benefits, what people enjoy today weren’t available to the most powerful and wealthy from the past:
[T]his generation of human beings has access to more calories, watts, lumen hours, square feet, gigabytes, megahertz, light-years, nanometers, bushels per acre, miles per gallon, food miles, air miles and, of course, dollars than any that went before. They have more Velcro, vaccines, vitamins, shoes, singers, soap operas, mango slicers, sexual partners, tennis rackets, guided missiles and anything else they could even imagine needing.
One can only wish this side of the story were better known. But luckily, as another hallmark of the Digital Age, virtual libraries of information, ranging from classic works of literature to complete economic treatises to the latest scientific research, is freely available to anyone with access to a computer and Internet. Many top universities now offer free online courses taught by renowned professors. Education and self-edification have never been easier.
Building upon the work of Matt Ridley, the Cato Institute project, HumanProgress.org, is another great resource that documents improvements in human well-being and advancements in technological and scientific progress that make the world an increasingly better place to live. This multi-disciplinary endeavor brings together a wide array of evidence from academic institutions and international organizations that shows positive trends in numerous categories.
Consider the following:
- War is increasingly rare and less deadly.
- Rape and homicide have been on the continual decline and are presently at historic lows.
- Capital punishment is being used by fewer and fewer states.
Increased tolerance & equality:
As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year with our family and friends, we have much to be thankful for. Earlier this week, I purchased $4.99 rotisserie chicken from Costco. I couldn’t help but feel grateful and marvel that what I do for granted is possible only under globalization and the twenty-first century market economy. For most of human history, obtaining enough food just to barely survive was the primary aim of everyday life for many people. Life was, as described by Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, and short.” But thanks to the adoption of specialization and exchange, the massive boost provided by the Industrial Revolution, and the widespread embrace of Enlightenment ideals, the course of human civilization was forever altered in a direction that brought liberation and allowed people reach their full potential.
Yes, sailing was not smooth in the past two centuries. Liberalism declined, statism resurged, two world wars were fought, democide and many other unspeakable atrocities were carried out by totalitarian regimes. Their enduring consequences still pose many challenges for us today. Obviously, there still remains much more to be accomplished.
But in our short time on Earth, we humans learned to master nature, overcame the worst tyrannies, and generated wealth and prosperity beyond our ancestors’ imagination. Our species is resilient, resourceful, and innovative. I, too, consider myself a rational optimist and hold high hopes for human civilization in building a bright future.