It’s painfully uncommon to receive any good news regarding the prospects of humanity and the future of the world. On the contrary, most of what crops out of media reports and scientific research seems to validate our increasingly intuitive pessimism concerning the profoundly troubling and unprecedentedly difficult times ahead of us. As an (albeit cautious) optimist, I cannot accept such a grim narrative so readily, not when the human race has come so far in terms of poverty alleviation, disease eradication, technological development, and other accomplishments that have made our lives – broadly speaking – better.
So I was quite pleased to find the work of another scientist who shares my inclination towards emphasizing the sadly understated achievements that humanity has made. Like me, Hans Rosling is someone who is well aware of the horrific misery and suffering that sill befalls most people in the world (indeed, unlike myself, he’s actually gained first hand experience through working in some of the most destitute and blighted parts of the world); but like me – and I hope many of you – he nonetheless can appreciate the immense progress that has been made in improving the human condition at a level never before achieved in our history. Best of all, he has scientific evidence, as opposed to woolly feel-good thinking, to prove it.
Of course, this isn’t to say that the world is best as it could be, or that we should be content and complacent with where currently are. Tremendous amounts of people are still living in terrible conditions, and this study doesn’t necessarily address how certain political, ideological, and religious factors also play a role in stagnating human development and well-being (although it’s interesting to note how many people living authoritarian, dogmatic, and otherwise “backward” parts of the world are still nonetheless living better than they did before, albeit relatively speaking and compared to a very low base).
The point of the study is to simply highlight something I’ve been at pains to convey to most of my (understandably) cautious peers: that in spite of all the vices, social ills, and existential threats that remain a great stain on our existence, we’re improving and developing at a rate and level that is as unprecedented as the problems we still face. Progress is not linear or unambiguous; we can stagnate in some ways and thrive in others. Ultimately, we have the potential to go both ways: to destroy ourselves and our planet, or to continue to grow and move forward. We’re at a point in time like no other with respect to prospects that can be disastrous or transcendently progressive. However grim the state of the world is, and could very well be (especially with respect to sustainability and the environment), we mustn’t ignore how far we’ve come.
To me, it not only reveals our potential for improvement, but most importantly it validates us as a species. Maybe we’re not so primal, primitive, and selfish as we believe. The more we improve the lot of ourselves, our fellow humans, and the world we live in, the more we can overcome the negative aspects of our nature that are so disproportionately focused upon.