If Things are Getting Better, What’s the Problem?

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Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

While most people are pretty sure things are going to hell in a hand basket the planetary statistics show the opposite. In America there is great argument over which hand basket we’re going in and, for that matter, which hell we’re going to. The most inaccurate of these visions is the smallest but most vicious centered around Trump and the Congressional wingnuts who have denounced all fact and manufacture disasters in the hope of making them real. For the majority the existence of Trump and his wingnuts is a verifiable hell that could actually destroy us all. While the first group lives totally in the land of mythology and evil bullshit, the much larger group risks depression in forgetfulness on how far we have already come. But, we seem to have already moved past the point where the purveyors of fear and hatred can fool enough people to keep gaining traction. And even if America is lost to neofascism, much of the rest of the world sees the promise now with youth and education that they will build Earth 2 anyway.

But the reality is that health, wealth, diet, and education have been improving at an increasing rate while violence in wars, crime and self destruction have been going down at the same rate. The vast improvements in diet and education combined with increases, now at explosive rates, in information and mental stimulation have produced an average 30 point increase in IQ over the last 100 years. Yes, we are now able to use more of our innate, evolutionary potential than at any point in the past. This is the topic of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. He has the statistical charts and detail to prove his point although the totality of the link to the 18th century Enlightenment tradition is, perhaps, over stated. We have the tools but we need to refine them.

Even our biggest problems, climate change as the largest and most dangerous, has understandable and achievable fixes that can ultimately solve that complex package of problems. There is a range of transformative solutions evolving spontaneously to correct our long lingering social problems in asset distribution, public welfare, sustainability, political systems, bigotry, and economics. Yet brutality, oppression, willful ignorance, and active stupidity are seen to be on the rise specifically in the sudden resurgence of neofascist demagoguery manipulating the old levers of fear, lies, and ignorance. Fortunately these ancient tricks now only work on a clear minority of the population in most industrial and post-industrial countries. But these are very visible and are able to play on the weak points of our societies, i.e. racism and ethnic bigotry linked by religion. Brexit and Trump are the biggest symptoms of this disease. From the larger historical and statistical perspective these are localized cases of an old nasty virus rather than some new critical malady.

But large elements of the 18th century intellectual system are obviously very long in the tooth. As with so many of our traditional aphorisms a century or two of modern dental hygiene and medicine has reduced the loss of teeth in old age because of gum disease that the expression is not that helpful anymore. Small ironies such as this make up the mass of the paradigmatic change that we face.

We’re in that difficult point in time when we have actually topped the hill and are startling to pick up speed to a much better future but we’re being held back by some nasty assholes. We will always have some nasty assholes because the old power tricks are hard to kill. But I honestly don’t think they can slow us down much on a planetary level. And that is part of the problem as too many people are caught the past. And that is part of Pinker’s problem with Enlightenment Now. Pinker is not an historian and so is willing to make broad sweeping generalizations about the 18th century principles that, incidentally, produced the American Revolution. Good stuff then but it’s very much like using a child’s violin when you you have already grown up. The scale is wrong and the potential is missing.

The concepts of economic and world organization on a planet with a population of only 720 million with cities as an exception is not how we live. It’s sometimes nice to have comfort history but not at this point. As David Wooton noted in his review of Pinker’s book, the concept of statistics and the way of using them to define the world was very much a product of the 19th century. That is probably not the way we need to see the world to move to the next stage.

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