Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
On occasions I’m guilty of spreading a message that everything is a mess - the human race is heading to hell in a handcart. It’s a position that's fed by myopic observation of all that’s going wrong. Heaping weight is a 24-hour news feed, with its looping coverage of death, disaster, war and mayhem.
Digesting all that suffering can overwhelm even the most robust individual. Thus, it’s refreshing to hear the words of Steven Pinker, the Harvard scientist. Pinker is one of the public intellectuals helping us to think about the future.
In his new book, Enlightenment Now, Pinker asserts that despite what the news tells us, by every measure humans are better off than ever. Our well-being and safety are higher than at any previous point in history. And he has plenty of data to support this argument.
Sifting through it all, certain facts jump out at you. Life expectancy is increasing across all countries and cultures. Even in Africa, which lags the developed regions, average life-expectancy has risen from 40 in 1960 to 70 years. Research indicates that by 2045, the world average life-expectancy will be around 75 years. In 1960, it was 45 years. That’s a stunning improvement.
Better medical care, plus the sharing of facts on hygiene pushed up childbirth survival rates. Add to that the decline in extreme poverty, while undernourishment is also dropping. All of which creates a healthier population, with less premature death.
Never underestimate the impact of global programmes to prevent common infectious diseases. With illnesses contained or eradicated, societies free-up human capital for development. This is a self-perpetuating process. One consequence is that literacy rates have exploded; 36% could read and write in 1950. Today that figure is climbing towards 90%. With that progress comes a multitude of benefits as knowledge spreads.
One comfort is the education of women, who can then take control of their reproductive cycle. Removed from being broodmares, girls stabilise societies by bringing population growth under control. Look at Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Birth rates continue to fall despite incentives and initiatives from well-meaning governments.
Today, we are about 7 billion people. The experts reckon the human population will peak at about 9 to 10 billion in 2050. Then it will likely go into decline. Statistician Jorgen Randers argues it may happen sooner. His projections take into account the downward impact of urbanisation on fertility. Randers predicts a peak in the population in the early 2040s at about 8.1 billion people. Then a rapid decline, as ladies stop having children. It's happening already in many modern countries.
It's probable that we can feed 9 billion people with our modern system of agriculture. Then, as the population levels out, the pressure to produce food and use resources reduce. In turn, this provides relief for the environment. We know that as people prosper, they place more emphasis on ‘quality of life’ issues. That has a notable impact on policy.
Scientists identified this phenomenon some time ago in the 1950s. The Kuznets Curve, named after Simon Kuznets, addresses the idea. It indicates that market forces first increase and then decrease economic inequality. In environmental terms, Kuznets’s ideas point towards deterioration in pollution. Then we reach a tipping point. After that as per capita income increases, the pollution gets less.
China displays this effect. As the country modernised, the people accepted smog as a consequence of industrialisation. Now they clamour for the clean-up, with the government responding to these demands. Polluting industries are closed, with new technology deployed to mitigate any environmental impact. In short, a middle-class is emerging, that wants clean air and water.
The world is also a much less violent place. In broad-terms crime is down. Murder rates have fallen for decades and continue on a downward trend. Domestic violence and child abuse are declining in the West. At the same time, since the 1960s, deaths in war have plunged by a factor of 20. Further, the conflicts that do take place are less deadly.
In the 1950s, the average number of war deaths was around 86,000 annually. Today that figure is about 5,000. Better trauma care is a factor, but also the lack of prolonged ‘slog it out’ engagements.
The big question, though, is what does science have to say about how we structure our societies. What is the optimal model, if any? Is there a system that provides a significant opportunity for humans to flourish? Pinker has something to say on this, although his assertions come with some caveats. There are many studies of these issues. The control groups are well-known; East and West Germany, North and South Korea, and Chile and Venezuela.
The evidence points towards market economies giving opportunities for the majority to prosper. But, regulation of these markets is crucial, to create a level playing field. Then you add a social safety net. This will catch those that fall by the wayside, care for them and then - hopefully- return them to a productive life.
As societies become affluent, it’s the norm that more money gets diverted to social spending. This includes caring for the young and old folks. Likewise, the people expand their thoughts in time and space, to contemplate long-term issues. Hence, the drive to tackle pollution.
Pinker also concludes that top-down authoritarian regimes produce poor long-term outcomes. I guess most of us recognize that. The lack of checks and balances, with power focused in a small clique, produces disparity. This can take the form of economic and social injustice. Such regimes collapse, although when and how remains hard to predict. For example, no one saw the collapse of the Soviet Union coming nor its rapidity. Making such predictions is fraught with uncertainty.
The thinkers amongst us (no, I’m not claiming that title) appear optimistic. If we can survive the next few decades, the long-term prospects look good.
And so, while all our data indicates improved human well-being, we can’t be complacent. We still keep the ability to wipe ourselves out. Nuclear weapons present the most significant controllable threat. Climate change will also have an impact, yet we can likely ride that out. A pandemic could wipe out a good number of us. Despite that, it's unlikely to bring about the extinction of the species.
Nuclear weapons wouldn’t kill us all in the first blinding blast. No, the demise would creep-in as a nuclear winter blocked the sun, cutting off our food supplies. Depending on how long the dust lingered in the atmosphere, we’d struggle to cling on.
Having said that, it’s encouraging that we have some control. Get the nukes out the equation, and our chances as a species look about even.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.