In Towards Heaven or Hell I presented my perspective on the direction our civilization is heading. Despite the current chaos and despite all the threats to humanity, my conclusion was that whatever we have today is better than we had in the past and yet tomorrow will be better still. Given the very obvious challenges confronting us this optimistic view is counter-intuitive and many do not share my view. Yet I have found one, a most articulate one in Matt Ridley. In his 2013 Kemp memorial lecture, he covers all the reasons why civilisation feels threatened, yet offers strong, compelling reasons why we should be optimistic. So much so that you should not read the rest of this post but simply watch this video.
The 30 minutes is well worthwhile. If you don't have the time here are some snippets from his presentation.
We are much better off today than at any other time in history
- In 1800 the living standard of the average Brit was about that of someone in Mozambique today. People died of starvation and disease by the 10's of thousands every winter.
- In 1800 you had to work 6 hours on the average wage to buy a candle that would burn for an hour, today you have to work for less than 1/2 second to earn the money to switch on a lamp for an hour.
- Over the last 40 years life expectancy has increased by 1/3 and child mortality has fallen by 2/3 globally, income per head has trebled in real terms.
- Both the rate of poverty and the number of people in poverty is falling at a higher rate than at any other time in history.
- We are not only healthier and wealthier than ever before, but we are happier, safer, cleverer, cleaner, better fed, kinder, freer, more peaceful & more equal. Life satisfaction increases with wealth both within and between countries.
- Death rates from storm, floods and droughts have fallen by 98% since the 1920s.
- IQ is increasing in most countries and so is participation in education.
- Air and water pollution are dramatically reduced in wealthier countries. A modern car emits less pollution at 70 mph than a parked car, with the engine off, in 1970, because of leaks from the fuel tank.
- People are giving more to charity as a proportion of income than ever before.
- More people live in democracies than under autocracies than ever before.
- Fewer people died in warfare in the first decade of this century than any other decade since the early 1940's.
- People in poor countries are getting rich much faster than the rate at which people in rich countries are getting rich. This is closing the gap between global gaps between the rich and poor.
The future always looks bleak
Riddley recounts the range of threats to civilization he lived through in the 1970s, including ; -
- population explosion was unstoppable
- mass famine was imminent
- a cancer epidemic from chemicals in the environment was going to shorten lifespan
- the Sahara was advancing at a mile per year
- the ice age was returning
- oil was running out
- air pollution was choking us
- and a nuclear winter would destroy life on earth
It always looks bleak but doesn't turn out that way
"As Lord Macaulay put it, “in every age everybody knows that up to his own time, progressive improvement has been taking place; nobody seems to reckon on any improvement in the next generation. We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who say society has reached a turning point – that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us and with just as much apparent reason.
“On what principle is it that with nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”
The only reasonable conclusion is that the current positive trends in our collective quality of life will continue. We have good reason to remain optimistic about the future.