Is The World Getting Better?

My last post highlighted the philosopher Max More’s views that life is getting better. Today I will discuss several readers’ thoughtful comments and then express my thoughts.

(You can view these readers’ full comments in the comment section of the previous post.)

Lyle T wrote “While Mr. More is correct regarding most specifics, I think the conclusions he draws are misguided …” For example, More is right that air quality has improved but that is mostly because of government regulation, something More opposes. Furthermore, much societal progress has brought about environmental destruction. Lyle thinks we need to learn to live with less.

Chris Crawford agrees “that people fail to recognize the enormous improvements we have enjoyed.” But no matter how many metrics show progress we cannot know that these trends will continue in the future. Furthermore, Crawford fears “that we will reach a point where the progress of technology will outpace the progress of our ability to keep it safe.” Thus he concludes that “civilization will destroy itself before the end of this century.”

Ed Gibney’s critique is direct. “This is entirely human-centered. The dread comes from looking at what all this human prosperity is doing to the rest of the planet, which is certain to haunt us as well. Until the techno-optimist people engage with the Planetary Boundaries literature they will stay stuck in a dangerous fantasy.

Bruce Watson is receptive to the progress message. “I have given up trying to convince people that life is better now. I believe most people somehow feel better by feeling worse about the world. If the world “sucks now,” you are freed of responsibility, justified in your own disappointments, and in good company among fellow depressives. That is why news is more negative — because negativity sells.”

My Brief Thoughts

I agree with the critics that 1)much of what we call progress has destroyed the ecosystem, and 2)progress in the past is no guarantee of future progress.

A further critique of optimism about the future is the many existential risks we face. No matter how much progress we have made previously there are many ways humanity might go extinct shortly. (I have previously discussed, for example, the recent UN report on the destruction of the ecosystem, and Jared Diamond’s and Bill McKibbon’s worries about whether the human race will survive our current crises.) Things may be going along just fine and then … it can all be over. This is the best time to live—no doubt—but that says little about whether the future will be better.

Nonetheless, I am sympathetic with Mr. Watson’s view. I’ve often found gloom and doom to be the preferred sentiment of both intellectuals and regular folks. Such an attitude can be helpful if meant to awaken us to the many dangers we face, but it is counterproductive if it leads to despair or apathy.

What I do believe fervently is that, for better or worse, science and technology are the only means by which we might have a better future—we must evolve. So, for the moment I still believe in the transhumanist credo. Transhumanism is:

The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities … transhumanism is a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase.1

However, I may be mistaken, and perhaps humanity will become more morally and intellectually virtuous by less drastic means. Or even if the successful advance of science and technology is the key to our future survival and flourishing it may be that we will destroy ourselves first. I simply do not know how best to proceed into the future or if we will even have one. (Niels Bohr, the Nobel laureate in Physics and father of the atomic model, is quoted as saying, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future!”)

I simply don’t know the future, and I don’t know how best to proceed into it.

But I certainly prefer to live in the present time compared with any time in the past, and I hope that future beings will say the same.

________________________________________________________________________

1. from the Humanity+ website’s FAQ section.

I just became aware of “Despite Climate Change, Today Is the Best Time To Be Born” and “Stop Telling Kids They’ll Die From Climate Change.”

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5 thoughts on “Is The World Getting Better?

  1. Thanks for mostly agreeing with me. Now we need to work on the media, which was my career. Mainstream pubs seem to think they can scare us into action. Simply pile on the jeremiads and people will rise up, change the paradigm, save the planet. How’s that working for y’all? My take: it’s not. The relentless gloom is breeding more complacency than action and you’re far more likely to meet people who think it’s “too late” than people who are working for change. Which is why I’m am DONE with the gloom. Tell us what works.

    https://reasonstobecheerful.world

  2. Diamond’s books are important and I have only read though COLLAPSE. They framed much of what I have written on contextual reality and interests, motives and preferences.
    I don’t know why this took so long, save perhaps, no one wanted to read it, due to a lack of responsive consciousness—which goes back to those IMPs I have harped on. Connections are important too. Diamond got it.

  3. Thanks for gathering these comments together (including mine) and briefly replying to them. They elicited another idea from me as I was reading this. During my MBA studies, we essentially were trained to *optimize* the operations of organizations. Remove all the fat, redundancies, waste, and poor processes. All this rationalization makes things run better. And this is certainly what we have done to human culture as well. But (!) this also makes things more fragile. In the business world, this shows up when hiccups happen (think of the supply chain problems during Covid) and there is no extra inventory (aka “waste”) sitting around to fill in the temporary gaps. If things get optimized too much, these organizations become extremely fragile and collapse with problems that no one would have realized ahead of time would be strong enough to cause this. Bankruptcies come on very quickly when cash flow and investment are optimized too much. And, by the way, this is a common problem in environments characterized by higher and higher levels of competition. You are forced to “optimize” to stay alive in the short term. But at the cost of being robust for the long term.

    In just the same way, we are removing “redundancy” and “waste” from the ecological systems of the world. This is extremely dangerous! Things feel better in the moment, but as Nassim Taleb wrote about in The Black Swan, this leaves us very vulnerable to “low probability but highly destructive” events. Many of us see this fragility in society and are worried. The techno-optimists are ignoring the long history of things going bust.

    I will say that I agree with you that technology and rational improvements are the way out of this. We can decide to be more robust rather than more fragile. It requires more cooperation and limits on competition. But until I hear techno-optimists start using that language, I’m going to be very worried about the kind of progress they think is happening. One is short term and very dangerous.

    This reminds me of another lesson I learned from change management theory. Think of a 2×2 matrix with one axis being if things are being done “well” or “poorly”. The other access is if things are going in the “right” or “wrong” direction. The best situation in this 2×2 matrix is obviously to be in the quadrant where things are going “well” in the “right” direction. But, the worst outcome is surprising. It’s going in the “wrong” direction, but doing things “well”! This is basically running towards the cliff. It’s falling faster and faster and thinking “this is great! we’re moving so quickly!”

    Which box are we in?

  4. I think we need to qualify “better”. I will spin a yarn; tell a short story. Someone I love was dying from alcohol, over a dozen years ago. Liver disease. The dreaded *C* word. She received a portosystemic shunt, placed in her liver, and survived. The procedure is radical, with no real guarantees. Things went well, BUT, complacency overcame fear and she kept drinking. Now, she is back in hospital…they are fighting for her life…because she would not forego alcohol. Her life hangs in the balance. So, is it better that she is alive now? Certainly! She is a caring, loving person, cared for and loved by others. Including moi. Better medical knowledge allowed this. She may live—maybe. *better* depends on how we use it…or fail to do so.

  5. “I simply don’t know the future, and I don’t know how best to proceed into it.”
    Our host, Dr. John Messerly

    I also don’t know the future of course, but i will proceed into it one day at a time, hoping for the best and generally doing my best, as we all will, we have no choice either we die today or we live tomorrow!
    Man is an evolutionary creature, we can see the record of our physical evolution when we examine the Zygote it seems to mimic the various physical forms we have taken since we began our journey probably billions of years ago.
    We are now the creature whom we have named Homo Sapiens, there is a model of a bare footed humanoid figure in the British Museum called Lucy which represents the first human who, supposedly appeared less than three million years ago. A creature with opposable thumbs and a brain that could make inferences from observable events, and so we started our journey from making fire to making the atomic bomb.

    Motivation determines action, what is the underlying motivation of modern man?, keeping in mind that we all play different roles on the stage, and the props that are attached to our roles determine the scope of our possible actions, (I doubt if any of us, who visit Dr. John, could plausibly contemplate dropping an Atomic Bomb on anybody, but there are people whose roles and the props attached to their roles, allow them to consider this action)!
    There is always action and reaction, In the latest center stage drama one player with their props has said; We have won, history has ended, if you try to rise we will crush you, this motivates the other party to resist, the party that has declared victory, having won already, is mainly concerned with distributing the spoils, the resistance is very focused on their goal of not being conquered, so they adopt a counter philosophy, their message to those they would ally with is; We want you to be rich so that you can buy from us, that way we both can have the good life. A seductive message to the poor!

    So here we are eleven or twelve thousand years into the present warming period between the ice ages, this one we have named the Holocene, what is our future? Well we have to hope for the best!

    Many things that seem to be good things sometimes aren’t, for instance the falling child mortality rate. Now, because of the falling rates many people who would have been selected out of the gene pool are reproducing and the race is being weakened, all of you can see that as you walk among the crowd, it hasn’t reached your group, yet! But it is probably coming!

    I think Ed Gibney is thinking in the right direction, fads come and go, things work well for a while, and then they don’t, constant change requires constant invention. The desire to place machines in charge of life is a symptom of the longing for (‘The end of History’ with us in charge) as expressed by Francis Fukuyama at the end of the cold war, I think that there will never be an end to History but eventually the human species will join the extinct!

    All the best to all of you, thank you Dr. John for allowing me a voice on the forum!

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