Why the World Isn’t Going to the Dogs (A prologue to a book yet to be written)

“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction.” – Woody Allen

Let me begin with a simple question: which of the following statements is correct?

(1) There is a tremendous amount of misery in the world.

(2) Never before has there been so little misery in the world as today.

OK, I admit, it was a trick question, because it presents a false dilemma. Not, as some may think, because the truth lies somewhere in between, but because both statements are in fact equally true. Let’s start with the first. It is certainly undeniable that there is a tremendous amount of suffering and misery in the world. Just open the newspaper or switch on the TV, and you’ll be overwhelmed with stories of war, genocide, epidemics, famine, terrorism, natural disasters, pollution, species becoming extinct, depression and suicide, rape, racism, child abuse, drug addiction, obesity, strikes, choice anxiety, bad books, internet trolls and traffic jams (in approximate order of decreasing horribleness). The author of Psalm 84 figured it out a long time ago: the world is a ‘vale of tears’. Now, the second statement might be met with more scepticism and even incredulity. But I’m going to stick my neck out and say that it’s at least as accurate as the first. No matter how much misery there is to be found in the world, there is vastly less of it today than ever before in history, by any standard of measurement. This is primarily the case for rich Western countries, but it is also gradually becoming true for the rest of the world.

For the great majority of our ancestors, life on earth was best summarized by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ famous list of adjectives: ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. Our present streak of good fortune, moreover, is quite recent. Pick any time or period before 1800. Would you like to have lived then rather than now? Not if you have an ounce of sense. For most measures of human well-being, progress has only really begun since 1800, and has only really picked up speed in the past five decades. Even the life of our grandparents, a mere two generations ago, was substantially shorter, poorer, and more brutish than what we are accustomed to. Indeed, on December 31 of almost any year since the end of the Second World War, you could have said with good justification: “This was the best year ever. Never before have so many people lived such long, healthy, free, prosperous and peaceful lives.”

OK, so how about this year? I must admit that, on December 31, 2020, a declaration like the one above could ring somewhat hollow. For the first time in decades, something has dramatically halted the seemingly inexorable march of progress. Not only has COVID-19 killed hundreds of thousands of people and permanently damaged the health of an unknown number of others, but it is also threatening to undo decades of hard-won progress against poverty and disease. Because of the worldwide economic recession, hundreds of millions of people will fall below the threshold of extreme poverty again, from which many of them had only just escaped. Millions of children are at risk of contracting deadly diseases like measles, polio and tetanus, because the pandemic has disrupted vaccination campaigns across the world. We do not know yet the full extent of the damage caused by the coronavirus, but we can be pretty confident that 2020 will not be the best year on record. That a tiny fragment of RNA can wreak so much havoc in so little time is both a reminder of how much we have already accomplished, and how much we stand to lose.

Progress is not a question of faith

The words ‘progress’ and ‘faith’ are often mentioned in the same breath. Many people regard the idea of progress as an unproven assumption at best, if not a quasi-religious dogma lacking any reasonable foundation. In fact, the analogy between belief in progress and religious faith is so commonplace  that one could easily fill an entire book with quotations to that effect. I’ll mention just two notable examples. The British philosopher John Gray has dismissed progress as little more than a ‘superstition’. Sure, we should be grateful for ‘flush toilets’ and ‘anaesthetic dentistry’, he admits, but apart from these and a few other technological innovations, the lot of humanity has hardly improved at all. Meanwhile, according to the Dutch historian Bas van Bavel, belief in human progress is a legacy of Christian ‘eschatology’ (that is, a belief that the “end times” are coming).

I beg to differ. Progress is, first and foremost, a matter of observable facts. It’s quite simple: you compare the present with the past, on some measure of human flourishing, and you figure out which looks better. Take poverty. You don’t need a ‘leap of faith’ to believe that until two centuries ago 90 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty, whereas nowadays less than 10 percent do; you can just look at data collected by economic historians and the World Bank. Likewise, if you believe that global life expectancy has hovered around 30 years for most of human history, but is above 70 today, that is not a sign of “superstition” or “eschatological faith”. It’s a demonstrable fact, supported by truckloads of evidence.

Now, there are some people who argue that these improvements are a matter of historical necessity, as if humanity is constantly being swept up by the waves of history to ever greater heights. For instance, according to philosophers such as Hegel or Marx, human history unfolds in accordance to certain “dialectical schemas” which, as a matter of necessity, will culminate in a predestined endpoint, a state of perfect bliss and harmony for all. Some even speculate that life itself, or even the entire universe, is animated by some mystical force or Providence, relentlessly moving towards higher order and complexity. If that’s what you mean by ‘progress’, I‘ll join the ranks of the skeptics right away, for this is indeed an irrational dogma without a shred of evidence. Moreover, such quasi-religious faith in ineluctable historical laws is far from harmless, as witnessed by the deadly catastrophes of communism in the past century. Neither human civilization, nor life on earth, let alone the universe as a whole, is subject to mystical upward-driving forces. If anything, the opposite is true. Since the discovery of the laws of thermodynamics in the nineteenth century, physicists have known that disorder (entropy) is increasing inexorably across the universe, and there is nothing we can do about it. Progress as we know it, and indeed life itself, is a very special and local exception defying (though not violating) the law of rising entropy.

Burning like wildfire

If progress was driven by some sort of law of nature, we would expect it to proceed in a linear fashion, or at least to observe some logical pattern or other. But this is not what we see at all. If you plot human life expectancy over time, for instance, you’ll see an uneventful and mostly flat line for hundreds of thousands of years, with only minor blips or troughs caused by some deadly war or epidemic, until you reach the 19th century. Then suddenly the curve starts to rise, first in Western Europe, then also in the rest of the world. Many other measures of human welfare, such as GDP per capita or political freedom, follow a similar pattern. Millennium after millennium, there is hardly any sustained progress at all, only some minor upswings and downswings. But then when you approach the present day, the good curves start climbing, while the bad curves representing misery and suffering (murders, famines, deaths through natural disasters) make dramatic downward turns.

So what explains this unprecedented and sudden outburst of progress? At bottom, the answer lies in a set of ideas that flared up multiple times in history, in different epochs and in different places, but always petering out again, until finally, in one particular environment—namely, Western Europe around the beginning of the eighteenth century—the flame received a sufficient amount of oxygen to burst out and then spread like wildfire across the planet. This set of ideas is best summarized as ‘the Enlightenment’. In my view, this intellectual conflagration was not destined to be. It could have happened earlier and elsewhere, or later, or not never at all.

It all started out with the scientific revolution of a century earlier, led by thinkers such as Galileo, Boyle and Kepler. For science, as the Austrian author Stefan Zweig wrote in The World of Yesterday, is ‘the archangel of progress’. Boiled down to its essence, the secret recipe of science – which was later adopted and extended by Enlightenment thinkers – is deceptively simple and yet incredibly powerful. First, acknowledge that you are ignorant and fallible. Next, discard all superstitions, dogmas and traditional authorities. Now try to come up with novel ideas and hypotheses, and test them against both reality and the criticism of others. Retain whatever works and discard the rest. Now use your best, most sternly-tested ideas to make changes to the world and improve our human condition. Finally, don’t presume that you are now in possession of the Final Truth, but start the cycle all over again.

In my view, this is the secret recipe to our story of progress: an endless competition of ideas in an open and free arena, over and over again. If you apply this recipe to study the cosmos, you end up with science. If you harness it to organize human society, you end up with liberal democracy. And if you use it discover the most efficient ways of fulfilling human needs and desires, you end up with a free-market economy.

Going to the dogs?

If it’s really true that now (or, perhaps, last year) is the best time to be alive, then you and I are incredibly lucky people. As I already mentioned above, however, progress is not a law of nature, and nothing guarantees that it will continue indefinitely. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic is a most dramatic illustration of this. The fact that worldwide poverty had been declining for more than 30 years in a row doesn’t guarantee that it will continue to decline in the next one. So the question naturally arises: what if we run out of luck? Will worse catastrophes than COVID-19 befall us in the future? Indeed, doesn’t pride always precede a fall? And soon other nagging doubts may crop up: what if all those spiffy upward-pointing graphs (of life, health and riches) are hiding stagnation or decline elsewhere, perhaps where it “truly” matters? And shouldn’t we pause to reflect on the dark side of progress, the pitfalls and nasty side-effects?

Even before the COVID-19 crisis engulfed the world, many people felt that progress had halted, or even gone into reverse, for quite a while. If you were to line up all of the recent books with titles containing words such as ‘end’, ‘crisis’, ‘demise’, ‘decay’ and ‘downfall’, you could easily fill an entire bookcase. Here’s one warning about the last days of capitalism, another foretelling the end of the post-war peace, then there’s the ‘downfall of the occident’, the end of the welfare state, the swan song of Europe, the waning of liberal democracy, the slow destruction of the environment, or – why not? – the extinction of our species, and the annihilation of our planet.

So, is the world going to hell in a handbasket? In this book, I will try to convince you that there are no good reasons for thinking so, if we manage to keep our cool and tackle our problems using the time-tested recipe of self-correction through reason and evidence I described above. Not only that, but the conviction that the world is going to hell in a handbasket is actually harmful, since it can breed fatalism and cynicism or, alternatively, inspire desperate “cures” that are worse than the disease. Naturally, it would be impossible for anyone to discuss, let alone put to rest, every conceivable reason for pessimism in a single book. Indeed, I believe that it is impossible to assuage all doubts and worries, since no-one can absolutely guarantee that no terrible disaster will befall us at some point in the future. But that does not mean that such scenarios are plausible, or that we can do nothing to prevent them. In the pages that follow, I have tried to cast a wide net. A variety of dystopias and disasters will be examined, from warnings of climate catastrophe to fears about radical Islam taking over the West, from worries about soaring inequality and ineradicable racism to gloomy pronouncements about the incurable misery of modern man.

By comparing various possible catastrophes and pitting them against each other, I believe the blind spots of pessimists become more apparent. For not everyone is worried about the same things, and what keeps one person awake at night will leave another completely indifferent. Doomsday thinkers hear the trumpet of their own predicted apocalypse, yet remain deaf to that of another. In fact, sometimes one group of pessimists sees the other as the existential threat we should all worry about. A good example is the overheated public debate about Islam in Europe. At one end of the spectrum, we have far-right politicians and pundits who proclaim that the religion of Mohammed is the “new fascism” that is about to engulf and destroy our civilization. At the other end, we find religious apologists like Karen Armstrong who warn that the first group of people are stigmatizing Muslims in the same way that the Nazis demonized the Jews, and form a serious threat to our liberal democracy. In short, both sides of the debate agree wholeheartedly that we are back in the 1930s;  now it’s just a matter of deciding who the real Brownshirts are.

A taxonomy of pessimism

Looking beyond their specific concerns, I think it is possible to identify four prototypical schools of pessimism. Each has a different take on the course of human history, but all share a general scepticism about the notion of progress. Thinking in terms of these four basic types is useful because it highlights non-obvious connections between pessimists of very different ideological stripes, and allows us to better understand the shortcomings and pitfalls of each type.

The first school of thought is nostalgic pessimism. This is the type of pessimist who likes to reminisce about “the good old days”, when everything was better than today. Where once the world was wholesome and beautiful, now everything has gone to ruin. Different nostalgic thinkers locate their favourite Golden Age in different historical periods. Some yearn for a past that they were lucky enough to have lived through in their youth, while others locate utopia at a point farther back in time, such as the belle époque before the two World Wars, or the simple agrarian life and closely-knit communities of the Middle Ages, or perhaps the distant past of our hunter-gatherer ancestors who lived “in harmony with nature”.

In contrast to the nostalgic pessimists, the disciples of the second school are prepared to acknowledge that the world is much better than it used to be. But, they maintain, this cannot possibly last. The hubris of modern man, with his naïve belief in progress, must be punished sooner or later. I call this the “Just You Wait” school of pessimism. For now, everything seems to be going smoothly, but soon we will cross some critical threshold, after which we’ll plunge inexorably into the abyss. Pessimists of this school often suffer from what the writer Matt Ridley has dubbed “turning-point-itis” — the tendency to believe that history has reached a decisive moment and we just happen to be living right in the middle of it. 

The third school of thinking is that of the cyclical pessimists. These thinkers agree that things are going pretty well at the moment, but then point out that such a streak of good fortune is hardly unprecedented in history. Humankind has experienced periods of relative prosperity and peace before, but all have come to an end sooner or later. The course of history, for the cyclical pessimist, comes and goes like the tides or the seasons. If we seem to be doing pretty well at the moment, that’s just a temporary upswing, the flow before the ebb. The prototypical cyclical pessimist was the German historian Oswald Spengler. In his notorious book The Decline of the West, Spengler described civilizations as living organisms which grow, reach adulthood, and then wither away, just like animals and plants. According to Spengler, the lifespan of the average civilization is a few thousand years, and ours was just reaching its winter time, the final stage before its inevitable collapse. (By the way, Spengler wrote his book more than a century ago.)

The fourth and final type of pessimism is characterized by treadmill thinking. This school accepts the reality of some objective measures of progress (more wealth, less violence, longer and healthier lives), but maintains that—despite everything we have accomplished—our condition hasn’t really improved in the domains that truly matter. Like Alice and the Red Queen in Alice Through the Looking-Glass, we have been running ourselves ragged only to find, when we take a deep breath and look around, that we are still in the same place where we started, with one evil having simply been replaced by another of equal severity, and the condition humaine remaining unchanged despite superficial improvements. Perhaps the best-known example of treadmill thinking is the Easterlin paradox, named after the economist Richard Easterlin. According to this theory from the 1970s (which has been mostly discredited by a wealth of more recent studies), despite the enormous increases in material well-being and prosperity, levels of happiness in western societies have remained more or less flat for decades.

In practice, it may sometimes be hard to distinguish between these different schools. A pessimist may believe that society has been going downhill for some time (nostalgic pessimism), and yet maintain that the real catastrophe is still on the horizon (‘Just you wait’). Cyclical pessimism and ‘Just you wait’ pessimism may also blur into each other, since both predict a regression or decline after a period of progress. The difference is a matter of degree; in particular, the ‘Just you wait’ thinkers believe that the process of decline will be more spectacular and abrupt. If you listen closely to pessimists, sometimes it seems as if they haven’t really made up their mind as to which school they belong to. Are we teetering on the brink of the abyss in the year 2020, or have we already plunged into it some while ago? Some pessimists will vacillate between both positions, for the simple reason that their thinking is not terribly coherent (and, perhaps, because it’s always a good rhetorical move to hedge your bets). Nevertheless, I find this taxonomy helpful and worth keeping in mind.

Outline of the book

In recent years, a number of books by authors like Johan Norberg, Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley and Hans Rosling have documented the tremendous progress achieved by our species over the last two centuries. But if these optimists are right about the facts, why are so many people convinced that the world is going to the dogs? How come pessimists and doomsayers find such receptive audiences? In the first chapter, I will present three laws of modern pessimism, which reflect some of the foibles of the human brain as well as some fundamental facts about how we gather and process information. Moreover, as I will show, pessimism always sounds so much smarter and more profound than optimism.

Chapter 2 deals with about moral progress, in particular the fight against racism and the struggle towards equality for all humankind. Racism, I will argue, is not innate but acquired. This is good news because it means we can also unlearn it. Despite what some overzealous activists have claimed, the last decades have witnessed a spectacular decline of racism in virtually all of its forms and expressions. If we can manage to not let up in this battle, racism will all but disappear in the foreseeable future.

In chapter 3, I will discuss the widespread anxiety that our society is being ripped apart by ever-growing inequality. Supporters of this argument admit that collectively we are much richer than our ancestors, but they worry that this wealth is distributed very unevenly, with most ending up in the pockets of a small elite. Is rising inequality really a ticking time bomb? Such fears, I argue, are wildly overstated. Inequality has become a veritable obsession for many intellectuals and pundits that is totally out of proportion to the real magnitude of the problem. In fact, in certain respects, inequality is beneficial and good news for everyone.

In Chapter 4, I will elaborate on the treadmill theory of societal progress. Modern Western societies are of course more prosperous than ever before, so the treadmill thinkers maintain, but when it comes to subjective wellbeing, we have barely made any progress. Indeed, we may be worse off than our ancestors, with our status anxieties and our restless desire for more and better. If this were true, there would be little point in trying to lift the rest of humanity out of poverty, in the hope that someday everyone will enjoy our standard of living. But again, the pessimists are dead wrong. The science of human happiness shows that we are not just richer than our forebears, but also happier.

Chapter 5 will deal with the “spectre” of neoliberalism. According to many pessimists, this  ideology is the root of all modern evil, having allegedly brought forth global economic exploitation, obscene inequality, and the massive disruption of local communities and cultures, while closer to home it has spawned a cult of greed and selfishness, not to mention an epidemic of loneliness, burn-out and depression. In reality, however, the word ‘neoliberalism’ has become a chimera without substance. To the extent that we can define it (i.e., economic liberalization and international free trade), it has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and destitution.

A very different breed of doomsayers will be introduced in chapter 6. According to these pessimists, who find receptive audiences in Europe in particular, the greatest menace to our civilization comes from outside. Barbarians are gathering at the gates and many have already sneaked inside. If we don’t shut our borders immediately and resort to repressive measures, we will be trampled underfoot by the most aggressive and expansionist ideology on earth: Islam. But this fear of Eurabia – a European continent under the yoke of Sharia law – is a complete fantasy. To be sure, Islamic fundamentalism does pose a real problem for western societies, and will continue to do so for a while.  But as I argue, a process of Enlightenment and secularization in Islam is underway, similar to the one Christianity went through. Ironically, these self-proclaimed defenders of the West underestimate the power and allure of Western ideas and values.

In chapter 7, I will look at the COVID-19 pandemic and how it fits into (or challenges) the narrative of human progress. For the first time in this century, many indicators of human progress will be reversed, and we risk losing years or even decades of hard-won victories over poverty, mortality and disease. The COVID-19 pandemic is a dramatic illustration of the fact that progress is not a historical necessity or a law of nature, and that the ‘Just you wait’ school of pessimism is the hardest one to refute. No matter how much we have already achieved, the chances that some terrible catastrophe will befall us sometime in the future are never exactly zero. Disconcertingly, the current coronavirus is far from the worst possible pathogen we can imagine. How do we protect ourselves against future pandemics and other unexpected catastrophes?

The most important of these potential catastrophes, of course, is the threat of climate change, which is the subject of the eighth and final chapter. Many people have drawn analogies between this pandemic and global warming. Both are global challenges which require international collaboration, but they play out on very different time scales. We have known for several decades that the planet is warming due to human emissions of greenhouse gasses. Climate activists warn us that if we do not radically mend our ways, we are headed for a catastrophe that will be far more devastating than this pandemic, and that threatens to make our planet uninhabitable. Some claim we still have just enough time to avert disaster, while others fear that it’s already too late. But while it is true that climate change will probably prove the biggest challenge of the twenty-first century, we can rise to the challenge, provided that we keep our heads cool, avoid giving in to despair, and throw off the shackles of misguided ideology. 

Finally, in the epilogue, I will address the question: what are some of the best ways to make the world better still? How to ensure that the fight against poverty and disease picks up speed again as quickly as possible, after this terrible pandemic has run its course? Progress is not a mysterious force of nature; it takes human effort and dedication. The good news is that we can all contribute. I will argue in favour of Effective Altruism, an exciting new philosophy of how all of us can make a difference in the world. Effective altruists try to use the best methods of science and the enlightenment to blot out the ‘tremendous amount of misery’ that I discussed right at the top of this introduction. Not only is this the best time to be alive (so far), but the opportunities for effecting positive change in the world have never been greater.

A hopeful message

A couple of years ago I wrote a book about self-deception and illusion, the pleasant little lies we like to tell ourselves because the truth is just too painful. Some people have confided that they found my staunch defence of the naked truth, no matter what, rather depressing. Isn’t life without illusions bleak and disconsolate? Well, I have to admit that some truths about the universe and about ourselves can be bitter pills to swallow. And yet, the truth is not always scary, painful or even just inconvenient. If we look at the current state of the world, the truth is actually betterand brighter than most of us tend to believe. In a way, the current book is the mirror image of the previous one: it deals critically not with beliefs that embellish and soften reality, but with those that portray the world as darker and more depressing than is justified. Here I’m not taking issue with those happy-go-lucky folks who always see the world through rose-tinted glasses, but with those who always look on the dark side of life, and who are oblivious of the tremendous progress our species has recently achieved. If my last effort left some people gloomy and despondent, I hope this new book will cheer them up. I would like to convince you that the story of human progress is not just a comfortable fiction that some of us like to tell ourselves, let alone an article of religious faith or an incarnation of the believe in divine Providence. It is the truth, and nothing but the truth.

(This is a prologue to a book yet to be written, which would be largely based on my 2019 book ‘Waarom de wereld niet naar de knoppen gaat’. Thanks to Nick Brown and Thomas Mermans for their help with the translation.)