A Few Reasons To Be Optimistic About the Future

(Information and statistics purloined from The Edge's 2007 World Question )

Violence has declined precipitously over the course of recent human history, says Chris Anderson, curator of the TED Conference. According to the 2005 Human Security Report "the number of armed conflicts in the world [has] fallen by 40% in little over a decade," as have the number of deaths per conflict. Need more convincing? Consider this: Roughly 30 percent of the male population in hunter-gatherer societies died violent deaths. "Percentage of males who died in violence in the 20th century complete with two world wars and a couple of nukes?" according to Anderson, "Approximately 1%."

John Horgan, Director of the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology, points out that the 100 million deaths that occurred in the so-called "blood-soaked" 20th century, would have hovered around 2 billion if modern humans had continued to be as violent as our primitive ancestors. Furthermore, Horgan notes that "three years have passed since the last international war," which makes this "the longest episode of interstate peace in more than half a century."

The mainstream media thrives on bad news, but MIT Psychologist Steven Pinker urges us to remember that we are making progress:

"Cruelty as popular entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, genocide for convenience, torture and mutilation as routine forms of punishment, execution for trivial crimes and misdemeanors, assassination as a means of political succession, pogroms as an outlet for frustration, and homicide as the major means of conflict resolution—all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. Yet today they are statistically rare in the West, less common elsewhere than they used to be, and widely condemned when they do occur."

And as people become less likely to die in armed conflict, they grow more likely to live long lives. Human life expectancy has doubled since 1850 and shows no signs of slowing down. Leo Chalupa, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Davis, says that recent advances in biomedical sciences offer not just hope of a long and productive life, but a virtual guarantee. Two discoveries fuel Chalupa's optimism: First, the identification of the the naturally occurring molecule resveratrol, which has been found to increase life span in a number of species by up to 59 percent. Second, the newfound understanding of brain's plasticity:

"We used to think that with age there is a progressive deterioration in brain cell structure and function. But that widespread assumption has proved wrong. New nerve cells have been found to be generated in the brains of old animals, and we're learning more and more how this amazing property of the aged brain can be manipulated. Low levels of regular exercise, for instance, have been found to significantly enhance neurogenesis in the hippocampus, a brain structure that deals with memory. Moreover, a recent study from my laboratory showed that certain nerve cells in the eyes of old mice are capable of growing new processes."

Not only will we live longer, but we will become less and less likely to slip into a doddering old age.

Another reason for hope? City living is on the upsurge, and there's reason to believe that the continued migration of the world's population to urban areas will help us tackle problems like poverty and overpopulation, according to Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue. In 1800, only 3% of the world's population was urban. This year, the figure reached 50 percent, and forecasters predict that it will reach 80% over the course of the next three decades. Many of us still equate city living with congestion, crime and filth, but the truth is cities are good for humanity. Not only do cities create the vast majority of wealth, thus improving the standard of living for everyone, they also drive down birthrates. Furthermore, megacities make poverty and squalor highly visible, prompting those in power to take action. Even the "dense slums, if they don't get bulldozed, eventually become part of the city proper and part of the formal economy [though it] takes decades," writes Brand. And "medical care that couldn't reach the villages can reach slum dwellers."

City aren't exactly safe havens, but they do tend to galvanize action that ultimately benefits us all.

In closing, I wanted to share one final statistic with you that fills me with hope, reported by Alex Pentland, a computer scientist at MIT. Pentland is heartened by the fact that technology is offering more and more people around the world a direct means of communicating with those in power. Just ten years ago, 50 percent of the human population didn't know how to use a phone, says Pentland. Today, "70% of humanity can place a telephone call or, more likely, send an SMS message... to the Secretary General of the United Nations, or to most anyone else. For the first time the majority of humanity is connected and has a voice."


More like this

Orli, great post. I first got this kind of perspective from reading Julian Simon's amazing 1995 tome 'The State of Humanity.' Simon was a booster for free market capitalism and has been roundly despised on the left, but speaking as someone who identifies with left goals (if not always methods and prescriptions) I think everyone should absorb that book. It is mainly just statistics about how far we have come. I consider the left to have been critical in creating much of the good news, whereas I think Simon did not, but whatever the causes the results - like the decline in violence - are facts.

Thanks for doing a similar job here. We are so full of woe, it's hard to feel optimistic about the future. Simon died prematurely. I wish he was around to grapple with global warming - even his optimism might have been ruffled by that - but I retain a sense from reading his work that we can muddle through.

By Dave Belden (not verified) on 07 Jan 2007 #permalink