Our ancestors replaced dogma, tradition and authority with reason, debate and institutions of truth-seeking.’
Within developed countries, inequality is rising, but real poverty is not. A century ago, the richest countries devoted 1% of their wealth to children, the poor, the sick and the aged; today they spend almost a quarter of it. Most of their poor today are fed, clothed and sheltered and have luxuries like smartphones and air conditioning that used to be unavailable to anyone, rich or poor. Poverty among racial minorities has fallen, and poverty among the elderly has plunged.
The world is giving peace a chance. During most of the history of nations and empires, war was the natural state of affairs, and peace a mere interlude between wars. Today war between countries is obsolescent, and war within countries is absent from five-sixths of the world. The proportion of people killed annually in wars is about a quarter of what it was in the mid-1980s, a sixth of what it was in the early 1970s, and a 16th of what it was in the early 1950s.
In most times and places, homicides kill far more people than wars. But homicide rates have been falling as well and not just in the U.S. People in the rest of the world are now seven-tenths as likely to be murdered as they were two dozen years ago. Deaths from terrorism, terrifying as they may be, amount to a rounding error.
Life has been getting safer in every other way. Over the past century, Americans have become 96% less likely to be killed in an auto accident, 88% less likely to be mowed down on the sidewalk, 99% less likely to die in a plane crash, 59% less likely to fall to their deaths, 92% less likely to die by fire, 90% less likely to drown, 92% less likely to be asphyxiated, and 95% less likely to be killed on the job. Life in other rich countries is even safer, and life in poorer countries will get safer as they get richer.
Despite backsliding in countries like Russia, Turkey and Venezuela, the long-term trend in governance is toward democracy and human rights. Two centuries ago a handful of countries, embracing 1% of the world’s people, were democratic; today, more than half of the world’s countries, embracing 55% of its people, are.
Not long ago half the world’s countries had laws that discriminated against racial minorities; today more countries have policies that favor their minorities than policies that discriminate against them. At the turn of the 20th century, women could vote in just one country; today they can vote in every country where men can vote save one (Vatican City). Laws that criminalize homosexuality continue to be stricken down, and attitudes toward minorities, women and gay people are becoming steadily more tolerant, particularly among the young, a portent of the world’s future. Violence against women, children and minorities is in long-term decline, as is the exploitation of children for their labor.
As people are getting healthier, richer, safer and freer, they are also becoming more knowledgeable and smarter. Two centuries ago, 12% of the world could read and write; today 85% can. Literacy and education will soon be universal, for girls as well as for boys. The schooling, together with health and wealth, is literally making us smarter—by 30 IQ points, or two standard deviations above our ancestors.
People are putting their longer, healthier, safer, freer, richer and wiser lives to good use. Americans work 22 fewer hours a week than they did in the late 19th century and lose 43 fewer hours to housework. They have more opportunities to use their leisure to travel, spend time with children, connect with loved ones and sample the world’s cuisine, knowledge and culture.
Thanks to these gifts, people in a majority of countries have become happier. Even Americans, who take their good fortune for granted and have stagnated in happiness, call themselves “pretty happy” or happier. And despite the panic about “kids today” (heard in every era), younger generations are less unhappy, lonely, drug-addicted and suicidal than their Boomer parents.
As societies become wealthier and better educated, they raise their sights to the entire planet. Since the dawn of the environmental movement in the 1970s, the world has emitted fewer pollutants, cleared fewer forests, spilled less oil, set aside more preserves, extinguished fewer species, saved the ozone layer and may have peaked in its consumption of oil, farmland, timber, cars and perhaps even coal.
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To what do we owe this progress? Does the universe contain a historical dialectic or arc bending toward justice? The answer is less mysterious: The Enlightenment is working. Our ancestors replaced dogma, tradition and authority with reason, debate and institutions of truth-seeking. They replaced superstition and magic with science. And they shifted their values from the glory of the tribe, nation, race, class or faith toward universal human flourishing.