I was in a book shop a few days ago and noticed a book with authors that included Matt Ridley and Steven Pinker. It was about whether or not humankind’s best days lie ahead. I didn’t buy (I probably should read it at some stage) but I am aware that both Ridley and Pinker have argued that the world is a better place today than it’s been in the past. By many metrics, I suspect that this indeed true. However, it also seems to be one of those situations where many things can be true at the same time.
The world may indeed be, in many respects, a better place now than it’s been in the past, but this doesn’t mean that there aren’t many problems worth addressing, or that there isn’t any possibility that it could start getting worse in the future. One could even argue that one of the reasons that the world is a better place today is because we’ve discovered a way to generate cheap, and plentiful, energy that – unfortunately – also has a side effect that we should probably take seriously.
Something that also doesn’t often seem to get considered is that we have to be slightly careful of survivor bias. Those of us living in this better world are the survivors, or the descendents of the survivors, of various events thst have happened in the past. Many didn’t survive to experience this better world.
I can well imagine that there will be some time in the future, when people will look back and regard their time as better than ours. However, this doesn’t mean that many can’t suffer in the process of getting from where we are now to this point in the future. In a sense, our role is to try and make decisions that optimise the manner in which the world evolves, ideally in a way that minimises suffering (in my view, at least).
My sense is that many who promote the idea that the world is better now, dislike too much direct intervention in the way the world works. I have some sympathy with this; we can certainly make decisions that end up doing more harm than good. On the other hand, we’re also a highly intelligent species that probably understands the world around us better than we’ve ever done before. I’m somewhat uncomfortable with the idea that we should mostly leave the future to the magic of the markets and our inate ingenuity, but maybe that’s just me.