With the constant barrage of stories in the media about war, recession, terrorism, swine flu, natural disasters, and various other tragedies, one could easily conclude that the world is a horrifying place. But instead of looking at the latest headlines, we should instead contemplate the broad trends of history. The world is a far better place to live today than it ever has been before, and all indications are that the quality of life will continue to improve. This is not just Panglossian optimism; the world is empirically a better place to live by almost any metric one chooses, compared to almost any other historical era one chooses. The arc of human development is long, but it bends towards a better quality of life. And for that, we should be thankful.
For most of human history, life was “nasty, brutish, and short” as Thomas Hobbes described it. The average life expectancy in most major civilizations – including ancient Greece, ancient Rome, and medieval Britain – hovered around 30 years. And these were among the leading civilizations of their era. Today, even the least developed countries on earth typically have life expectancies far higher than that. The advent of the Germ Theory of Disease has revolutionized the way we think about infectious diseases, and has increased the global life expectancy to 69 years. In many developed countries, life expectancy at birth exceeds 80 years.
Education is now ubiquitous in a way that it never has been before in human history. Prior to the middle of the 19th century, universal education was a completely unknown concept. Education was the province of the elite, designed solely to teach young people how to be the future leaders of the world. Although the American education system is rightly the target of much criticism today, we should not lose sight of the fact that it is a crowning achievement of our history. Universal education has enabled people from all walks of life to apply their talents to make the world a better place in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. Chris Anderson, the curator of TED Talks, proposes this thought experiment: “Pick your favorite scientist, mathematician, or cultural hero. Now imagine that instead of being born when and where they were, they had instead been born with the same abilities in a typical poverty-stricken village in, say, the France of 1200 or the Ethiopia of 1980. Would they have made the same contribution they did make? Of course not.” The ubiquity of education in our society is something for which we should be truly thankful, since it has allowed many more people to solve societal problems than were previously able to do so.
But even many of those who readily acknowledge that life today is much better than in the distant past may wonder if we have run out of steam in recent decades. Stories about the decline of Western civilization are not hard to find in the media, nor are dire warnings about how abrupt climate change could cause widespread famines and wars. If only we could return to the good old days, they wish. But the fact is that the world is much better now than in recent decades as well. Although many people might like to turn back the clock to 2007, before the recession, in the grand scheme of things the recession will be a small blip on the radar screen. If you turn the clock back much farther than just a few years, it becomes obvious that the world is a much better place today than in the past. Over a billion people have been lifted out of grinding poverty in China and India in the last 20 years. The World Wide Web – a strong contender for the single greatest invention of mankind – is less than 20 years old. In the United States, women and minorities have had equal rights for less than 50 years. The Cold War no longer enslaves half the world, and no longer carries the credible threat of a nuclear apocalypse. The overall number of humans per capita killed in warfare is at its lowest level since at least World War II, and possibly all of human history. The “good old days” were never that good. The quality of life today is staggeringly better than even the recent past.
But the most important thing for which we should be thankful is the hope for an even better future. The 20th century was by far the most disruptive century since the dawn of civilization, and there is no reason the 21st century can’t be just as important for radically altering the way humans live. Some of the transformative technologies that are now on the horizon include self-driving vehicles, stem cell therapy, lab-grown meat, ubiquitous computing, genomics, 3D printing, solar energy, and mature nanotechnology. These all offer the potential to dramatically improve our quality of life for the better, just as sanitation and education did in the 19th century, and as plumbing and electricity did in the 20th.
Let us give thanks for the fact that we live in the best epoch of human history – relative to both the distant past and the recent past. Furthermore, let us be grateful that the technological revolution of the last 150 years shows no signs of slowing down, and will continue to unlock the true potential of human beings by freeing us from menial tasks and unpleasant maladies. We live in interesting times. Let’s treat that as a blessing, not a curse.