Published on: Sunday, 08 November, 2015
Munk Debate, Toronto, 6 November 2105
I took part in a Munk debate on 6 November, in which Steven Pinker and I argued that “humanity’s best days lie ahead” while Malcolm Gladwell and Alain de Botton argued against us. It was entertaining and we shifted the audience our way a little, although three-quarters were on our side at the start (which is probably not representative of the population as a whole).
Here’s the text of my opening statement:
Woody Allen once said: “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
That’s the way pretty well everybody talks about the future. When I was young the future was grim. The population explosion was unstoppable, famine was inevitable, pesticides were giving us cancer, the deserts were advancing, the oil was running out, the rain forests were doomed, acid rain, bird flu, and the hole in the ozone layer were going to make us sick, my sperm count was on the way down, and a nuclear winter would finish us off.
You think I am exaggerating. He’s what a best-selling book by the economist Robert Heilbroner concluded in the year I left school: “The outlook for man, I believe, is painful, difficult, perhaps desperate, and the hope that can be held out for his future prospects seem to be very slim indeed.”
It was only a decade later that it dawned on me that every one of these threats had either been a false alarm or had been greatly exaggerated. The dreadful future was not as bad as the grown-ups had told me. Life just keeps on getting better and better for the vast majority of people.
Human lifespan has been growing at about five hours a day for 50 years.
The greatest measure of misery anybody can think of – child mortality – has gone down by two thirds in that time.
Malaria mortality has fallen by an amazing 60% in 15 years.
Oil spills in the ocean are down by 90% since the 1970s.
An object the size of a slice of bread lets you send letters, have conversations, watch movies, find your way around, take pictures, and tell hundreds of people what you had for breakfast.
And what’s getting worse? Traffic, obesity? Problems of abundance, note.
Here’s a funny thing. Most improvements are gradual so they don’t make the news. Bad news tends to come suddenly. Falling airliners always make the news; falling child mortality doesn’t.
As Steve says, every year the average person on the planet grows wealthier, healthier, happier, cleverer, cleaner, kinder, freer, safer, more peaceful and more equal.
Yes, global inequality is on the way down. Fast. Why? because people in poor countries are getting rich faster than people in rich countries.
Africa is experiencing an astonishing miracle these days, a bit like Asia did a decade ago. Mozambique is 60% richer per capita than it was in 2008. Ethiopia’s economy’s growing at 10% a year.
The world economy has shrunk in only one year since the second world war – in 2009 when it dipped by less than 1% before growing by 5% the next year. If anything the march of prosperity is speeding up.
But my optimism isn’t just based on extrapolating the past. It’s based on WHY these things are happening.
Innovation, driven by the meeting and mating of ideas to produce baby ideas is the fuel that drives them.
And far from running out of fuel, we’re only just getting started. There’s an infinity of ways of recombining ideas to make new ideas.
And we no longer have to rely on North Americans and Europeans to come up with them.
The internet has speeded up the rate at which ideas have sex.
Take vaping. In my country there are now more than 3m people who’ve given up smoking because of e-cigarettes. It’s proving to be the best aid to quitting we’ve ever come up with.
It’s as safe as coffee.
And it was invented in China, by a man named Hon Lik, who combined a bit of chemistry with a bit of electronics.
OK, but isn’t all this progress coming at the expense of the environment? Well no, often the reverse. Many environmental indicators are improving in many countries: more forest, more wildlife, cleaner air, cleaner water.
Even the extinction rate’s down compared with 100 years ago, for the creatures we know about, birds and mammals, thanks to the efforts of conservationists.
And the richer countries are, the more likely their environment’s improving – the biggest environmental problems are in poor countries.
But what about population? The population growth rate’s halved in my lifetime from 2% to 1% and the birth rate’s plummeting in Africa today. The world population quadrupled in the 20th century but it’s not even going to double in this century, and the UN thinks it will stop growing altogether by the 2080s.
Not because of war, pestilence and famine, as gloomy old Parson Malthus feared, but because of prosperity, education and health.
There’s a simple and beautiful fact about demography. When more children survive, people plan smaller families.
With slowing population growth and expanding farm yields, it’s getting easier and easier to feed the world.
Today it takes 68% less land to grow the same amount of food as 50 years ago. That means more land for nature.
In theory, you can feed the world from a hydroponic farm the size of Ontario and keep the rest as a nature reserve.
And the planet’s getting greener. Satellites have recorded 14% more green vegetation today than 30 years ago, especially in arid areas like the Sahel region of Africa.
But am I like the man who falls out of the skyscraper and as he passes the second floor, shouts “so far so good”? I don’t think so.
You’ll probably hear the phrase “turning point” in this debate. You’ll be told this generation is the one that’s going to be worse off than its parents, that it’s going to die younger, or see sudden deterioration in its environment.
Well, let me tell you about turning points. Every generation thinks it stands at a turning point, that the past is fine but the future’s bleak. As Lord Macaulay put it, “in every age everybody knows that up to his own time, progressive improvement has been taking place; nobody seems to reckon on any improvement in the next generation. We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who say society has reached a turning point – that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us and with just as much apparent reason.”
We filter the past for happy memories and filter the future for gloomy prognoses.
It’s a strange form of narcissism. We have to believe that our generation’s the special one, the one where the turning point comes. And it’s nonsense.
“On what principle is it that with nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”