Monday, December 30, 2013

2013—The Best Year in Human History!?



So, what do you think? Could it be that this year, which ends tomorrow, has been the best year in human history? That is what some are saying. Do you agree? Why or why not?
Earlier this month, Zack Beauchamp, a reporter/blogger for ThinkProgress.org, posted an engaging article on its website. The title of his thought-provoking piece is “5 Reasons Why 2013 Was the Best Year in Human History.”
Some of you may have seen Beauchamp’s article, for it has been shared on Facebook more than 20,000 times and referred to in numerous other places.
(A similar article was posted on the website of “The Spectator,” the British weekly conservative magazine that was first published in 1828—in print, not online! It is titled, “Why 2013 has been the best year in human history: The world’s still getting better – here’s the proof.”)
As I write about in my book “The Limits of Liberalism,” many liberals tend to be overly optimistic, and this may be true for Beauchamp. But he also makes some good points.
Briefly, these are the five reasons he gives for contending that this year has been the best in human history:
1)   Fewer people are dying young, and more are living longer.
2)   Fewer people suffer from extreme poverty, and the world is getting happier.
3)   War is becoming rarer and less deadly.
4)   Rates of murder and other violent crimes are in free-fall.
5)   There’s less racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination in the world.
While some of Beauchamp’s assertions may seem questionable at first blush, he gives considerable supporting evidence. Some of that support is subjective, but longevity rates and murder/violent crime statistics and the like are quite objective—and quite impressive.
Dr. Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard University, is one of the scholars Beauchamp cites in his article. Canadian Pinker (b. 1954), whom I was first introduced to by an atheist friend, is the author of the captivating book “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” (2011).
In May of this year, Pinker delivered a speech as one of the prestigious Gifford lectures at Edinburgh University. That talk had the same title as his book, but with a different subtitle: “A History of Violence and Humanity.”
Although Pinker’s lecture is over an hour long, it is well worth listening to—in spite of some questionable assumptions and conclusions.
Of course, there are those who disagree with Beauchamp (and Pinker). Just five days after posting Beauchamp’s article, ThinkProgress.org posted “9 Reasons Why 2013 Was Not the Best Year in Human History.”
Those nine reasons are all related to problems concerning climate change and environmental destruction—but they are primarily problems looming in the future, not ones experienced so much in 2013.
If Beauchamp, Pinker and those who agree with them are right, does that mean that the words quoted by MLK, Jr., and President Obama, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” are becoming more evident? Maybe.
Or could it mean that the seeds of the Kingdom of God sown by the followers of Jesus are growing and bearing visible fruit? Perhaps.
If you disagree with the main contention of Beauchamp’s article, let me then ask you this question, If 2013 wasn’t the best year in human history, what year would you suggest as being the best year for the people of the whole world?

15 comments:

  1. Leroy, I'll be sure to read Beauchamp's arguments, as I am reading anyone right now who is trying to address the issues of well-being, happiness, and quality of life. I am suspicious, though. My recent reading would indicate, first, that the choices toward individual benefits are only relative benefits. It's entirely possible for me to be able, as never before, to act in my own best self interest and my choices cause serious havoc to my community. While I might report on a survey that I am happier, my community may be headed to oblivion. Second, this is further illustrated in the possibility that entire communities might be benefiting from economic developments, through technology, that make natural resources more available, thus making conflict with neighboring countries less necessary. However, the use of those natural resources (say, depletion of major water sources) might be making the world a much less stable place to live. Is that better? No, not in the long run. I refer you and your readers to the Worldwatch Institute's "State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible", and Robert Frank's The Darwin Economy. I'll read Beauchamp, too.

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    1. Milton, thanks for your quick and thoughtful comments this morning.

      I haven't read the "State of the World" articles for several years, but they are always wary of the way things are going, seeing problems looming in the future. And that wariness is, mostly likely, well founded.

      So if we assess the "goodness" of 2013 from the standpoint of what may well happen in the future because of what was or wasn't done during the year, it may certainly be less than the best year. (Although I don't know that there was anything worse done to the environment this year than in past years).

      But, again, the contention was about the health and happiness of all the people of the world this year, and the contention is that most of the people have never been better off. And I don't know that there is any compelling evidence that that is not so.

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  2. Identifying one year as the best is problematic. What counts are the trends over time. Of course, that's what Beauchamp and others are talking about. Identifying the one best year is, I guess, a matter of poetic license.

    I've been exceedingly interested in this topic because progress in human history (the long view) seems to me what we need to be interested in. I know it's what provides me with meaning--far more so than any idea of personal immortality. I've been reading Pinker's book, which I find fascinating and which counters much of what I had concluded about the 20th century. In a recent New York Review of Books, Thomas Nagel reviewed a book by Samuel Scheffler titled Death and the Afterlife, in which "afterlife" refers not to personal immortality but to collective welfare after we're gone. I've not read the book, but apparently Scheffler's argument is that the future of the collective pervades and motivates human life like nothing else, and is even more important for motivating human beings than any hope for individual existence after one's death.

    I'm reminded of Bonhoeffer's argument in his Letters and Papers from Prison that the most important question of responsibility facing human beings is how the next generation is to live.

    One additional thing: It seems to me an odd issue of angle that judges the optimism of conservatives and liberals. Which is more optimistic -- conservatives who tend to think we already have the best of all possible worlds, or liberals who keep looking for ways to improve the world? After all, the former are typically focused on current pluses; the latter are typically focused on current minuses.

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    1. Anton, thanks for your meaty comments also.

      Yes, it is the trend(s) that is most important, and that is one reason I linked the article to the arc of the moral universe.

      I am interested in thinking/reading more about "death and the afterlife." Thanks for pointing me to Scheffler's book.

      Anton, I don't usually see conservatives as being very optimistic, although it seems that "The Spectator" was. And while it is true that liberals tend to see the problems of the present, they also tend to think that those problems can and will be overcome--and that by human effort.

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  3. Not that this is factual, but I find it interesting that the trend cited is less violence and movies and television depict the future as no more peaceful than it is now and maybe more violent. It is difficult to recognize the trend when evening news, newspapers and the internet concentrate on violence. I would argue that is because the masses enjoy violence as entertainment, which is part of the reason the future is depicted as violent.

    It is a whole other discussion on what impact the violent entertainment has on reality.

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    1. Dennis, good to hear from you again.

      For some reason violence seems to have so much attraction to viewing audiences, we get a steady diet of that in the daily news and in movies about the future. But if Beauchamp and Pinker are right, there has been a steady decrease of violence worldwide in recent years.

      But, as you say, we still don't know what the long term effect of the "violent entertainment" syndrome will be.

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  4. It's an awfully anthropocentric question, isn't it? Should we only be considering humanity?

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  5. Local Thinking Friend Eric Dollard shares these thoughtful comments:

    "The year or years that might be better than 2013 would be the few immediately before the financial meltdown in 2008, or perhaps the few years before 2001 (9/11 changed things--not necessarily for the better).

    "Nonetheless, 2013 has to be very near the top. If we look at the whole of humanity, the people of China and India are doing as well now as ever in history. There is good reason to think that there may never be war again in Europe (except for Bosnia-Hercegovina, when it falls apart).

    "There are some worrisome signs. Global warming ("climate change" is too neutral a term), resource depletion, demographic changes (i.e., an aging population), political gridlock and trivialization, among other issues, need to be addressed. These are problems that can be solved if the political will to solve them exists.

    "I am cautiously optimistic that 2014 may be even better than 2013. Let's hope so."

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  6. I believe humans have a strong tendency to project our personal experiences onto our evaluations of the world at large. Elections demonstrate a strong tendency by politicians to try to exploit this situation. Which in turn makes observers pessimistic. What Beauchamp and Pinker are doing is illustrating how much this can operate like an optical illusion. We are not by nature well equipped to evaluate large long-term trends.

    For this reason science is critically important to any effort to seriously face complex issues. Yet science denial is profound in humanity. Whether it is liberals in denial over vaccines or conservatives in denial over global warming we are never short of examples of science denial. The results can be catastrophic. Yet, just when we are about to get all paranoid about the future, along comes evidence that maybe things are not quite so bad, despite the setbacks.

    I am cautiously optimistic about the future, for, as we all learned in the Jurassic Park movies, "Life will find a way." Now in those movies the immediate result was incredibly dangerous dinosaurs suddenly unleashed into the modern world. The long-term result was humanity finding a way to deal with the dinosaurs. Even if most Americans still do not believe in evolution by natural selection, life still will find a way.

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  7. Thinking Friend Michael Olmsted shares these excellent comments:

    "Beauchamp has a point, although it may be hard to recognize for those who live in desperation and poverty or who feast on the alarming and combative news that assaults us daily.

    "The 'preacher' in Ecclesiastes reminds us that in all our wisdom and stream of words 'Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.' At my current age I find those words more illuminating and less depressing than when I was thirty years old. We are all wrapped up in our own perspectives, religious/cultural traditions, and problems, so we naturally focus on what upsets us. It is a trick to get beyond the obvious tragedies of humankind and our own distress.

    "But there is a perspective beyond 'the vanities,' a realization that in all the mess of this world there are good and noble realities. In terms of medical advances, social change and an awareness of our fragile ecology there are significant changes. But can we get beyond the evils that play out around the globe every day to even recognize the hand of God in the bad news and suffering?

    "I find myself marveling, when, at the end of the evening news there is a story about someone who is making a difference against all the odds, a reminder that all is not death and destruction.

    I want to live beyond 'the vanities,' to see possibilities, to be inspired by the ten year old who raises money for poor children, the neighbor who helped someone down the block find work, the volunteers who build new homes for those who lost everything in a tornado.

    "I want to pray that I will be less consumed by the inequities of life ... I want to do more than pray ... I want to make a difference for someone who has lost hope ... I want to offer a different perspective. There are never enough Martin Luther Kings, Nelson Mandelas, Mother Teresas. There are never enough people who can get beyond their own comfort to make a difference. In 2014 I hope to be such a person, quietly making a difference for someone in need."

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  8. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson writes,

    "I don't think I could cite a year. Life on our planet is a mixed bag. If forced to name a 'better' year than most, I would perhaps cite 1945, the end of World War II, but some horrific things happened to bring the end."

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  9. I'll play -- and vote for 2013 as the best year (to date). The world faces big problems for sure, but I think it is very helpful to realize all that is going well too, in order to have a more balanced perspective and avoid the gloom that results for many good-hearted people who primarily focus on problems. And may 2014 be better than 2013!

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  10. Those who believe that the number 13 carries with it an aura of unluckiness should be surprised that 2013 has been judged to have been a good year.

    It seems that we often can't recognize good years until they're in the past. Perhaps Zack Beauchamp is giving us a heads-up on the merits of 2013 to give us a chance to be thankful for blessings often not fully appreciated.

    I've been giving some thought recently to what is considered to be good times. In this review I referred to the period of time following the dot-com bust and preceding 9/11 as being both the best of times and the worst of times. We thought it was a bad time, but in retrospect it looks pretty good.

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  11. This article in this morning's KC Star newspaper indicates that "Improving economy may (finally) reach Main Street" in 2014. So maybe 2014 will be even better that 2013. May it be so.

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  12. Keith, who commented above, forwarded this posting to his church group. Ron Kraybill, a member of that group, responded with the following comment (and gave permission for me to post it here):

    "I like this essay by Leroy Seat very much and agree with the data that, although there are many local and individual exceptions, the average human being lived longer and endured less suffering in 2013 than ever before."

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