(Video link here.) We are not alone in feeling that things have never been so bad, that the world is in seriously dire straits. The news that pervades much of our lives paints the bleakest of pictures, fueling anxiety and feelings of powerlessness.

Psychologist Steven Pinker cogently refutes this dark view. In Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, he uses 15 different deeply-researched measures of progress — quality of life, safety, sustenance, health, etc — to show how and why the world is getting better, and that we are living in the most peaceful time in human history. Bill Gates, who loves the book said: I’d never seen such a clear explanation of progress. The teeny video above sums it up.

Pinker makes two additional points that serve as powerful antidotes to our daily malaise:

—He explains just how the news we tune into daily affects our mindset and why, starting at 13:57 in this talk he gave at the Oslo Freedom Forum (below). He helps to cultivate a more holistic view, in which the dark news lives within the bigger context of human progress. The essential message: watch how much you consume.

(Video link here.)

It reminds us that the news is a systematically misleading way to understand the world…You get the impression that the world is a more dangerous place than it ever has been.

We find that asking THIS question is hugely helpful:

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—We love PInker’s insight into how to navigate a time in which powerful authoritarian leaders threaten to undermine many good works. Sarah Bakewell in the New York Times‘ summarized it well:

…he argues that catastrophism is itself a risk — that is, the pessimistic tendency to fix on the worst imaginable outcome, and to panic. Authoritarian populism itself has fed on the feeling that everything is going wrong: that crime and terrorism have run amok, that immigration is disastrous and that the world has lost its ethical direction in some terrible way.

Meanwhile, fear and despair play havoc with the opposition too. In general, people are more likely to work constructively if they think problems are solvable, or that progress has already been made and can be extended. As Pinker says, considering the fact that we have not yet blown the world up in a nuclear war, our best approach is “to figure out what has gone right, so we can do more of whatever it is.” Optimism does not mean lying back and relaxing. He cites the economist Paul Romer, who distinguishes the “complacent optimism” of a child waiting for presents with the “conditional optimism” of a child who wants a treehouse, and gets hold of the wood and nails to make one. Someone who thinks a treehouse is impossible, or assumes someone will instantly come and knock it down, is unlikely ever to start hammering.


Optimism does not mean lying back and relaxing…





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6 replies on “Steven Pinker on How to Live a World We Think is in Dire Straits

  1. Hmm. From John Semley’s book review in the Globe and Mail:
    ” While many of the Enlightenment’s fruits are juicy and succulent indeed, the governing ideology of progress, like all ideologies, demands sustained criticism. And maybe that’s a way forward for the two warring solitudes of the humanities and the hard sciences: testing and clarifying each others ideas, their hostility driving toward accord. If Pinker and other contemporary Pollyanna-bros are resigned to place their faith in the forward-march of progress, then the duty falls to the more critically minded to question the character of that progress – to sound the alarm that, despite appearances and upward-trending graphs, maybe everything’s not okay.”
    All is not well in the best of all possible worlds, whatever Stinker Pinker may argue!

  2. hey Paul,
    I happily disagree.
    Life’s never been better.

    We’re not “putting our faith in it”,..
    I belive,
    we’re walking in it,.
    with open eyes, ears, minds, and fears.

    But, walking in it.

    ,…with freedom comes the possiblity to improvise.

    In the moment,
    I believe ‘this’ to be
    ,..the frightener for most.

    We are require to play our tune.


    p.s.: In the end,…things don’t end.

    p.s.s.: ‘belive’,..ISN’T that a beautiful word!,…?!
    Life’s good.
    (failures,..and mis-spellings(!),.. are our(?),..MY,,.
    ‘greatest’ successes!

  3. There is, of course, lots of criticism of Pinker’s book. But he is not saying “all is well”, or that this is the best possible world, nor that we are done with the work to be done, or should hang out being smug. He offers a long perspective of the wild path humans have taken…

  4. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”
    I agree that by many criteria one can reasonably say, “Life has never been better” for humans. One can however question the price that has been paid and continues to be paid for that improvement for our species. For the planet and the other life-forms on it, things have never been worse!
    We are, as Gallagher nicely puts it, “required to play our tune”, but that doesn’t mean that we have to play in tune. Things do end actually, humankind will go extinct one day and the life forms that outlive us would breathe a sigh of relief if they knew that we had existed!
    A more useful perspective of humankind’s wild path may be “Sapiens”, by Yuval Harari.

  5. Agreed, a very steep price has been paid for our time on this planet. But as Yogi said: It ain’t over till it’s over.
    Will check out Sapiens. Gracias.

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