Matt Heath: We don't know how lucky we are

Publish Date
Monday, 16 July 2018, 8:45AM


Everything is awesome, isn't it.

Good news. You're freaking out unnecessarily. The world isn't nearly as crap as you think.

Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now. The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress lays it all out. Turns out it's a great time to be a human

Global poverty, violence and oppression levels are all trending in the right direction and much faster than anyone anticipated.

"Last year, the world had 12 ongoing wars, 60 autocracies, 10 per cent of the world population in extreme poverty and more than 10,000 nuclear weapons. But 30 years ago, there were 23 wars, 85 autocracies, 37 per cent in extreme poverty and more than 60,000 nuclear weapons." Things are getting better fast.

This global improvement is also outlined in Factfulness by Professor of International Health Dr Hans Rosling.

"The world, for all its imperfections, is in a much better state than we think."

Every day for the last 25 years 137,000 escaped extreme poverty. One and a quarter billion people leaving poverty behind. Yet the vast majority of us think things are getting worse. How come?

The media? News is about stuff that happens, not stuff that doesn't happen. You never see a journalist say, "I'm reporting live from a country that's been at peace for 40 years." If they did you wouldn't watch. The internet? In 2018 we hear bad stuff faster and more often than ever before, even though there is much less bad stuff happening.

Nostalgia? Franklin Pierce Adams said, "Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory." You can always fool yourself into seeing decline if you compare terrifying headlines with rose-tinted images of the past.

Pinker champions Norman Borlaug. A man who probably saved a billion lives with his genetic cross-breeding of crops.

But few celebrate him. The famines he prevented didn't happen. Which makes them not news.

Obesity is news. Norman Borlaug is potentially to blame for some of the extra carbs people eat. But being fat is clearly better than starving to death. There is now a push to get those in poverty to eat less. For the first time ever overeating is killing more people globally than famine. Fifty years ago few would have believed that possible.

You might think helping people in poor countries leads to population explosions. Quite the reverse. As Dr Rosling points out, wealthier and safer countries produce fewer children.

The world is getting better so population growth will slow. The UN predicts we'll top out at 11 billion and then start declining. It's probably not going to hit 20-30 billion as some fear. So don't listen to the joyless people who say we hurt the planet when we reproduce. We actually need kids to look after the massive bubble of old people rocking through.

Not that lots of humans is a bad thing in itself anyway. I hope there's heaps of us for a very long time. There would be little point to this planet without us running our minds over it. Thirty billion sparks of consciousness in the universe would be cool if we could feed all of us. The cockroach earth would suck.

Of course, some people still have it really bad. So I better virtue signal for a bit. There are people who are still subjected to terrible violence, famine and oppression. That's not good. But Pinker and Rosling simply point out there are fewer of those people now than before. That is good.

There are threats and massive challenges. Nuclear war, artificial intelligence and bioengineered pandemics. Identity politics, attacks on trade and science. Tribalism. Progressives who actually hate progress because it legitimises the system. Fearmongers.

Last year Western Europe suffered horrible terrorism, with 238 deaths, but 30 years ago it was worse with 440 deaths. Last year 1.3 million died globally in traffic incidents.

As Steven Pinker points it out: "We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there's no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing."

Things are so much better around the world than ever. Best of all, New Zealand has it better than nearly anyone. What a time to be alive. I'm really enjoying freaking out less after reading these books.

Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now and Dr Rosling's Factfulness. Both great reads and international bestsellers.

I got my copies from the best bookstore in the country. Time Out in Mt Eden.

"Everything is awesome. Everything is cool when you're part of the team".

This article was first published on and is republished here with permission.