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Human progress is real but so is our vulnerability… because the same tech drives both

From "Gerald" on Pixabay.

August 14, 2017   2 mins

The fifth of UnHerd’s five themes is ‘The end is (not) nigh’. It’s about the state of the world and the way in which the media reports it. Perhaps nowhere else do we most directly fulfil our core mission – to challenge received opinion – which on this matter is overwhelmingly pessimistic.

In 2015, YouGov asked 18,000 people across 17 countries whether the world was getting better or worse. With the telling exception of China, many more people said worse than better. The biggest pessimists were the French (81% going for worse versus just 3% for better), but the Brits and Americans weren’t that far behind, with around two-in-three respondents taking a dim view of things.

And yet this isn’t a matter of opinion. The fact is the gloomsters are wrong. This truth is acknowledged by Oliver Burkeman in a Guardian long read:

“People are indeed rising out of extreme poverty at an extraordinary rate; child mortality really has plummeted; standards of literacy, sanitation and life expectancy have never been higher. The average European or American enjoys luxuries medieval potentates literally couldn’t have imagined.”

Burkeman’s subject is those who have made it their mission to accentuate the positive – the so-called “New Optimists”:

“… [a] loose but growing collection of pundits, academics and thinktank operatives who endorse this stubbornly cheerful, handbasket-free account of our situation…

“…The New Optimists invite us to forget our partisan biases and tribal loyalties; to dispense with our cherished theories about what is wrong with the world and what should be done about it, and breathe, instead, the refreshing air of objective fact. The data doesn’t lie. Just look at the numbers!”

But if the numbers are so compelling, why the collective long face? In part, it’s a news problem:

“Max Roser, an Oxford economist who spreads the New Optimist gospel via his Twitter feed, pointed out recently that a newspaper could legitimately have run the headline ‘NUMBER OF PEOPLE IN EXTREME POVERTY FELL BY 137,000 SINCE YESTERDAY’ every day for the last 25 years. But none would have done so, because predictable daily events, by definition, aren’t newsworthy.”

That seemingly understood, Burkeman still can’t quite shake off his doubts:

“…the real concern here is not that the steady progress of the last two centuries will gradually swing into reverse, plunging us back to the conditions of the past; it’s that the world we have created – the very engine of all that progress – is so complex, volatile and unpredictable that catastrophe might befall us at any moment… it only takes a single angry narcissist in possession of the nuclear codes to spark a global disaster.”

Actually, it doesn’t even take a “single angry narcissist” (who could he possibly have in mind?); all it takes is an accident – and in this nuclear age we’ve come close to catastrophe on several occasions.

The progress that we’ve made and our potential for wreaking devastation don’t lie in separate domains. If one is real then so is the other

Still, it’s a mistake to portray our technological civilisation as inherently fragile. Though we might go out with a bang, we won’t, unlike previous civilisations, go out with a whimper, disappearing quietly back into the undergrowth. The dangers that we face derive from our strength not our weakness.

The world-changing progress that we’ve made over the last 200 years and our potential for wreaking global devastation don’t lie in separate domains. If one of them is real then so is the other, because they spring from the same set of technological abilities.

For all of the good news, optimism is no excuse for complacency.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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