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The Best Explanation For The Good Old Days Is A Bad Memory

Good news does not usually make it to the headlines. If it did, newspapers would have run headlines like: “137,000 people escaped from extreme poverty yesterday”, every day for the last 30 years. But either that headline has never been published or we have missed it. We know this because a billion people escaped from extreme poverty in the last 30 years and almost no one knows about it.

If we go further back in time, 200 years ago, 90% of the world lived in extreme poverty, while now it´s less than 9%. And it is not only extreme poverty that has gone down, but also child labor, illiteracy, maternal mortality, infant mortality, war deaths, violent crime, violence against women, racism, laws that criminalize homosexuality and capital punishment, to name but a few examples.

Steven Pinker, author of the recently published “Rationality. What it is. Why it seems scarce. Why it matters”, has been mocked over the last few years for being “a little too happy with progress”. This mocking of Mr. Pinker is, in itself, funny as the claims made by this Harvard professor are fully backed up by pure statistics.

Surprised by this, Mr. Pinker coined the term “Progressophobia” to show the reality that people somehow want to resist the idea of progress. And this resistance is not a matter of intelligence, as he explains that there is no correlation between intelligence and certain cognitive biases, like “my side bias” which consists of steering your reasoning towards the conclusion that you want to be true in the first place (one of the biases to which smart people are as vulnerable as unintelligent people).

The reason for this resistance to progress is justified in part by sheer incredulity of something being too good to be true and in part by the lack of immediateness that normally characterizes progress that feels real to us.

This is because progress does not tend to happen overnight. And because the news is a highly non-random sample of the worst things that happened on earth the day before – let´s not forget the non-randomness angle of the news specially in the era of social networking algorithms.

Good things are often those things that either (i) don´t happen (it’s harder to talk about an absence of a war than the outbreak of a war) or that (ii) don´t happen immediately (mass populations don’t escape extreme poverty quickly). These characteristics do not lend themselves well to the needs of headlines, with their bias for immediateness and negativity. As a result, the reporting of progress often falls below the radar.

Slow moving progress does not make it to the headlines and, unfortunately, the same tends to be true when it comes to slow moving disasters.

A month ago, a new piece of research from Harvard University found that more than 8 million people died in 2018 from fossil fuel pollution, meaning that air pollution from burning fossil fuels like coal and diesel was responsible for about 1 in 5 deaths worldwide.

The world knew, through strong and eye-catching headlines, about gaudy nuclear disasters like Chernobyl and Three Mile Islands. But little is known about the fact that coal energy takes the lives of vastly more people than nuclear energy, which is the safest form of energy ever invented – it protects air quality, minimizes land footprint and produces minimal waste.

And because point-in-time nuclear disasters stay lodged in our minds, people mistakenly think that nuclear energy is more dangerous than coal energy.

Despite these facts, evidence shows that the world is continuing to make progress on almost every front. If we take human-made climate change as an example, recent data shows that:

(i) in 2014 the world was on track to heat up nearly 4 degrees Celsius by 2100 (an outcome widely seen as catastrophic),

(ii) existing policies have helped to get that figure down from 4 degrees Celsius to 3 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100,

(iii) the materialization of current country pledges could get that figure even lower, from 3 degrees Celsius to 2 degrees Celsius, and

(iv) far more action will be needed to meet the safer limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

When it comes to human-made climate change, as quoted by the New York Times, “Yes, There Has Been Progress on Climate. No, It’s Not Nearly Enough.

And that´s a message that reflects much more fairly how things really are around the globe, not only when it comes to climate, but also when it comes to almost every area in which to track how the world is progressing and how the human cause is advancing.

We have come a long way. Not mission accomplished. But a long way. Let´s keep on going. Don´t let the music die.

“Life is no brief candle to me” wrote George Bernard Shaw, “it is a sort of splendid torch which I have got a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations”.

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