By Tyler Bauer
Thank you to Logan Glaze for the inspiration for this post. He asked me for my thoughts on Steven Pinker's claim that we are living in the best period of history. To evaluate this claim, I’ll look at a few key areas that determine our quality of life – war, health/illness, technology, and wealth. I picked these four because war and health/illness make up the majority of deaths throughout history, and technology and wealth can be used as a means of measuring our ease of life and prosperity, both of which are indicative of a certain quality of life.
Much of human history has included conflict. From the moment people stopped living nomadically and settled in defined areas, war over territory became common. Based on available data, however, wars and other conflicts have become less common in recent history (see the figures – especially the second figure – under I.2 In Europe the second half of the twentieth century was extraordinarily peaceful). While much of the decrease in wars is due to the end of colonization and the age of exploration, this doesn’t make the relative peace worth any less. I think I speak for all of us when I say that the relative peace we enjoy today should not be discounted because colonialism has more or less vanished.
Understandably, deaths resulting from wars and other conflicts have also decreased in the past, although it is worth noting that there were fluctuations in the number of deaths during great power wars (see the figure under I.1 The past was not peaceful in the link above). The decrease in war-related deaths is especially true in the post-World War Two era. For example, look at the figures under I.4 The 20th century and I.5 War and peace after 1945. War deaths haven’t been completely done away with (sadly, I doubt that’ll ever happen), but they are occurring at much lower levels than in previous eras.
A recent development in the subsection of war is non-state conflicts, such as the War on Terror. Even non-state conflicts have seen a decrease in related deaths (see I.6 Other forms of large-scale violence). The most notable exception in the past few decades is the Rwandan Genocide, which – while terrible – was a statistical anomaly.
The following measures and predictors of health have all improved over time: life expectancy, child mortality, infant mortality, vaccination rates, and water cleanliness. I encourage you to read – in detail – both pages I linked to in the previous sentence. The first link goes into life expectancy in detail, while the other looks at a number of measures and predictors of health (this link also touches on topics such as education, violence, and more, so I encourage looking over the whole page).
Regardless of how you look at it, when it comes to health, there has never been a better period in history due to the abundance of knowledge and relative health we enjoy today.
Technology has improved at an astonishing rate throughout our history. Just think about the following:
One hundred years ago, cars were finally becoming popular. Today, our cars are starting to drive themselves.
In 1876, the very first telephone was invented. In 1973, the first cell phone was invented. Today, we fit a telephone, a computer, an mp3 player, the entire internet, a camera, and so much more, all in a single pocket. Your cell phone has more computing power than the spaceships NASA is sending to Mars.
In 1936, the first computer was invented. Eighty-two years later, I can create a blog that is read by people all across the country and even by people I don’t know on other continents. To humans one hundred years ago – or even fifteen years ago – the degree to which people around the world are interconnected would be unbelievable.
These are just a few examples of how far technology has come, and how amazing the world in which we live really is.
There’s much less to be said about the evolution of wealth over time. I think the graph at this link does a much better job. In the early 1800s, world GDP per capita – the world’s gross domestic product divided by the world’s population – skyrocketed. GDP per capita has continued on its upward trajectory ever since. (It’s no coincidence that the increase in wealth happens around the same time as the increase in technology).
One thing people will say to discredit using increased wealth as an argument is the amount of wealth inequality around the world today. To an extent, this is a valid point. There is wealth inequality in today’s world, but this inequality is better. In the 1700s, the poorest among us would starve to death. In 2018, some do still starve, but the number of those starving is much smaller. Rather than toiling in fields, today’s poor largely work in factories. Sure, these factories are essentially sweatshops, but I’d argue that working a long day in a sweatshop is better than working a long day in the field.
I realize there’s more to life than war, health, technology, and wealth. Things like happiness, fulfillment, and other quality of life issues do indeed matter. However, no matter how you look at it, I think there’s a good chance that today is the best day that’s ever happened. Don’t take that for granted.