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Heaven on Earth

Heaven on Earth is a page of opinions about the pleasant prospect of humanity advancing to a better future, continuing the great progress of recent centuries. For a start, here is Warren Buffett's optimistic view:

Early Americans, we should emphasize, were neither smarter nor more hard working than those people who toiled century after century before them. But those venturesome pioneers crafted a system that unleashed human potential, and their successors built upon it.
This economic creation will deliver increasing wealth to our progeny far into the future. Yes, the build-up of wealth will be interrupted for short periods from time to time. It will not, however, be stopped. I’ll repeat what I’ve both said in the past and expect to say in future years: Babies born in America today are the luckiest crop in history.
- Warren Buffett, To the Shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., February 25, 2017, p. 6



...Gates... articulates a philosophy that drives what he does: the notion that the world is steadily getting better, not worse.

The argument for that, Gates said, is laid out in a 2011 book called “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” Written by Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, the book attempts to explain why, as the New York Times put it, “our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence,” despite headlines that may scream to the contrary.

“That matters,” Gates tweeted, “because if you think the world is getting better, you want to spread the progress to more people and places.”
- Brian Fung, Bill Gates told new grads to read this book. Now it’s surging on Amazon., Washington Post, May 15, 2017


Pinker remains confident:

Progress always must fight headwinds. Human nature doesn’t change, and the appeal of regressive impulses is perennial. The forces of liberalism, modernity, cosmopolitanism, the open society, and Enlightenment values always have to push against our innate tribalism, authoritarianism, and thirst for vengeance. We can even recognize these instincts in ourselves, even in Trump’s cavalier remarks about the rule of law.

Pinker continues:

Over the longer run, I think the forces of modernity prevail — affluence, education, mobility, communication, and generational replacement. Trumpism, like Brexit and European populism, are old men’s movements: support drops off sharply with age.
- Thomas B. Edsall, Liberals Need to Take Their Fingers Out of Their Ears, NYT, DEC. 7, 2017


The world is falling apart, right? Poverty worsening, more people dying in wars, famine spreading? Actually, it’s the opposite. We in the media focus on the grim news, but the evidence is that this is the best time ever for humanity.
- Nicholas Kristof, 2017 Will Be the Best Year So Far in History, NYT, Saturday, July 1, 2017

Cheer up: Despite the gloom, the world truly is becoming a better place. Indeed, 2017 is likely to be the best year in the history of humanity.
- Nicholas Kristof, Good News, Despite What You’ve Heard, NYT, JULY 1, 2017


And contrary to the widespread canard that technology has created a dystopia of deprivation and violence, every global measure of human flourishing is on the rise. The numbers show that after millennia of near-universal poverty, a steadily growing proportion of humanity is surviving the first year of life, going to school, voting in democracies, living in peace, communicating on cell phones, enjoying small luxuries, and surviving to old age.
- STEVEN PINKER, Science Is Not Your Enemy, New Republic, August 6, 2013


'We were proud to be French,' he [Conte de Segur] wrote in the 1820s, looking back on the years leading up to the revolution, 'and even prouder to be French in the 18th century, which was regarded as a golden age handed to us by the Enlightenment philosophers... Each of us believed that we were advancing towards perfection, without worrying about obstacles and without fearing them.'
- Caroline Moorhead, Dancing to the Precipice, HarperCollins, 2009, p. 58



The world population in 2017 is estimated to be 7.5 billion. If less than 10% live in extreme poverty, as Kristof reports below, that's less than 750 million in extreme poverty. Yet he tells us about 25% of children are physically stunted from malnutrition. According to Unicef, in 2012 there were 2.2 billion humans under 18. 25% of that would be 550 million, so if being stunted from malnutrition implies extreme poverty, the majority of people living in extreme poverty are children (or under 18). According to a Times editorial (World Hunger Haunts the U.N. Festivities, 9/22/2017),

The number of undernourished human beings on the planet increased from 777 million in 2015 to 815 million in 2016, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated, in a report timed for the world leaders’ annual review of their hopes and fears for the planet. That means 11 percent of the world’s population went hungry every day — a 5 percent increase in two years and a severe setback for the United Nations’ goal of eliminating global hunger by 2030.

The human suffering underlying the data includes almost one in four children under 5 years of age — 155 million — with stunted growth and a greatly heightened risk of cognitive damage and susceptibility to infection. ...
Battles between armed groups within nations have increased 125 percent since 2010, with hunger often enlisted as an allied aggressor. Conflict in South Sudan produced “a humanitarian catastrophe on a massive scale.” Famine was declared in some parts of that country this year, with two out of five people suffering severe hunger and food deprivation “being used as a weapon of war,” the report noted.


If going hungry every day implies extreme poverty, there appears to be an inconsistency between 11% going hungry every day and less than 10% living in extreme poverty, a discrepancy on the order of 75 million people. (Kristof, in 2017 reporting less than 10% in extreme poverty, cites Global Extreme Poverty (Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, Our World In Data, 2017), which shows 705.55 million in extreme poverty out of a 2015 population of 7.35 billion, i.e. 9.6% living in extreme poverty in 2015. Using 9.6% instead of 10% gives a discrepancy of 105 million.) It's unclear what is meant by extreme poverty. Even if it is defined as living on less than the equivalent of $2 per day, it is not clear what counts as equivalent. Polynesians a few hundred years ago may have been living well, or perhaps not, but either way it's very unclear how one would determine whether they lived on less than the equivalent of $2 per day. ("The poverty line was revised in 2015—since then, a person is considered to be in extreme poverty if they live on less than 1.90 international dollars (int.-$) per day. This poverty measurement is based on the monetary value of a person’s consumption. Income measures, on the other hand, are only used for countries in which reliable consumption measures are not available." - Global Extreme Poverty)

Again, if 815 million were undernourished in 2016, it's not clear that is consistent with less than 750 million living in extreme poverty in 2017 (though it should be noted that it is possible to be undernourished despite consuming ample quantities of junk food).

In fairness, there are broader reasons for hope, including astonishing progress against global poverty — more than 100 million children’s lives saved since 1990. Every day, another 300,000 people worldwide get their first access to electricity, and 285,000 to clean water. Global poverty is a huge opportunity, for we now have a much better understanding of how to defeat it: resolve conflicts, invest in girls’ education, empower women, fight malnutrition, support family planning, and so on.

For the first time in human history, less than 10 percent of the world’s population is living in extreme poverty, and we probably could virtually eliminate it over the next 15 years if it were a top global priority. ...
The number that I always find most daunting is this: About one child in four on this planet is physically stunted from malnutrition. And while it is the physical stunting that we can measure, a side effect is a stunting of brain development, holding these children back, holding nations back, holding humanity back.
- Nicholas Kristof, Meet the World’s Leaders, in Hypocrisy, NYT, SEPT. 21, 2017


The popular gloom notwithstanding, we’re actually living in an era of astounding progress. We’ve seen the greatest reduction in global poverty in history. As Steven Pinker has documented, we’ve seen a steady decline in wars and armed conflict. The U.S. economy is the best performing major economy in the developed world.
- David Brooks, Upswingers and Downswingers, NYT, OCT. 16, 2017


The present moment is one of great distress. But how small will that distress appear when we think over the history of the last forty years; a war, compared with which all other wars sink into insignificance; taxation, such as the most heavily taxed people of former times could not have conceived; a debt larger than all the public debts that ever existed in the world added together; the food of the people studiously rendered dear; the currency imprudently debased, and imprudently restored. Yet is the country poorer than in 1790? We firmly believe that, in spite of all the misgovernment of her rulers, she has been almost constantly becoming richer and richer. Now and then there has been a stoppage, now and then a short retrogression; but as to the general tendency there can be no doubt. A single breaker may recede; but the tide is evidently coming in. ...
Hence it is that, though in every age everybody knows that up to his own time progressive improvement has been taking place, nobody seems to reckon on any improvement during the next generation. We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us, and with just as much apparent reason. ...
On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?
- Thomas Macaulay, Southey's Colloquies on Society, Jan. 1830 [review of Sir Thomas More; or, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society, by Robert Southey]


The number of people living on less than $1.25 per day has decreased dramatically in the past three decades, from half the citizens in the developing world in 1981 to 21 percent in 2010....
- The World Bank, Remarkable Declines in Global Poverty, But Major Challenges Remain, April 17, 2013


This is a moment of extraordinary progress. Over the last 30 years, extreme poverty's been cut in half. Boys and girls are enrolling in primary school at nearly equal rates, and there are half as many children out of school today as there were 15 years ago. The number of children who die from preventable deaths has been cut in half since 1990. Every continent has seen substantial gains with individual incomes growing by more than a third in every region of the developing world.
- Gayle Smith, USAID Administrator, Speech on Foreign Aid, March 9, 2016, at 32:49 [For analysis of this claim, see Linda Qiu, Did we really reduce extreme poverty by half in 30 years?, PolitiFact, March 23rd, 2016; see also Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, Global Extreme Poverty]


History is full of the signs of this natural progress of society. We see in almost every part of the annals of mankind how the industry of individuals, struggling up against wars, taxes, famines, conflagrations, mischievous prohibitions, and more mischievous protections, creates faster than governments can squander, and repairs whatever invaders can destroy. We see the wealth of nations increasing, and all the arts of life approaching nearer and nearer to perfection, in spite of the grossest corruption and the wildest profusion on the part of rulers.

The present moment is one of great distress. But how small will that distress appear when we think over the history of the last forty years; a war, compared with which all other wars sink into insignificance; taxation, such as the most heavily taxed people of former times could not have conceived; a debt larger than all the public debts that ever existed in the world added together; the food of the people studiously rendered dear; the currency imprudently debased, and imprudently restored. Yet is the country poorer than in 1790? We firmly believe that, in spite of all the misgovernment of her rulers, she has been almost constantly becoming richer and richer. Now and then there has been a stoppage, now and then a short retrogression; but as to the general tendency there can be no doubt. A single breaker may recede; but the tide is evidently coming in.

If we were to prophesy that in the year 1930 a population of fifty millions, better fed, clad, and lodged than the English of our time, will cover these islands, that Sussex and Huntingdonshire will be wealthier than the wealthiest parts of the West Riding of Yorkshire now are, that cultivation, rich as that of a flower-garden, will be carried up to the very tops of Ben Nevis and Helvellyn, that machines constructed on principles yet undiscovered, will be in every house, that there will be no highways but railroads, no travelling but by steam, that our debt, vast as it seems to us, will appear to our great-grandchildren a trifling incumbrance, which might easily be paid off in a year or two, many people would think us insane. We prophesy nothing; but this we say: If any person had told the Parliament which met in perplexity and terror after the crash in 1720 that in 1830 the wealth of England would surpass all their wildest dreams, that the annual revenue would equal the principal of that debt which they considered as an intolerable burden, that for one man of ten thousand pounds then living there would be five men of fifty thousand pounds, that London would be twice as large and twice as populous, and that nevertheless the rate of mortality would have diminished to one half of what it then was, that the post-office would bring more into the exchequer than the excise and customs had brought in together under Charles the Second, that stage-coaches would run from London to York in twenty-four hours, that men would be in the habit of sailing without wind, and would be beginning to ride without horses, our ancestors would have given as much credit to the prediction as they gave to Gulliver's Travels. Yet the prediction would have been true; and they would have perceived that it was not altogether absurd, if they had considered that the country was then raising every year a sum which would have purchased the fee-simple of the revenue of the Plantagenets, ten times what supported the government of Elizabeth, three times what, in the time of Oliver Cromwell, had been thought intolerably oppressive. To almost all men the state of things under which they have been used to live seems to be the necessary state of things. We have heard it said that five per cent. is the natural interest of money, that twelve is the natural number of a jury, that forty shillings is the natural qualification of a county voter. Hence it is that, though in every age everybody knows that up to his own time progressive improvement has been taking place, nobody seems to reckon on any improvement during the next generation. We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us, and with just as much apparent reason. 'A million a year will beggar us,' said the patriots of 1640. 'Two millions a year will grind the country to powder,' was the cry in 1660. 'Six millions a year, and a debt of fifty millions!' exclaimed Swift; 'the high allies have been the ruin of us.' 'A hundred and forty millions of debt!' said Junius; 'well may we say that we owe Lord Chatham more than we shall ever pay, if we owe him such a load as this.' 'Two hundred and forty millions of debt!' cried all the statesmen of 1783 in chorus; 'what abilities, or what economy on the part of a minister, can save a country so burdened?' We know that if, since 1783, no fresh debt had been incurred, the increased resources of the country would have enabled us to defray that debt at which Pitt, Fox, and Burke stood aghast, nay, to defray it over and over again, and that with much lighter taxation than what we have actually borne. On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?
- Thomas Macaulay, Southey's Colloquies on Society, 1830 [review of Sir Thomas More; or, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society, by Robert Southey]


The world keeps getting better. It may be hard to believe in the United States, but 2017 was again the best year in history, based on the aggregate well-being of humanity. People have never before lived so long, so well or so freely. ...
I hope all of you find ways to escape our exhausting political times, as well as our all-consuming digital technologies, and enjoy yourselves.

Read Steven Pinker’s forthcoming book, “Enlightenment Now,” to feel better about the current era. ... Take advantage of our golden age of cheap, delicious and often healthy food.
- David Leonhardt, 7 Wishes for 2018, NYT, DEC. 31, 2017


We all know that the world is going to hell. Given the rising risk of nuclear war with North Korea, the paralysis in Congress, warfare in Yemen and Syria, atrocities in Myanmar and a president who may be going cuckoo, you might think 2017 was the worst year ever.

But you’d be wrong. In fact, 2017 was probably the very best year in the long history of humanity. ...
We journalists focus on bad news — we cover planes that crash, not those that take off — but the backdrop of global progress may be the most important development in our lifetime.
Every day, the number of people around the world living in extreme poverty (less than about $2 a day) goes down by 217,000, according to calculations by Max Roser, an Oxford University economist who runs a website called Our World in Data. Every day, 325,000 more people gain access to electricity. And 300,000 more gain access to clean drinking water. ...
As recently as the 1960s, a majority of humans had always been illiterate and lived in extreme poverty. Now fewer than 15 percent are illiterate, and fewer than 10 percent live in extreme poverty. In another 15 years, illiteracy and extreme poverty will be mostly gone. ...
Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychology professor, explores the gains in a terrific book due out next month, “Enlightenment Now,” in which he recounts the progress across a broad array of metrics, from health to wars, the environment to happiness, equal rights to quality of life.
“Intellectuals hate progress,” he writes, referring to the reluctance to acknowledge gains, and I know it feels uncomfortable to highlight progress at a time of global threats. But this pessimism is counterproductive and simply empowers the forces of backwardness.

- Nicholas Kristof, Why 2017 Was the Best Year in Human History, NYT, JAN. 6, 2018




(For contrasting opinions, see Going to Hell.)



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