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Wed, Jan. 22

Cantlon column: Good news! And lots of it

The world and the nation have gotten much better over the long run on a host of issues. No, that’s not wishful thinking. It’s fact. I’m reading Steven Pinker’s book, “Enlightenment Now”. It has three core themes. First, the remarkable progress humans have made.

Pinker's book, where you'll find all the data sources:

Available from our local Peregrine Books:


And Amazon:

Some of it dates back to the upturn in progress starting in the 1700s, and some is just in the last few decades. For instance children stunted from undernourishment has been cut in half in recent decades. It’s been going down for centuries but especially recently. Like many of these measures there are ups and downs along the way, and pockets of problem areas, but the global number has been cut in half.

Other items that have improved: The rate of violent crime in the U.S. since the ‘90s is way down. Life expectancy globally is up. Global childhood deaths from pneumonia, malaria, and diarrhea have been cut significantly just in the last decade. Literacy is up even in regions where it had been low. In the U.S., the growth of CO2 emissions has been arrested in the last decade. In 1820 about 90% of the world was in extreme poverty. Now it’s about 10%. In fact the absolute number continues to go down at the same time population has accelerated.

If you’re doubtful, everything in the book cites sources of verifiable data from groups like The World Health Organization, census data, The Brookings Institute, and peer reviewed studies.

A second theme of the book is our disbelief in this progress. It’s partly that news is geared to report immediate problems, not broad, gradual improvement. It’s partly that we focus on current problems to solve them. It’s partly that there are still some who starve, some in extreme poverty, and even things that improve have a lot of swings along the way, like our economy. But it’s also that we have several kinds of bias against believing this progress, which the book explores.

The final theme is the why of progress. The book documents how progress accelerated enormously as the Enlightenment kicked in the 1700s because of its four components: reason, science, humanism, and progress.

Reason is simply willingness to say we’re wrong when information reveals we are, as opposed to the earlier era of dogma. Science is acting on what we learn about the world, as opposed to the earlier magicalism. Humanism is not anti-religious, it’s just a statement of priorities. Nations, like ancient Egypt, put pyramids to the gods first and enslaved people to build them. North Korea takes care of the leader instead of the people. Countries often put the nation first, as Nazi Germany did, and as modern Egypt has been drifting toward. Humanism puts the welfare of humans first, as opposed to the earlier monarchies. Progress means knowing there’s room for improvement and working for it, as opposed to believing that the human condition was static.

The enormous boom in progress was not due to any one aspect, but to the tremendous power of combining all four.

A theme I’ll add is that none of this happened by magic. We humans, those of recent centuries and decades, did this. Now it’s our current population’s turn. If we keep being smart about it, and keep working at it, we can keep making things better.

Tom Cantlon is a local business owner and writer and can be reached at comments at

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