I thought about the question, is the world better or worse than it used to be?, for quite a while.
It’s an interesting question because a lot of people think the answer is obvious – and yet which answer they think is obvious varies from person to person.
When I was hanging around in seduction forums (bad vibes I know) most people there were conservative. As an extension of this, or so it seems, they usually thought that everything was better in the past. According to them, most bad stuff happening nowadays comes from deterioration from a better, even ideal, time centuries ago.
Thinking about that, though, it seems that our prospective would be pretty dismal in that case. I don’t see anyone in the distant past having done anything truly revolutionary along the lines of what I’m hoping for the world. No feminism, no queer liberation, no great spiritual expansion, etc etc.
After thinking about it for some time, I came to the conclusion that life was definitely worse in the past and better nowadays. What’s more, it’s always improving.
Of course it’s not quite as simple as that. Some things are worse than they were, and some things are better. Particularly, our technology has given us the power to do both greater harm and greater good than before.
There are side effects from our new lifestyles which to some extent offset what we’ve gained. For instance, there’s the increase we are experiencing in “first world diseases” coming from pollution and our increasingly refined and animal-based diets.
Then our health systems are based solely around what earns most money and often actively cover up and illegalise better treatments that are less profitable. (Don’t believe me? Just keep an open mind and do some research… you’ll be shocked how far the proverbial rabbit hole goes).
And the modern school system was designed not much more than a century ago to encourage conformity and obedience, trying to get people to fit into a twisted vision of humans as predictable, controllable parts in a machine.
Besides that, importantly, it’s also looking possible that we might end up destroying the habitability of our own planet. That’s not something we should take lightly.
But, in balance with all those things I’ve just mentioned, here is why I think the world is a better place than it used to be:
There are less wars nowadays, and wars are less bloody.
I can support that claim with some sources citing statistics, but let me just add first that it’s what I’ve always felt in my gut.
For sure wars are happening nowadays, but there was a time when every young, able, male-bodied person would be conscripted when there was a conflict. From my half-recalled school studies on medieval times, I remember the lower classes, unskilled in battle, were basically used as fodder.
Anyway, as promised here are some sources:
The number of people killed in battle – calculated per 100,000 population – has dropped by 1,000-fold over the centuries as civilizations evolved. Before there were organized countries, battles killed on average more than 500 out of every 100,000 people. In 19th century France, it was 70. In the 20th century with two world wars and a few genocides, it was 60. Now battlefield deaths are down to three-tenths of a person per 100,000.
The average number of people killed per conflict has fallen from 38,000 in 1950 to just over 600 in 2002.
CONAN: Well, saying that there are fewer war deaths this past decade than at any time in the past 100 years, isn’t that another way of indicating the past 100 years and maybe this decade is the anomaly?
GOLDSTEIN: Well, no, because the past 100 years were – there was a big explosion of violence in the early part of the 20th century, but the 17th century was no picnic either. The Thirty Years’ War destroyed a third of the population of Germany, and back through history there have been terrible wars much of the time.
And even in prehistoric times, as many as a quarter of the men in a society not infrequently died in wars. So it’s actually a new thing and something that’s developed in the least 60 years and especially the last 20 years. And we can talk about why it is, and Steven Pinker will have more to say about that also, but the big change is that people are finding other ways to solve their problems, not through war, and we’re seeing an actual shrinking in the number of people killed worldwide.
Four hundred years ago Guy Fawkes had a confession extracted out of him by physical torture. This was something that was done by the government absolutely transparently; in those days it was not necessary to hide the use of torture as the US tries to do nowadays.
In the Victorian times in England, around three hundred years ago, you would automatically receive the death sentence for stealing.
Sure, Victorian times were a bit of an anomaly in this regard. Sensing how disproportionate it was, judges would often write down in the record that the criminal had received death but give them a lesser punishment (for about 60% of such offenses according to this page).
However, earlier on, in medieval times, things were hardly that much better. At that time, it was standard for thieves to have their hands cut off. If their wound didn’t go septic, I would expect they could easily die from starvation or exposure just because they had no means of supporting themselves.
Not to mention witch-hunts, common between 1400-1700. Those accused of being witches would be tortured until they confessed. And then they would be tortured to implicate other witches. And then they would die.
These things just wouldn’t happen nowadays. People are no longer so dumb as to buy the witch hunting method (people are dumb nowadays but come on). And we hold our governments answerable to us – in the West, indeed in most of the world, torture and mutilation are not tolerated.
But what about even further back than the medieval times?
It’s possible to make conjecture that the prehistoric times were better than now, and it’s a little harder to disprove that, but evidence seems to show that people at those times lived to about 30.
You can also point out that homosexuality was accepted in the Roman times and in many civilisations pre- the influence of Abrahamic religions. That may be a genuine way life was better in those days, but then again, the Romans kept slaves and entertained themselves with human fights-to-the-death.
Now, contrast all these bad things in the distant past to the revolutionary social movements that have taken place in recent history, all affecting us for the better:
– The end of slavery
– Women’s emancipation and feminism
– The right for black people to vote in the USA, and the movement against racial discrimination
– Large victories for LGBT rights in the Western world, including the current wave of victories for marriage equality (another map)
– The 2013 ban on animal testing for cosmetics in the EU and the increasing acceptance and populisation of vegetarianism/veganism
What all these movements show us is that people are waking up to caring, even about those weaker than themselves.
When our society revolved around who was stronger, women would not have been able to have secured equal rights for themselves. Physically they were weaker and that was the only thing that made a difference in those days.
In a similar way, the black minority in America couldn’t have succeeded with their protests if society as a whole hadn’t evolved SOME sense of decency. A more ruthless society could conceivably have beaten and killed them back into submission, but in modern times such an act would be out of the question.
(I’m not trying to say the movement’s work was any less admirable with this, by the way. It’s just a fact that a nonviolent movement can only work if your oppressor is able to feel shame for hurting someone who doesn’t fight back).
And LGBT is a much smaller minority than that – and transgender people are a minority within a minority. As a trans woman myself, I’m particularly aware of this.
Gay, lesbian, and bisexual people can stop traffic with their parades. But, the last time I was in just such a parade, the trans contingent of the same contained about 20 people. Trans people would be completely defenseless if non-trans people didn’t stick up for us too.
And then, children and animals are completely unable to fight, and mostly even to advocate for themselves. The fact that these groups have made advancements for their rights show that society has moved on from “the law of the jungle” and is starting to listen to its conscience.
And, the trend is evermore in that direction.
This is all great. What I like most about the modern age, though, is something that’s often overlooked: the fact that it’s so easy to survive.
The great majority of the population worked in agriculture in the middle ages – around 80% according to Wikipedia. Nowadays, only around 2% do.
We’ve worked out how to feed ourselves and still have time for doing a LOT of other things. In fact, most of the food we grow nowadays goes into feeding animals who we then eat.
For sure massive scale agriculture has its drawbacks. I won’t argue that. But the fact that survival is pretty much a given in most of this world, is wonderful. And, while it’s still possible to have to struggle for survival in most places, or at least struggle to live in dignified conditions, it’s still relatively easy to earn more than you need.
This means that you can support yourself off savings, or be supported by your family or a partner, and do – what you want. I mean, you can have the freedom to better yourself or work to better humanity in any way you choose.
I think this is remarkable. I think that the ability to leave survival on the backburner and focus on evolution is the biggest gift we have ever received, even if few recognise it as such.
In fact, I think this ability to leave survival on the backburner could be the key force behind all the rest of the evolution I’ve mentioned in this post. I think most of our social movements could never have happened if we didn’t have this power to re-destine energy previously spent on survival.
So, I think, for sure, we live in better times than we ever have.
What made me happy about coming to this conclusion is that it gives us an idea of what will happen in the future. I think the world will keep evolving and become more inclusive, more intelligent, and more sane as time goes on.
I do wonder if the world, or at least humanity, will survive. We could destroy it. That’s a possibility. But if we don’t, then what I said, I think, holds. So long as we survive, life will get better.
That aside, the great thing about knowing that the world is getting better is knowing that you don’t need to fight against the tide. I can only imagine how dismal it must feel to be a committed activist who thinks the world is getting worse and worse. (I’ve seen some of these people. They don’t look like they are having fun).
If the world is getting better, activism becomes a matter of riding the wave. People are naturally waking up to tolerance, for instance, so a gay rights activist only has to work with that natural tendency in people. It seems like a much nicer way to do things than fighting a battle against people who are unwilling to change.
I think it’s worth working out what you think in this area, then. Is the world getting better? Is the world getting worse? The answer could change a lot.