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Did you know that the life expectancy, globally, today is 71 years whereas 200 years ago the life expectancy was 31?. Did you know that there is a much smaller chance today that you will be murdered, go to war, die in a plane or car crash, or die from a lightning strike than in any other time in history? Did you know that a higher proportion of people are born into democracies and have access to sufficient food and money than ever before? To quote a quote from this book: “If you could choose to be born anytime, you would choose now” - Barack Obama
Steven Pinker is, without doubt, one of the most important and knowledgeable intellectuals in the world today. With Enlightenment Now, he proves this point again. Few write as well as Pinker. And even fewer can pack so much information and statistics into a book and still maintain such beautiful prose. Even if you only remember a small part of all the knowledge you will acquire if you read this book, you will have learned a lot.
The book has two parts. The first and longest part (around 20 chapters) describes the progress that has occurred in a number of different areas of life (see below). The second part of the book is a defense of the ideas of the enlightenment - the ideas that are responsible for much of the progress that has been observed. Below is a non-exhaustive list of topics reviewed by Pinker in this book
Life duration - Life expectancy, at any age, is longer today than it has ever been i.e. old people today also have a longer life expectancy than old people in the past
Economics - We are much much richer and every day another 130.000 people in the world exits extreme poverty
Access to food - All parts of the world have access to more food, in the west, the poor are often obese
Equality - There is more equality between the genders and between different ethnic groups and people (especially youth) value equality more than ever before
The environment - Climate change IS a potential concern however we are making progress and in most other respects the environment is getting better: more trees, cleaner air etc. As we are entering the digital age we are also using fewer resources (paper, plastics etc).
Wars - Whereas wars used to be the norm, there are no wars between major powers today and even with the terrible civil war in Syria, casualties are nowhere near that in previous wars
Accidents - People are less likely to die from car crashes, lightning strikes, falls etc. We seem to value life more today and we have taken steps to look out for and prevent all kinds of accidents
Violence - Murders, rapes, and violence are less common. It is very unlikely that you will die in a terror-attack.
Political systems - Contrary to what you might think if you watch the news, democracy is on the rise and has been for a long time. The anti-enlightenment populism (ex Trump) is a concern however, it is an old-people movement and will likely dissipate
Quality of life - More people today find their life exciting and meaningful than before. We have more spare-time and we don’t have to work until we die
Happiness - People are happier today and happiness comes with progress in the other variables described here.
Existential threats - The hole in the ozone is gone, forests are growing, no nukes have been launched (despite what doomsayers of yesterday would have you believe).
To sum up the first part of the book: Things have gotten better. Much better. Still, don’t think that Pinker believes that all problems are gone. He reiterates the point that the laundry does not wash itself - and global challenges don’t solve themselves. Despite the progress we have seen there are ample challenges left. There are still wars, famines, genocides, and environmental issues. Pinker acknowledges this, however, he emphasizes that the world has seen progress, not regress. And it is important to acknowledge that things have gotten better - not to pad ourselves on the shoulder - but rather so that we can analyze what it is that has worked so that we can keep doing that.
Is it the enlightenment ideas that have caused the undeniable progress in the world? This is the question addressed in the second part of the book. Since progress occurred in the world before the enlightened philosophers took the stage I would say only partly. Then again there were people acting in the spirit of the enlightenment even before Hume, Voltaire and the rest. And it feels safe to say that progress is not achieved through irrationality, populism, and closed-mindedness. To me as a scientist, this seems like a relatively trivial point, but I get reminded that it isn’t a view shared by the rest of the world every time I turn on the TV or radio.
The objections to this book are predictable (see other reviews). People are accusing Pinker of being a politically motivated naive optimist. If you think so then I can only advice you to read the book (and finish it), and then make up your own mind. Unlike most of those who criticise him, Pinker provides data to back his claims. I can only assume that it is Pinker’s critics, not Pinker himself, who are politically motivated “progressophobics” who, upon hearing a couple of anecdotes or reading about the war in Syria, throws all data out the window and claim that things are getting worse and that anyone who says otherwise is a naive optimist, right-wing fundamentalist or climate change denier.
This book is another masterpiece from one of the best non-fiction writers, and on my rating scale it no doubt deserves the top rating. However, I still think that Better Angels, with its more narrow focus, is probably a better book. To some extent, this book is a follow up to Better Angels, even though this book has a broader scope. Since Better Angels was published many people seem to think that things have turned around and that the world is now regressing. If you read this book you will learn that this is not the case. The progress until 2011 when Better Angels were published has continued and is expected to continue into the future as well.
So, to sum up, read this book if you want an antidote to all the doomsayers that dominate the media. Read this book if you want to revive the optimist in you. Evidently, we can make the world a better place - as we have done in the past.
55 of 61 people found this review helpful
I am not through this book yet, but 4 hour into the book today (2-13-2018) this book is every bit as good as Better Angels, which is my favorite non-fiction out of hundreds I have listened to on Audible. Authur Murray is the perfect narrator for this book as he was for Better Angels. This book will make you feel better about our world with solid facts provided to lay a foundation for this optimism.
46 of 56 people found this review helpful