Basis for Optimism About the Future

Should young persons be optimistic about the future?

Does history set the context for the present and the future? Is the past prologue?

Based on history, I submit that a young person should be optimistic about our future.

Some of our history that supports an optimistic outlook are :

  1. improvements in the health sciences and life expectancy;
  2. the growth of educational opportunities;
  3. the consolidation of governments;
  4. the growth of democratic government;
  5. the decline in violence over the centuries;
  6. the decline of wars by the major powers;
  7. the expansion of global trade.

1. Health:

In Canada our life expectancy has increased by over 60% since 1900.

2. Education:

Seventy years ago in Canada roughly 4% of high school grads went on the college. Today in Canada and the USA over 60% of high school students go on a two year or a four year college.

3. Government:

“According to the military historian Quincy Wright, Europe had five thousand independent political units (mainly baronies and principalities) in the 15th century, five hundred at the time of the Thirty Years’ War in the early 17th, two hundred at the time of Napoleon in the early 19th, and fewer than thirty in 1953”. “The growth of government deserves much of the credit for the long intervals of peace in 19th-century Europe”. See Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature, Why Violence has Declined (2011), page 284.

4. Growth of Democratic Government:

“ Not only are democracies free of despots, but they are richer, healthier, better educated, and more open to international trade and international organizations”. “The idea of democracy, once loosed on the world, would eventually infect larger and larger portions of it, and as we shall see, would turn out to be one of the greatest violence-reduction technologies since the appearance of government itself”. See Steven Pinker above.

In 2007 there were 123 electoral democracies (up from 40 in 1972) that constituted 58% of the world’s population. Source – Freedom House, a research institute in Washington, D.C.

5. Decline in Violence over the centuries:

“The writers of the Bible saw nothing wrong with slavery or with cruel punishments like blinding, stoning, and hacking someone to pieces”.

“Sadistic tortures were also inflicted by the Christian church during its inquisitions, witch hunts, and religious wars. Torture had been authorized by the ironically named Pope Innocent IV in 1251, and the order of Dominican monks carried it out with relish”. “Systemic cruelty was far from unique to Europe. Hundreds of methods of torture, applied to millions of victims, have been documented in other civilizations, including the Assyrians, Persians, Seleucids, Romans, Chinese, Hindus, Polynesians, Aztecs, and many African kingdoms and Native American tribes”. See Steven Pinker above.

Some practices that have been mostly abandoned are as follows:

  • capital punishment;
  • debtors’ prisons;
  • slavery;
  • serfdom;
  • corporal punishment;
  • disemboweling;
  • pillories;
  • dueling;
  • killing of witches;
  • persecution of heretics;
  • religious wars;
  • judicial torture;
  • inquisitions;
  • public hangings;
  • breaking on the wheel;
  • flogging;
  • keelhauling;
  • lynchings in the USA.;
  • Infanticide.

“While Europe was becoming less murderous overall, certain patterns in homicide remained constant. Men were responsible for about 92 percent of the killings (other than infanticide), and they were most likely to kill when they were in their twenties.” “A more affluent and predictable life erodes people’s fatalism and elevates their valuation of other people’s lives”. See Steven Pinker above.

6. Decline of War by Major Powers:

“In the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, wars broke out between European countries at a rate of about three new wars a year.” “The postwar years (1945 to present) are by far the longest period of peace among great powers since they came into being five hundred years ago. The stretch of peace among European states is also the longest in its bellicose history.” “As Europe became more urban, cosmopolitan, commercial, industrialized, and secular, it got safer and safer.” “The safest place in human history, Western Europe at the turn of the 21st century, has a homicide rate in the neighborhood of 1 per 100,000 per year.
People become more compassionate as their own lives improve.
The Humanitarian Revolution (17th and 18th centuries) was a milestone in the historical reduction of violence and is one of humanity’s proudest achievements”. See Steven Pinker above.

In 2012 the UN reported the world’s overall homicide rate per year at 6.2 per 100,000 population.

7. The Expansion of Global Trade:

“Adam Smith (1776), George Washington (1788), and Immanuel Kant (1795) were some of the writers who extolled free trade because it yoked the material interests of nations and thus encouraged them to value one another’s well-being. As Kant put it, ‘The spirit of commerce sooner or later takes hold of every people, and it cannot exist side by side with war’ ”. See Steven Pinker above.

The Industrial Revolution and the magic of trade along with increases in productivity have created great wealth. Trade can be a positive-sum game. That is, trade creates wealth. “A classic positive-sum game in economic life is the trading of surpluses. If a farmer has more grain than he can eat, and a herder has more milk than he can drink, both of them come out ahead if they trade some wheat for some milk. As they say, everybody wins”. See Steven Pinker above.

“A classic positive-sum game in everyday life is the exchange of favors, where each person can confer a large benefit to another at a small cost to himself or herself. Examples include primates who remove ticks from each other’s backs, hunters who share meat whenever one of them has felled an animal that is too big for him to consume on the spot, and parents who take turns keeping each other’s children out of trouble”. See Steven Pinker above.

“Positive-sum games change the incentives for violence. If you’re trading favors or surpluses with someone, your trading partner suddenly becomes more valuable to you alive than dead.” See Steven Pinker above.

“Commerce is a positive-sum game in which everybody can win; as technological progress allows the exchange of goods and ideas over longer distances and among larger groups of trading partners, other people become more valuable alive than dead, and they are less likely to become targets of demonization and dehumanization”. See Steven Pinker above.

Comments are closed.