A Rare Look at Human Progress

It’s painfully uncommon to receive any good news regarding the prospects of humanity and the future of the world. On the contrary, most of what crops out of media reports and scientific research seems to validate our increasingly intuitive pessimism concerning the profoundly troubling and unprecedentedly difficult times ahead of us. As an (albeit cautious) optimist, I cannot accept such a grim narrative so readily, not when the human race has come so far in terms of poverty alleviation, disease eradication, technological development, and other accomplishments that have made our lives – broadly speaking – better.

So I was quite pleased to find the work of another scientist who shares my inclination towards emphasizing the sadly understated achievements that humanity has made. Like me, Hans Rosling is someone who is well aware of the horrific misery and suffering that sill befalls most people in the world (indeed, unlike myself, he’s actually gained first hand experience through working in some of the most destitute and blighted parts of the world); but like me – and I hope many of you – he nonetheless can appreciate the immense progress that has been made in improving the human condition at a level never before achieved in our history. Best of all, he has scientific evidence, as opposed to woolly feel-good thinking, to prove it.

Of course, this isn’t to say that the world is best as it could be, or that we should be content and complacent with where currently are. Tremendous amounts of people are still living in terrible conditions, and this study doesn’t necessarily address how certain political, ideological, and religious factors also play a role in stagnating human development and well-being (although it’s interesting to note how many people living authoritarian, dogmatic, and otherwise “backward” parts of the world are still nonetheless living better than they did before, albeit relatively speaking and compared to a very low base).

The point of the study is to simply highlight something I’ve been at pains to convey to most of my (understandably) cautious peers: that in spite of all the vices, social ills, and existential threats that remain a great stain on our existence, we’re improving and developing at a rate and level that is as unprecedented as the problems we still face. Progress is not linear or unambiguous; we can stagnate in some ways and thrive in others. Ultimately, we have the potential to go both ways: to destroy ourselves and our planet, or to continue to grow and move forward. We’re at a point in time like no other with respect to prospects that can be disastrous or transcendently progressive. However grim the state of the world is, and could very well be (especially with respect to sustainability and the environment), we mustn’t ignore how far we’ve come.

To me, it not only reveals our potential for improvement, but most importantly it validates us as a species. Maybe we’re not so primal, primitive, and selfish as we believe. The more we improve the lot of ourselves, our fellow humans, and the world we live in, the more we can overcome the negative aspects of our nature that are so disproportionately focused upon.

4 comments on “A Rare Look at Human Progress

  1. I have seen this guy before. Maybe it was on a TED video.

    Yes we have made huge leaps but I think we are about to reach the precipice of our health industry. As costs of healthcare, medicines, doctors wages, nurses wages and profits of hospitals, big pharma and insurance groups/companies continue to rise. I suspect the edge and doom of the general population is coming.

    When we can not afford basic health care procedures. Let alone actual operations. People will start to ignore health needs to save money for basic necessities. When we can not afford to pay deductibles for routines tests. Will it be time to dump something you can not even afford to use?

    Just this last week my wife went in for a basic physical that is fully paid for by insurance. Basic tests were run on her and now after our deductible and insurance we have a bill for $200.00.

    The doctor didn’t say oh fyi this will cost you $200…It was all done under the guise of it is paid for. The tests without insurance totaled $1200. It sounds like a bargain but I was thinking what if we didn’t have the $200. If we lived closer to the edge would I choose to go in the future? When basic needs of food and shelter are on the line. Insurance that charges so much is not worth while.

    When only the rich can afford insurance and to be able to pay the deductibles. Will we then have the stomach to fix this nightmare system of rampant greed?

    Health is a monopoly. We have no real choice. They give raises to doctors or increase profits and we pay. Because our insurance pays. This is not a true free market.

    This won’t change until the have nots start to tear down what the haves have.

    • Thank you for responding Mike. I appreciate you sharing your sobering anecdote concerning the dire state of healthcare (my condolences with what you and your wife endued; needless to say, I can relate). I agree that there is certainly a political element involved in all this. Human progress will plateau unless average people begin to take charge and push back against the inefficient and/or predatory practices of big special interests. We’re seeing a lot more public discussion of these topics, so I’d like to think we’re getting there.

  2. Thanks Romney. We are fine. It just makes me think.

    Funny today I saw an interview with a pharma company that has a new antibiotic on the market. It works better than the other antibiotics…so they said.

    The interviewer asked how he justified the $2800 fee for a 10 day treatment. He said it was based on what overall treatments have cost for infections. Not what it cost to research and produce to new meds.

    That is immoral…at least to me.

    • A very saddening anecdote, especially when juxtaposed to the accomplishments of humanity thus far.

      Most people have no qualms about companies making some sort of profit for the services and products they provide, so long as prices are as fair and reasonable as possible (personally, I’d prefer if most treatments could be sustainably subsidized in some way, but I’ll take what I can get).

      The problem is that Pharma companies are making very wide profit margins, and have been investing far less into R&D with respect to certain treatments than they used to. When profits eats into what is good for the consumer, then I agree that this is reprehensible. Sadly, there aren’t enough policies or alternatives presented to rectify this – at least not just yet.

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