The Sky is Falling?


It may be the time of year, but lately I’ve been getting a lot of gloomy correspondence from readers who think that the world is circling the bowl.

This apocalyptic thinking goes across the spectrum of political thinking, and while no one’s confusing the North Shore with Afghanistan, the evidence of decline appears all around us – runaway development, traffic gridlock, failing infrastructure, political incompetence, drought in the summer, floods in the winter,  oh my.

The local mood matches the global zeitgeist. It doesn’t help that the Doomsday Clock, which assesses our risk of nuclear annihilation, has been reset to 2 minutes to midnight, the closest we’ve come to self-destruction since 1953.

I’ve often been accused of being a cockeyed optimist. Guilty as charged, but not as cockeyed as the world`s second richest man, Bill Gates. When so many think the world is in the toilet, the founder of Microsoft has spent millions perfecting the better toilet, one that doesn`t require water and works in drought-ridden climates. So if we’re going, we’ll be flushed in style.

For many years, Bill was the world`s richest man, only recently supplanted by Jeff Bezos, the man who sells everything at Amazon. Bill might argue that he’s still the world’s richest man because he is giving away $30 billion through his Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation, and every cockeyed optimist knows it’s better to give than receive.

Lately, Bill has ramped up his optimistic game – he’s started endorsing other optimists. He has just read “Enlightenment Now” by Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, and has just rated it as the most inspiring book he has ever read, even better than Pinker’s previous book: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.” “Enlightenment”, says Bill, is like ‘Better Angels’ on steroids.”

If Bill Gates and Paul Sullivan are optimists, Steven Pinker is in a feel-good class all his own. Most of us, even the chronically cheerful, will cast a grim gaze across the modern landscape – its two world wars, unspeakably evil genocides and the emergence of Donald Freaking Trump – and assume the fetal position. Pinker, however, takes the long view. Did you know, for example, that the world poverty rate has decreased from 90 per cent 200 years ago to 10 per cent today? That the homicide rate in the Middle Ages was 35 times what it is today?

Anyone who argues the world is a less dangerous place that at any other time in history opens his or her self to ridicule, and Pinker received plenty for “Better Angels”, but he’s doubled down in “Enlightenment Now”. While many among the chattering classes are muttering about a new dark age (and who can blame them after watching video of the neo-Nazi torchlight parade last fall in Williamsburg, Virginia), Pinker presents, in the words of his mega-wealthy reviewer: “a holistic picture of how and why the world is getting better.”

So it’s not just moonshine; it’s moonshine grounded in fact. For example:

The global average IQ is rising by 3 points every decade, thanks to better nutrition and environmental conditions.

In 1929, 20,000 people a year died on the job in the US. Now, even though the population has more than doubled, it’s 5,000. Tragic for loved ones, but still progress.

Oh, and it took 11.5 hours a week to do the laundry in 1920. Now it takes an hour and a half, thanks to improved laundry technology. I can add my own personal testament: I remember running my blue jeans through a ringer and getting stuck. Who would want to go back and put up with all that again?

All in all, Pinker cites 15 categories of progress, such as knowledge, safety and quality of life, and argues that science and reason are inexorably creating an emerging global enlightenment, despite evidence to the contrary.

Of course, one person’s science is another person’s witchcraft but “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress” is a case that needs to be made right now, when reason and science need a champion. Bill Nye the Science Guy needs a hand.

Because Bill Gates is the world’s second richest man, he received an advance copy of “Enlightenment Now”. For the rest of us, it’s due to be sold on Amazon by the world’s richest man, on February 27.

I wonder what Oprah thinks of all of this?

Paul Sullivan is an award winning journalist and communications strategist in Vancouver , British Columbia.

  • Peter Bisson, SJ
    Posted at 01:25h, 24 October Reply

    Thank you Paul!

  • Fr William Bourke, sj
    Posted at 00:40h, 25 October Reply

    A week ago, Pope Francis, addressing the Jesuits of the provinces of Latvia and Lithuania, mentioned the negative heritage of the Enlightenment, viz. a vision of education to fill heads – to get success. He reminded them – and us – that Ignatius was an educator who used three languages, of the head, of the heart and of the hands. He was quoting from Paul VI’s address to the Jesuits on December 3rd, 1974 – “The best things a Pope ever said to Jesuits.” I liked a final comment of Pope Francis – “the church is a field hospital; don’t be afraid of chaos!”

    Fr William Bourke, sj – Darjeeling, India

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