In our last editorial, we provided a quick introduction to Steven Pinker’s latest book, “Enlightenment Now”, with a list of six key facts which the author used to illustrate that the society propounded by Enlightenment philosophers has been fully achieved.
Ever-increasing life expectancy, fast-dropping infant mortality rates, daily caloric intake sufficient for subsistence even in the poorest populations, a drastic drop in the percentage of populations living below the extreme poverty line, a reduction in inequality between countries (poor countries are becoming richer faster than rich countries are getting richer); and thanks to technological progress, we are constantly improving our environment. This little selection of data, while whetting our appetite for the theory being put forward, is still meagre compared to the volume of data compiled by Pinker and the work undertaken: he uses over 75 infographics to demonstrate that the world is getting better, and that it is all a result of the Enlightenment philosophy which brought us Science and Humanism.
For example, we also learn that war between countries has become obsolete and civil war non-existent in five sixths of the world; genocide has become rare, and murder kills more people now than wars, although it too is in decline. Life has never been more “safe” than it is today. The figures from the USA are impressive: American citizens over the course of the 20th century were 96% less likely to be killed in a car accident and 99% less likely to die in a plane accident. They are also 92% less likely to die from asphyxiation or 95% less likely to die in a workplace accident.
In addition to the drastic reduction of risk, there is a general improvement in the political system, which leads to greater freedom. In fact, according to Pinker, two centuries ago only a few countries subscribed to the ideals of democracy, while today it is more than two-thirds of the world’s countries representing two-thirds of the world’s population. There are fewer countries with laws against racial minorities, women can now vote in all countries where men can vote except one (compared with the inverse, only one country where they could vote, at the beginning of the 20th century). Laws against homosexuals are becoming increasingly rare, hate crimes and violence against women are showing a long term decline, as is the exploitation of children. Knowledge has also continued to grow: at the beginning of the 19th century, 12% of the world population could read and write, today it is 83%. This progress also includes social progress: Americans, for example, work 22 hours less per week than before and have more free time.
Pre-empting the question of negative external factors, Pinker declares “as societies have become healthier, wealthier, freer, happier, and better educated, they have set their sights on the most pressing global challenges. They have emitted fewer pollutants, cleared fewer forests, spilled less oil, set aside more preserves, extinguished fewer species, saved the ozone layer and peaked in their consumption of oil, farmland, timber, paper, cars, coal, and perhaps even carbon. For all their differences, the world’s nations came to a historic agreement on climate change.”
Let’s put Pinker to one side for a moment and take a brief detour. Imagine my surprise when the other day, on purchasing the new weekly publication “Vraiment”, I discovered a banner headline: “Our industrial civilisation is close to collapse” [“La civilisation industrielle va bientôt s’effondrer”], which captioned an interview with Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens, who are respectively a Doctor of biology and an expert in socio-ecology. In 2015, these two authors had a book published by Seuil entitled “How everything can collapse” [“Comment tout peut s’effondrer”] in which they claim to have developed a new field of scientific study, “Collapseology” or the science of social collapse. Pablo Servigne claims that “Collapseology – a term derived from the Latin collapsus, “fallen down all together” – studies the collapse of industrial civilisation and what could succeed it. It is based partly on analysis supported by trans-disciplinary scientific publications, and partly on cognitive science [knowledge acquisition process, Ed.], which centres on the study of our emotions and intuitions. All these facts, figures, hypotheses, expert opinions and scenarios provide a complete overview of the various crises (energy, financial, biological, climate, etc.) and explain their interaction in order to construct a systemic global analysis. This all serves to develop our intuition into the following hypothesis: industrial civilisation is on the verge of collapse. The aim of Collapseology is to spread a warning of this possibility as widely as we can, and to propose tools to put policies in place which could make this collapse less brutal.”
We now have the enticing prospect of a controversy between an author collecting “Pro Enlightenment” data and authors who on the contrary are collecting gloom-laden data to show that the civilisation of the Enlightenment is doomed to failure. There is certainly the potential for a thesis on this topic. But back to our reading of Pinker. In the chapter “The Future of Progress”, the author, after summarising all the proven advantages provided by the knowledge society, adopts the opposite view and presents the same data in a negative light.
So, rather than saying that 90% of individuals have emerged from extreme poverty, he says that 700 million still live in extreme poverty and that life expectancy is down to 60 years on average in the regions where the extreme poor are concentrated. That at least a million children die of pneumonia every year, that a dozen wars are in full swing in the world at the moment etc. – an approach that our two Collapseologists would probably not oppose. Pinker then speculates about this other possible reading of the facts, and observes “My aim in presenting identical facts in these two ways is not to say that one can concentrate on the glass half full or half empty. It is to remember that progress is not a utopia, and that there is room – indeed, an imperative – for us to persevere in the direction of that progress. (…) The Enlightenment philosophy is a continuous process of discovery and improvement.”
The author then speculates about the possibilities of this trend and makes an observation that helps us understand that the reality of the progress of the Enlightenment is by no means relative and cannot be reduced to a phenomenon studied by “Collapseology” or any other, irrational, dystopian vision “Better still, improvements build on one another. A richer world can better afford to protect the environment, police its gangs, strengthen its social safety nets, and teach and heal its citizens. A better-educated and connected world cares more about the environment, indulges fewer autocrats and starts fewer wars. The technological advances that have propelled this progress should only gather speed. Stein’s Law continues to obey Davies’s Corollary (Things that can’t go on forever can go on much longer than you think), and genomics, synthetic biology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, materials science, data science and evidence-based policy analysis are flourishing. We know that infectious diseases can be extinguished, and many are slated for the past tense. (…) I can present this optimistic vision without blushing because it is not a naïve reverie or sunny aspiration. It’s the view of the future that is most grounded in historical reality, the one with the cold, hard facts on its side. It depends only on the possibility that what has already happened will continue to happen”.
Thank you Mr. Pinker for this marvellous and dense analysis, which we would absolutely recommend in order to resist the prevalent Collapseology, especially since, paradoxically, and despite all the facts, the latter belief seems to be taking root more and more in the public mind. But is it any wonder? When we look at the very first infographic in “Enlightenment now”, we realize that since 1945, the tone of the news in the New York Times has been one of ever-increasing pessimism. Once again, what a contrast to all the progress that has been made!
 Pinker S., “Enlightenment now”, Viking, p.324
 “Better still, improvements build on one another. A richer world can better afford to protect the environment, police its gangs, strengthen its social safety nets, and teach and heal its citizens. A better-educated and connected world cares more about the environment, indulges fewer autocrats and starts fewer wars. The technological advances that have propelled this progress should only gather speed. Stein’s Law continues to obey Davies’s Corollary (Things that can’t go on forever can go on much longer than you think), and genomics, synthetic biology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, materials science, data science and evidence-based policy analysis are flourishing. We know that infectious diseases can be extinguished, and many are slated for the past tense. (…) I can present this optimistic vision without blushing because it is not a naïve reverie or sunny aspiration. It’s the view of the future that is most grounded in historical reality, the one with the cold, hard facts on its side. It depends only on the possibility that what has already happened will continue to happen” in Pinker S., Enlightenment now, Viking, p.327