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Progress in Peril

While the long-term trend lines of progress since the Enlightenment are clear, history offers no support for blind optimism. Improvements in human well-being have been repeatedly interrupted by reversals, forcing us to consider the implications of our own age of populism, pandemics, and climate change.

PRINCETON – It has been ten years since I wrote The Great Escape, which tells the story of how human life improved over the past 250 years, particularly in terms of longevity and material living standards. But the past decade has been unkind to my overwhelmingly positive account. My observation that “life is better now than at any time in history” may have been true in 2013, but it probably is not today, even for the typical person. The question is whether this reversal will be temporary, or whether it is only the beginning of worse to come. Do recent events demand that the basic story be retold?

It is all too easy to focus on current threats, while ignoring the past and discounting the longer-run forces that prevailed even in the face of terrible setbacks. But one must remember that we have an enormous accumulation of useful knowledge – more than any of our predecessors. It won’t allow us to solve every urgent problem, but it is neither easily lost nor forgotten.

We also should remember how and why things got better in the past; how the desire to escape from poverty, disease, and death brought steady improvements. Solutions were rarely immediate, but after the Enlightenment, the triumph of reason over unthinking obedience and dogma increasingly produced reliable answers to questions old and new. To take just one notable example, the germ theory of disease furnished humanity with some of the most useful knowledge ever discovered.