It’s hard not to like Steven Pinker. I’ve never met the celebrated cognitive psychologist and public intellectual, but he’s managed to cheer me up on occasion. Even though that’s what psychologists are supposed to do, I was briefly grateful. Unfortunately, reality – especially the grim variety – has a habit of reminding me why I’m less optimistic about the world than Professor Pinker seems to be.
I do have one thing in common with Pinker, however: we are both children of the Enlightenment. Among other things this means that we believe in the possibility of progress in human affairs. This may seem like a rather fanciful idea at this historical juncture, but in Pinker’s two very influential books Enlightenment Now, and The Better Angels of Our Nature, a suitably rational and empirically grounded argument is made that, on the whole, things are getting better.
In much of the world female emancipation is a reality, wife and child beating has largely gone out of fashion, and state sponsored violence has, until recently at least, declined dramatically. Indeed, old-fashioned interstate warfare seemed to have become the exception to a more general rule of peaceful co-existence and a toleration of difference. Not quite a Kantian “perpetual peace” perhaps, but an improvement on the industrialised violence and genocide that characterised the 20th century.
In the aftermath of the Cold War, it even seemed as if universal peace and prosperity might become a reality, at least for the fortunate inhabitants of the dominant states and economies of the West. But then George W. Bush – with the enthusiastic support of what would become America’s AUKUS allies – invaded Iraq and destabilised the Middle East in ways that continue to reverberate throughout the region.
Equally problematically for the thesis that things are getting better, the Iraq fiasco has permanently undermined America’s position as the historical embodiment and upholder of Enlightenment values. Not only does America’s domestic political situation no longer inspire confidence, much less admiration, but its attempts at imposing international order are frequently dismissed as tendentious and hypocritical. Many in the Global South have long been critical of a “rules-based international order” that is frequently ignored by the United States – its absence from the International Criminal Court, and United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, for example –or seen as furthering American interests. More importantly in the current era, perhaps, when the United States tries to criticise rogue states such as Russia, the invariable response is “what about Iraq?”
The intention here is not to heap opprobrium on the United States, but to point out how difficult any notion of international progress has become when the most powerful state in the world is seen as either incapable or unwilling of acting in pursuit of something like the common collective good. Nor is any other country likely to do better. For all China’s emphasis on pragmatism and a non-doctrinaire approach to development, it is hardly a beacon of Enlightenment values or a champion of universal human rights.
Perhaps the COP28 climate conference will defy expectations and an authoritarian petrostate with a notorious human rights record will succeed in mobilising the much invoked “international community’” into meaningful action where others have failed. Given that the United Arab Emirates seems to see this primarily as an opportunity for some rebranding and an expansion of its oil exports, a little scepticism doesn’t seem unreasonable, though.
More negative sniping? Perhaps. But unless we – in this case the entire human race – do something about our collapsing environment, then it is hard to see how any sort of progress is possible. Rather tellingly, Pinker doesn’t have much to say about the brute material environmental reality upon which we all depend. He may be correct in suggesting that the birthplace of ideas has no bearing on their merit, but getting them enacted, even the good ones, is quite another matter.
Sadly, unambiguously bad ideas – bombing and/or invading the neighbours, for example – are still surprising fashionable, humanity’s frequently blood-soaked collective history notwithstanding. One might have thought that the First World War and the 40 million entirely avoidable deaths it caused might have cured us of the military approach to international affairs. And yet even in famously secure and privileged Australia, the pointless slaughter at Gallipoli is seen as a quintessential moment of nation-building.
As the bodies pile up as a result of modern conflicts, those in the news and those overlooked, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to be a bit doubtful about our future. After all, when the killing finally stops, someone will have to rebuild what has been destroyed. Just think of the amount of CO2 all that building will require?