What do you see when you look out the window? What do you see when you read the newspaper? What do you think of the world right now? Almost everyone I know is complaining about the state of the world, so much so that one can’t help but believe that the world must currently be in the worst state it has ever been.
Except that they are wrong.
Steven Pinker is so convinced that not only is the world is doing fine, but that many of us are too deluded to really get it, that he has now written a second book on exactly this topic. Enlightenment Now, as much as non fiction books can have this property, is a sequel to Pinker’s earlier The better Angels of our Nature, which talks about how despite media scare mongering and general pessimism, the world is currently a great place and there has never been a better time to be alive.
But let’s be clear on one point: Pinker’s books are not conservative. They do not say ‘Things are great: let’s keep things as they are’. They argue that ‘things have never been better, can still improve, and thus we need to keep fighting.’ This distinction seem to be lost on some of the books detractors, and the work of appreciating this book lies in understanding what is really meant by Pinker’s optimism. Another portion of the detractors seem to get mired on notions of the enlightenment, and considering how Pinker clearly labels what he means when he talks about a return to Enlightenment values, those who play this semantic game likely didn’t read this book to begin with.
If I was at all able to read the book objectively, then I think Pinker did an excellent job at arguing as to why we should return to enlightenment values. The only problem I had with this book is that I am unsure as to whether I was reading the book objectively. I found myself agreeing with Pinker on nearly every single point. It’s when I reflect on that transition that I wonder whether I genuinely believe these points before reading or am merely easily persuaded.
I was already a part of the choir when this book came out. Ten years ago I was a much bigger fan of the Cassandra style doom-prophesying of writers like Chris Hedges. I am unsure how it is that I came to transition to the side of optimism, but I have. Frankly, I like the side of the fence that shows the glass as being half-full. When I was on the other side, I was never stirred with any kind of ambition to go out there and fix problems. If the world is screwed, then why bother?