How Can We Know whether the World Is Progressing?

Bill and Melinda Gates don’t want you to believe the myth. They’re here to tell you that the world will be a better place in twenty-five years. How can they be so sure? Easy. Just look at history.

Twenty-five years ago, the world was worse off than it is today. They have charts to prove it!

I agree that I enjoy living in 2014. I think that life is pretty comfortable here in America, and the Gateses rightly note that the world is more comfortable in most places than it was twenty-five years ago. But I find their history lesson a little problematic.

As all investing firms say, “Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.”

I think Bill and Melinda would do well to heed that advice.

If we take a longer view of history, we find that things don’t always improve over the space of twenty-five years just because the previous twenty-five were pretty cool.

During the nineteenth century, most people in the West thought like Bill and Melinda. The Enlightenment had brought people progressive ideas. The Industrial Revolution caused unprecedented technological development, bringing higher standards of living. How could anything stand in the way of this progress of the human spirit?

The Great War began in 1914 and dragged on until 1918. Over nine million young men died. As the war wound down, the Spanish flu spread, killing many times more people than the war did. Things looked to improve for a few years, but then the stock market crashed in 1929, sending the world into the Great Depression. And then began the Second World War, a war in which participants brought brutality and atrocity to new levels.

The twentieth century caused many people around the world to lose their faith in this idea of progress.

Things have steadily been getting better since the 1940s. Progressivism has made a bit of a comeback. But a long view of history shows us that things can change quickly.

But something bothers me more than the Gateses’ historical myopia. I’m bothered by how they define “better.” The world is physically healthier than it was twenty-five years ago, and it’s financially wealthier than it was twenty-five years ago. Is that as good as it gets?

I’ve been reading Augustine’s City of God lately. Augustine wrote this massive work as the Roman Empire crumbled. In the book he wrote about the glory days of Rome’s Republic. Rome had subdued her enemies and increased her wealth, but Augustine notes that her morals were in decline. The people became increasingly addicted to luxury, and the government became increasingly addicted to corruption.

Augustine talks about the material calamities that befell the Roman people, but he’s much more interested in their spiritual state.

I think he’s on to something. We can’t forget to talk about the moral aspect, when we ask how far we’ve come. Is the world more moral than it was twenty-five years ago? In my opinion, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. In some ways, yes; in some ways, no; and in some ways, maybe.

In the long view of history, human morality has always been a fairly mixed bag.

How are we progressing morally? I think it’s a conversation worth having. It’s just a lot harder to put our answers on a colorful chart.

5 responses to “How Can We Know whether the World Is Progressing?”

  1. Mister Gates should worry? The First Class passengers always manage to get into the lifeboats; it is the poor clowns in steerage who pay the penalty for the ship ramming an iceberg.

  2. I totally agree Collin. What the Gates are doing is kind of like looking at one severe storm, or one winter or summer, or even a 10 or 20 year period and using it to argue for or against climate change. Over the course of history I think we can definitely say that mankind has progressed, most notably in the sciences and technology, which has led to ‘easier living’. But, and I think this is a big BUT, we (mankind) always tend to think we’re smarter than we are and that we can define right and wrong and good and evil. That’s where we are today and the ‘intellectuals’ are doing just that and convincing the masses, as they have done throughout the centuries, why some things that may appear morally wrong to some are not when considered alongside how they can benefit mankind, e.g., make our lives more convenient and carefree, like abortion. I’m convinced that the world will see another correction one day, maybe in my lifetime, maybe not. It’s just inevitable given man’s pride.

    BTW I’m enjoying your background info and insight in reading the City of God! Thank-you for taking your time to do that for so many of us.

  3. The Gates’ will never have any credibility with me in defining “better world” as long as their definition is so heavily dependent on the world having fewer and fewer non-White people.

    “Now we do have population growth in areas we don’t want it, like Yemen, Pakistan, and parts of Africa, where we don’t have the resources to really help those people. ” Bill Gates

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