Hope: how far humanity has come

This was written for the wedding ceremony of two wonderful friends of mine - Ruby and Miranda. Sadly, I couldn't be there in person to see them get married, but the privilege of writing part of the ceremony was almost as good!

Some explanation might be needed for how exactly this fits into a wedding ceremony. As well as declaring their commitment to each other and exchanging vows, Ruby and Miranda wanted to have a part of the ceremony dedicated to talking about their shared values. This included some darkness - acknowledging that there are many problems and a great deal of suffering in the world - and some light - a vision for humanity in the future. In the section that I wrote, I talk about the step in between - how far humanity has come since the beginning, and why there's reason to hope that things are going to get even better. 

The world today isn’t perfect - far from it. But it’s also much, much, better than it used to be. Just as it’s impossible for us to really feel the full extent of the suffering in the world today, we also can’t really feel the full extent of the progress humanity has made. 

But it’s vital that we do, because it’s that sense of progress that will give us hope, hope that the future can be better.

Having hope isn’t always easy. We look to the past, and we see suffering. We look at the world today, and we also see suffering. It’s hard for your brain to tell the difference. 100,000 people dying feels roughly as bad as 1,000,000 people dying. But 100,000 deaths is a lot less than 1,000,000, even if it doesn’t seem it. It’s incredible progress.

To really see progress, first we have to look backwards. Imagine what your life would have been like had you been born just 300 years ago -  as an average person living in the 1700s. There was no middle class back then, so chances are you’d be poor - very poor. So poor that you stood a real chance of starving. If you were lucky, and managed to keep enough food on the table, you’d still be severely malnourished - enough that you could easily be killed off by any one of the various common diseases of the time. And deadly diseases were common: if you were born in 1700 in Europe, by the age of ten you’d have lived through two smallpox epidemics, a measles epidemic, and a famine. Add to this the constant threat of infection - without running water and soap, without antibiotics, a mere cut could easily kill you.

You worked hard - not just long hours, but physically gruelling agricultural or industrial work. Not just physically demanding, but also physically dangerous. If you got injured, you’d be on the streets, begging.

As a woman, you’d avoid this physically threatening labor of work, of course - replaced with your own special kind of physically threatening labor. You’d probably be pregnant most of the time you weren’t nursing. Infant and child mortality were ridiculously high, so you could expect to lose a lot of kids - maybe half or more. Your chances of dying during childbirth would be much, much higher than they are today - add to that the fact that you’re giving birth about ten times as often, and childbirth is one of your biggest risks of dying.

You couldn’t vote - a privilege reserved only for landowners. You probably couldn’t read - less than half the population could. There’s no electricity or heating, obviously, so you just have to get used to those cold, winter, nights, and pray that the bad weather doesn’t kill your crops - and your family. Your life expectancy is around 35.

Now think about your own life: your warm house, electricity, clean, running water. Your smartphone, internet connection, maybe that holiday you’ve got booked for a few months’ time. Sure, you have stresses and worries: that you might not achieve what you could, that you don’t have time to do all the things you enjoy, that someone you care about could get a rare illness. But you’re only able to worry about these things because of a whole host of other worries that don’t take up your time: you don’t have to worry about getting enough food, about getting a small cut, about keeping fifteen children alive.

The progress we’ve made over the past 300 years is immense. And 300 years is nothing - an absolutely miniscule amount of time in the hundreds of thousands of years of human history.

We’ve made insane amounts of progress. Sometimes I look at the world around me, remembering that once humans were hunter gatherers living in the natural environment, vulnerable to predators and extreme weather, and everything looks amazing. How did we get here? How did we manage to create these huge, intricate, buildings, interwoven with technology so complex most of us can’t even begin to explain how it all works?

Somehow, life developed on Earth from the most basic elements - and somehow incredibly, we, humans, evolved from that first basic life. We learned to hunt, to make fire, to use tools.

We developed writing, allowing us to share and pass on knowledge from generation to generation. We learned to farm, leading to the agricultural revolution, and allowing people to spend their time doing things other than searching for food. Gradually, new, more complex societies were born: cities and states with different classes of people. We learned to create our own fuel from coal, built the steam engine, and began producing goods in factories. We developed more and more advanced methods of transportation, allowing us to explore the world, share ideas, and grow in wealth and power. We learned how to make vaccines, and eradicated deadly killers such as smallpox, saving 100 million lives. We invented electricity, cars, and human flight. We put a man on the moon. We built computers, and connected them all via the internet. We made these computers small enough that anyone could carry one round in their pocket at all times.

We’ve made extraordinary progress in understanding the world around us, in learning to control our environment and guard against threats - large and small, in treating and eradicating diseases and saving lives. Every second, people are dying - but every second people are also defying death, death that would have been inevitable just a century ago.

Compared to almost everyone who has ever lived in all of history, your life is awesome.

Of course, even today, we’re the lucky ones. The average person today is much better off than the worst-off person. Millions of people in the world still aren’t so lucky - millions still live in poverty, still struggle to get enough food to get by, still die from curable diseases. But we now have the power to help people who suffer today, even those living on the other side of the world, at little cost to ourselves. Incredible advances in transport and technology mean that someone living in the Western world can save a life in developing countries at the click of a button. We’re much less violent, much more compassionate, empathetic and altruistic - we have not just the practical ability to help those worse off but also increasing levels of motivation to do so.

We’re going to face some serious challenges over the next century, that’s for certain - and of course it’s possible we won’t make it. But we’ve also got so much progress ahead of us in the next few decades, more progress than we can imagine. The world in 30 years is likely to be pretty unrecognisable to us now. Based on the patterns of the past, if we don’t off ourselves, there’s a chance it’s going to be unrecognisably better - that we’ll have eradicated the vast majority of suffering, that we’ll have a drastically better understanding of our universe and the technology to exert much greater control over it, that we’re going to have moved closer towards the light.

One thing I don’t doubt is that we’re going to put up a hell of a fight. We’re going to do everything we can to survive. We’re not going to sit back and let this universe engulf us. Around me, I see so much drive to fight back: to eliminate suffering, to push humanity forwards into a bright and better future, and that drive only seems to be getting stronger. And that, above all, gives me hope.