2016 Was a Good Year and a Bad Year for Humanity, Depending on How You Count It

Though the end of 2016 was greeted by most people I know with a sigh of relief and by pundits as being the end of a very bad year, people who look carefully at the evidence on social trends have been pushing back. Economist Max Roser and representatives of Innovations for Poverty Action (where I work part-time) both recently wrote columns in the Washington Post about why 2016 was, in fact, a great year for humanity. Worldwide poverty continued its massive decline, and there was no great increase in violence despite what people seem to think, leaving us still far ahead of humanity and pretty much any time in the past when it comes to the likelihood of dying a violent death, as psychologist Steven Pinker chronicles in the Better Angels of Our Nature and a more recent interview. All in all, humanity is likely doing better now than we were a year ago, in a continuation of an ongoing trend.

Odd, though, that so many people think things are so bad. At the end of 2015 there was a similar debate following the rise of ISIS (which has continued), the Ebola outbreak (which has largely been tackled), and so on. In 2015, I was inclined to agree with the view that the year had actually been a good one without reservations, but in 2016 I can't. What seems to be going on in many of these conversations is that the public looks at how much violence they see, and the public says, "too much." Then, academics look at how the amount of violence is changing and say, "but it's getting so much less bad!" The unanswered question is whether that change is likely to continue or revert: are things continuing to get better at the same rate, and does it look likely that this will continue to happen, or not? On that metric, I think 2016 was probably a very bad year.
Was 2016 like this...?
...Or like this?  
The rise of nationalist populism in the West, including Brexit, Trump, Italy's referendum, and more, is a marked change, as far as I can see, from the past several decades at least. Not only is it a marked change, though - it's a change from basically all the good trends that have led to a striking decline in violence over the course of human history (again, see Steven Pinker). It's a shift away from international cooperation toward narrow tribalism, away from norms against violence to norms increasingly accepting of it, away from feminism and ideals of equality toward hyper-masculinity and seductive hierarchy, and a shift away from any patina of economic reasoning toward instinct-driven policy.

Now, there are optimistic signs outside of rich Western countries - from Estonia to Ghana - but there are also countries like Brazil and the Philippines whose leaders make Trump seem like a wise statesman.

Worse than anything, though, is that the current trends seem to increase the probability of black swans - rare, catastrophic events with the ability to destroy or inflict misery on vast numbers of people and that books like The Better Angels of Our Nature probably don't quite account for. Trump seems determined to make nuclear war more likely and put exactly the right people around him to make it happen. His team's indifference to climate change in the face of overwhelming evidence does not bode well for other technical risks like an extremely harmful artificial intelligence or nano- or biotechnology run amok.

A few bad leaders is well below the norm for world history, but the increase in leaders bad in such particularly meaningful ways is cause for concern. 2016 may have been a good year for humanity in terms of sheer improvements, but it also brought signs that we might get a lot fewer improvements - and maybe some catastrophic steps backward - in the years ahead. To me, that's what's most striking - and terrifying - about 2016.


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