It’s a popular notion, in almost every generation, that the world is heading toward disaster. The idea appeals to the religious right, some of whom look forward to the apocolypse, and it appeals to the far left, because they see it as a justification for revolution. And certainly in every time there have been things happening that are unwelcomed and unfortunate.

But in many respects, the world has been getting better. We think of the last century, with two world wars, as a period of terrible violence. But anthropologists and historians can show that we are actually living in the most peaceful time in the history of the human species. Steven Pinker describes this well in his recent talk at the TED conference:

The Myth of Violence

Pinker shows that the idea that early man lived in peace and harmony is completely false. Hunter-gatherer societies had staggering homicide rates. The chances of a man dying by murder range from 15 to 60 percent in all existing primitive societies that can still be studied (in Amazonia and New Guinea). Even the famous ice man found in a Swiss glacier died from an arrow in his back. The murder rate during the middle ages in Europe was documented and was about 100 times what it is in Western Europe today.

And what about poverty? Swedish professor Hans Rosling demonstrates (with a remarkable graphical presentation of statistics) that our conception of the “Third World” has become outdated. In the last few decades, the standard of living throughout most of the world has improved radically. See his TED talk here:

Debunking third-world myths

What has made the world get better, particularly over the last couple centuries? Largely it appears to be the action of practial people — The Englightenment, Democracy, Science, Captialism have help mankind throw off the yoke of dictatorship and mysticism.

The philosopher Eric Hoffer discussed this in his famous book “The True Believer”.

The True Believer

Practical people make the world better, because they are focused on living a better life and taking care of their families and friends. Ideological and zealous people make the world worse and cause human suffering, because they are focused on power, control and the rejection of social systems that elevate the status of practical people. Ironically, people who have tried to better themselves have often done more than people who have tried to lead revolutions in the name of altruism and spirituality.

A friend of mine recently saw a bumber sticker that expresses the idea concisely:

The End is not Nigh. Balance the budget!.