The World is Getting Better. It’s a meme for the worldly. A conclusion that all good citizens are supposed to accept, congratulating one another for our perspicacity. After all, this is a golden age, where you can hail an Uber in five seconds flat with a smartphone to hook up with with your Tinder. Presto: The World Is Getting Better!!
But. Is the world really getting better? And what does that phrase even mean? Is it a claim worth considering — or is it like “a majority of respondents rated this soda more highly than leading brands” — just a nostrum, that reasoning people should discard, because there’s not much thinking in it?
In this short essay, I want to advance the tiny thesis that “The World is Getting Better” is an ideology, a dogma, a faith. Like all ideologies, it is an unexamined set of false beliefs which prevent us from doing the difficult work of thinking about being in the world. I’ll refer to this ideology as TWIGBYism, for “The World is Getting Better!! Yeah!!”
You don’t have to look very far to see how far the TWIGBYism has permeated pop culture. TWIGBYism, in short, is the conclusion — as clear as day, as solid as rock, unquestionable, beyond a shadow of a doubt — that the world is on a voyage of manifest destiny towards progress. And implicitly, that technology, capital, and power are the triple handmaidens of that voyage of inevitable human progress.
TWIGBY!! High-five, brometheus!! TWIGBYism has become something like a secular religion comprised of the twin sacraments of techno-utopianism and neo-progressivism. Like religion, it allows its disciples to fiercely believe, without thinking; to proclaim, without reasoning; and to decry, without self-examination. Like all religions, its tenets are sacrosanct: they lie beyond reason, evidence, argument, question. They are proferred to us as divine revelations, which are true because they are the word of a higher power.
Let us, then, you and I, heretics of the human spirit in this golden age of the machine, begin to question them. Is the world really getting better?
Here are just some of the things the world is getting “better” at.
The world is getting better at mass extinction (as The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert has so hauntingly documented).
The world is getting better at climate change (as NASA’s James Hansen has so persuasively demonstrated).
The world is getting better at economic stagnation (as Nobel Laureates Joe Stiglitz and Amartya Sen have convincingly argued).
The world is getting better at corruption. The Corruption Perception Index, an imperfect yet authoritative measure, shows little change over time. Meanwhile, trust in nearly every kind of institution is falling precipitously.
The world is getting better at unfairness. While inequality between countries is equalizing, inequality within countries is increasing — suggesting societies are converging to, settling for, the greatest injustice among them, not the greatest justice between them.
The world is getting meta-worse. Climate change and extinction, like many kinds of “worse”, share a special feature: they are irreversible. They cannot be undone. The planet, contrary to the beliefs of naive capitalists, does not come with a warranty, a service plan, or a trade-in agreement. Irreversible changes do not merely make the world worse — they make it worse at getting worse. They lower the ceiling of progress that it can attain, forevermore.
I could go on, but perhaps you see my point. So: again. Is the world really getting better? Now, perhaps, you see the illogic of TWIGBYism illuminated in the light of reason. To say that the world is “getting better” in any of these regards, as any six year old knows, is not just illogical — it is absurd, below reason, foolish. For getting better at getting worse is not something any of us should reasonably desire.
TWIGBYism is the equivalent of arguing a serial killer is getting better because he’s offing victims more efficiently…and thus proclaiming him rehabilitated. It is, on even the most cursory glance, insufficient, incomplete, a half examined project, where costs and benefits, even glaringly obvious ones, are ignored, omitted, or neglected.
The truth, if we are to venture towards it, is very different. The world is indeed getting better. But at precisely many of the wrong things. Things that we should not reasonably desire, for those very things threaten us existentially and irreversibly, not just culturally, emotionally, materially, and spiritually.
Where, then, does this moral accounting leave us? Let us examine our ledger of moral costs and benefits. On one side, the world is getting better, just as TWIGBYism suggests. But on the other, the world is getting better at getting worse. What does the ledger balance to? The liabilities and assets, the costs and benefits, appear to point convincingly in…no direction at all. The World is Getting Better…but it is also getting better at getting worse, in ways that appear to be of greater import and significance, because they cannot be undone, ever made better again. Both of these are true at once. The great mistake of TWIGBYism is to see only one side of the ledger— and to claim it as the whole, conclusive truth.
And yet. When we examine both sides of the ledger, there is no clear direction of progress to be discerned. And that is what begins to reveal TWIGBYism as an ideology of techno-progress, not a philosophy of human progress. For the simple moral accounting above demonstrates an ever-present human truth: progress is not a straight line, a manifest destiny, a linear trajectory. Progress, if it is to be an idea worth considering at all, is a a paradox, a contradiction, an irreconciliation. It cannot contain within it room only for reason, for no one would be unreasonable enough to want, need, desire, attempt it.
I am a dinosaur. A reprobate. I am a liberal who has seen the light, and a conservative who has dwelled in the darkness. So I do not believe overmuch in human progress. I believe in material progress, in social progress, and in, perhaps, a naive kind of ethical progress. But human progress is hazier, indistinct, a storm on the sea. Can we say, today, that we are better people than we were millennia ago? Can we say that we are wiser, smarter, nobler, truer? I am not sure. The ledger never balances easily. And sometimes it will not balance at all.
That is precisely why we, you and I, need more than mere ideologies. False convictions, erroneous beliefs, for they will only sentence us to being mere fools, who cannot not even balance the moral books —but who cannot even read them to begin with. That is why we need philosophies. Ideas, great and wide open meadows of thought, which free us from the mires of unreason, and lead us, perhaps, to the promised land of possibility. And nowhere is that need greater than in the arena of human progress and potential. For even the slave-traders and the war-makers had ideologies. But without philosophies, on which to build empires of reason, our work has not even begun.
You are an obedient pragmatist. You do not want to speak of philosophies, useless things that they are. Let me put the above to you, then, in a more pragmatic way.
TWIGBYism is a fairytale. A storybook retelling of the great creation myth of meta-modernity. Human prosperity, we are told, is an unalloyed perfect metal, forged in the crucible of the industrial revolution. The modern world was born in a revolution of steam and flame. Abundance, available endlessly in infinite quantities, poured forth from the workshops of creation. And now forevermore, thanks to the alchemical formula of technology, capital, and power, will the world get better.
Like all myths, our creation myth of abundance reveals the truth at the heart of the lie. The facts are these: the beggar’s prosperity of meta-modernity is not an unalloyed good, available endlessly in infinite abundance, forged nobly in a great and virtuous workshop. It was born in the rape of the earth, nurtured by war and holocaust, conceived in the workhouse and plantation. And it is ordered, today, by a creaking, buckling system of finance, barely contained volcanos of social upheaval, and armies of middle managers who desperately wish for better things to devote their one and only lives to than pillaging the earth and plundering the future in the noble quest for… new flavours of deodorant.
It is true that the world is getting better — in the narrowest of terms. But it is truer that it is precisely the unbridled pursuit of such a simplistic notion of progress which is, simultaneously, paradoxically, contradictorily, causing it to get worse in many real, and irreversible ways.
And so. It is confronting, untangling, and resolving exactly the paradoxes and contradictions of our Predator’s Bargain with prosperity that is the great challenge to which this generation of ours must rise. Not merely philosophically, but pragmatically, in the real world, here and now. Rise, or else surely fall from what little grace our forefathers earned for us.
I have shown TWIGBYism to be insufficient, simplistic, erroneous. Now let us examine why it is so, by examining the curious turn of phrase “the world is getting better” itself.
“The world” in the “the world is getting better” clearly does not mean the planet, the environment, society, or human well-being. For none of these things are in fact getting better. So what does it mean? It means, to oversimplify, “the world” that the proponents of TWIGBYism live in. Because it suggests that they simply do not care to examine the real, larger world , whether human, environmental, or social, very much, whether in an ethical, material, or moral sense. “The world” in “the world is getting better” applies best to the profligate lifestyles of the super-rich, which, after all, is largely why they are the most vocal proponents of TWIGBYism. Their world is indeed “getting better”, in a simplistic way: they are vastly richer, healthier, and more secure than ever before. They will not be the desperate refugees of drowning nations. “The world”, then, in TWIGBYism is not the world at all — it is merely the world of the TWIGBYists.
Perhaps, in the final analysis, “the world” of the TWIGYBists is simply their inner world. For a rich man may feel happier with his riches if he believes, after all, that they do not cost anyone else anything, but indeed benefit all men. He will not suffer the burdens of remorse, anxiety, or self-doubt; but be better pleased with his own virtue. That “world” is what truly appears to get better in TWIGBYism. Because it is a world cleansed of moral questions. Have I spent my time on earth wisely? Has my life amounted to what it should? Have I earned my bread justly? Of course I have! There’s no need to ask!! The World is Getting Better!! Thus: “The world is getting better” may simply often mean, to a TWIGBYist, head buried firmly in the sand: “I have found an ideology by which I can convince myself that my actions, no matter how dubious, are morally pure. After all, the world is getting better!”
What, then, does the “is getting” in “the world is getting better” mean?
Here is the curious fact. TWIGBYists cannot say how, precisely, the world has gotten better. Just that it…has. After all, that is its destiny. They appear to believe that even those narrow dimensions along which they proclaim the world is getting better happen by a miraculous alchemy. Thus, the “getting” is simply an alchemical process: with the right reagents, lead magically turns into gold.
Thus, never will you hear a TWIGBYist give credit where it is actually due. Here is a simple example. The historic and great reductions in global poverty, child mortality, and women’s rights, are no miracle, not magic — and surely not merely alchemy. Quite the opposite: they are the very real, very hard, very brave work of legions of talented, dedicated, and noble people. They are largely due to the fact that the World Bank and UN (among others) explicitly targeted them, and mounted a global offensive for them, for several decades, investing billions of dollars and millions of people-hours to make them happen.
And they did so, in turn, is because the great economists Amartya Sen and Mahbub-ul-Haq laid the theoretical groundwork for the Bank and the UN to do so. You have doubtless never heard of them….perhaps because TWIGBYists — who are usually white — do not appear to want to give credit to two brown men, never mind that they are two of the greatest minds in centuries. Or perhaps I overstate my case, and the truth is more prosaic: TWIGBYists are just plain ignorant of the minds and ideas, the work and effort, the theory and practice they should be celebrating, blissfully unaware of how the causes of the very effects they champion came to be in the first place. That, of course, is ideology: the opposite of knowledge, thought, reason.
Let me emphasize the point. The “is getting” in “the world is getting better”, the TWIGBYists would have us believe, is a magical alchemy. if you’re a TWIGBY, it appears, there need be no more thought or effort to how to organize human societies, lives, ideas, or thought. All we need do is simply apply the magic formula of the golden age: technology, capital, power. And hey presto: TWIGBY. Simply mix together the reagents of technology, capital, and power freely — and human suffering will somehow turn to prosperity. But nothing could be further from the truth: the world is getting better, in the narrow ways in which it is, only because institutions, laws, and social contracts were painstakingly designed and built, by a generation of great, courageous minds, for it to do so.
Now let us examine the “better”. I have demonstrated, already, that “better” is inadequate, for the world is getting better, in many ways, at getting worse. But there is a deeper problem here. The theory of “better” contained in “the world is getting better” is so simplistic even a child would laugh at it. Has my world really gotten better because I have more things that I neither need nor want nor should?
The dimensions of “better” that TWIGBYists choose are always linear, quantifiable, continuous. Let us take a simple example. Human lifespans are extending. TWIGBYists would have us believe that this is an unalloyed good. But for many, added life-years of terrible suffering are worse than none at all, and dedicating human effort to win them is dubious at best. This is not a minor point. It reveals a great fallacy. For TWIGBYists, there is no moral component to better; no further thinking to be done; nothing more to examine or to be revealed. “Better” is simply always more, bigger, faster, cheaper. And yet what remains unexamined by TWIGBYists is not merely the costs incurred in the pursuit of such simplistic benefits — but even the true human worth of the benefits themselves.
“The world is getting better”. But that is not nearly an accurate enough summation. It is more accurate to say that the world is getting better, in narrow ways…but it is also getting better…at getting worse…thus not getting better enough, fast enough, at what truly counts enough, for enough. TWIGBYism is dangerous, as all ideologies are, precisely because it prevents those who staunchly believe the former from making the mental journey towards understanding the latter.
But what of those of us who cannot make that journey?
Let me, then, finish my heresy against the Predator’s Myth of infinite alchemical progress. I am tired, and you are too, now.
The world is getting better only in a very narrow kind of sense. In the same sense that the wolf might argue, during the long summer, that the world is getting better for the sheep. The valley might be blossoming. And the sheep may be tranquil. But the winter is coming, and it may be a winter without end. The wolves will reign. The world is getting better in precisely that narrow, selfish sense, which I will call the Predator’s Bargain. The world is getting better for the predators among us, to whom the health of the planet, the vulnerable, the economy, and society matter little — as long as their bellies are full. For it is only in that narrow sense, satiation, here and now, that they evaluate the world as better.
The Predator’s Bargain is the black hole at the heart of TWIGBYism. It asks us to see the cost as the reward. To view the very real costs that “the world getting better” has on the planet, the poor, the rule of law, and the social contract as, at worst, nuisances — and at best, as progress itself. How perverse, how bankrupt — how absurd. That is not progress at all, for it represents no improvement. It is merely degeneration, decline, decay, disguised as progress.
The TWIGBYs would like nothing more than for us, each and every one, to accept the Predator’s Bargain. To join them, and become predators. And so we have. The list of nations celebrating extremism today is as long as it is dismal: Canada, Australia, the UK, Scandinavia, Turkey. All these nations have accepted the Predator’s Bargain, and hope to become “better” — in the narrow terms of the predator. They hope to fill their bellies to bursting — the planet, the economy, the vulnerable, society itself be damned. And so, too, we are encouraged to accept the Predators’ Bargain. “If you were to become a predator, and enjoy the cost as the reward”, the logic of techno-progress says, “your world, too, would get better. That, after all, is the way of the world. The strong must consume the weak, so progress is assured for all.” All who are left, perhaps. For as long as they may fill their bellies, on something or someone weaker.
But life, alas, cannot be outwitted so easily. It is no mere equation to be solved, no algorithm to be optimized. The Predator’s Bargain is a great illusion. Though a predator may fill his belly, man is not born to be an animal. Surrendering his moral sentiments, his social impulses, and his natural world, in order to appease his animal instincts cannot lead any human being to meaning, happiness, purpose — life itself. It cannot instill in him the burning conviction: “this is the life I was meant to live”. It can only drive him to greater darkness still. For it is when the satiation of kill yields little satisfaction that the predators turn on one another — as they are across the world. There is no level, amount, or quantity of “better” that can be enough to win the Predator’s Bargain; and that is the great tragedy in it.
Let me put that in more prosaic terms. Should we become the first generation to watch billion-inch ultra-reality planet-size HDTVs, but not have a planet left to nourish us, what the fuck will it truly benefit us? Should we have to compete with such vengeance that we betray our moral selves to win those planet-sized toys, will we feel that we have been worthy of them? Should we devote our lives to creating such toys, instead of doing truly noble and great things, whether voyaging to the stars, or curing the sickest among us, in what way will we come to feel that we have truly lived? It is in those senses that the Predator’s Bargain is a great illusion.
And in its very greatness is hidden its truth: its desperation. The Predator’s Bargain is the last desperate gambit of today’s ideologues. Who believe that man is better an animal than a human; that his claws are sharper than his mind; that his appetite is fiercer than his heart.
TWIBGYism, then, cheats us. It is a pickpocket of the human spirit. It is a loanshark of the human mind. It cheats us of undertaking the difficult moral calculus necessary for each and every one of us to live great, worthy, true lives. It cheats us of asking the big questions. Is this kind of better good enough? Is the world that is getting better everyone’s world? Whose world is getting better — and whose worse? What giving does the getting require, ask, demand — and is it just?
And so it cheats us of rebellion, truth, grace, wonder, dreams. All that calls us to rise to our full potential. Instead, it caricatures us, stunts us, diminishes us, reduces us. To be something less than people, and more like robots. Furiously obeying the empty programming of technology, capital, and power. In the service of the world getting better…at getting worse…and not getting better enough, fast enough, at the things that truly count enough, for enough.
The gods damned Prometheus for giving humanity the gift of fire. Perhaps then, as now, they are wiser than men. The TWIGBYs want us to believe that the gift of fire has only been used to light humanity’s way to truth and justice in the night. But you and I know: that is but part of the story. The gift of fire is also what lit the incinerators, burned the condemned at the stake, and fuelled the war machines. Then, too, as the bombs fell, and the innocents lay slaughtered, there were those who said: the world is getting better.
Perhaps the gods knew, damning Prometheus, that man could do great evil, and call it good; and do great good, and call it evil. Perhaps the difficulty in saying which is which, and who is responsible for what portion, is what characterizes the human struggle. And so perhaps, just perhaps, when we celebrate our gifts of fire, we would do well to remember: we are not gods. We are not even men. Until, at last, we have the defiance to love.
And that is my true objection to the Predator’s Bargain. For here is what it really does. It absolve us of our greatest and first responsibility. To love. In return, it offers us the temptations of endless abundance. The World is Getting Better! Alchemically, magically, automatically !— what responsibility, then, is it of yours or mine, to care for it, tend to it, celebrate it’s fragility? But to love the world around us, in its every joyous and miraculous form, past the edges of ourselves, is every life’s greatest obligation. Without love, there is no abundance that can slake man’s thirst. Not merely for things, nor for conquests, nor for desire itself. But for being. Grace, gratitude, at last, for the struggle of being, is what blesses each life with meaning, happiness, purpose, completion. But without love, there is no grace. There is only the howl of the predators in the night.