Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

A Glorious Moment, Come What May

No one knows where Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and the other countries of North Africa and the Middle East are headed. It could be heaven or hell. Or a thousand points between. But the gloomy pundits who despair because they can see nothing but misery ahead - as if there were not plenty of misery behind - are missing the big picture. To illustrate, allow me to quote from a book that was forgotten long ago. "Only two outcomes are imaginable in this tragedy-laden historic drama. One is the descent of large portions of the underdeveloped world into a condition of steadily worsening social disorder, marked by shorter life expectancies, further stunting of physical and mental capabilities, political apathy intermingled with riots and pillaging when crops fail. Such societies would probably be ruled by dictatorial governments serving the interests of a small economic and military upper class and presiding over the rotting countryside with mixed resignation, indifference, and despair." These sloppy dictatorships wouldn't be able to keep poor countries from disintegrating. And so we would see "the eventual rise of iron' governments, probably of a military-socialist cast," that will maintain order with brute force and terror. These passages come from An Inquiry Into The Human Prospect. Written by economist and essayist Robert Heilbroner in 1973, it was a best-seller at a time when Malthusian expectations of starvation, environmental apocalypse, and the rise of "iron" governments were widely shared. Fortunately, Heilbroner was wrong. Indeed, what happened in the decades following was essentially the opposite of what he predicted. Using data on civil liberty and democratic rights, the NGO Freedom House calculated that in 1973, 29 per cent of countries were "free"; 25 per cent were "partly free"; and 46 per cent were "not free." Two decades later, 38 per cent of countries were free; 33 per cent partly free; and only 29 per cent were not free. Some people thought this was good news. But journalist Robert Kaplan knew better. In a hugely influential essay (later a book) written in 1993, and published in The Atlantic in 1994, Kaplan warned of "the coming anarchy." Quoting the Canadian political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon, Kaplan dismissed the spread of freedom in places like India and Brazil as mere "epiphenomena" - froth on the ocean's surface. The currents beneath were what really mattered and those currents were steadily pushing us toward global doom. Kaplan's basic argument was essentially the same as Robert Heilbroner's. Overpopulation, resource scarcity, and environmental collapse were steadily weakening societies and dragging the teeming masses further down into poverty and despair. Forget dreams of freedom. Disintegration and dictatorship awaited. "Think of a stretch limo in the potholed streets of New York City, where homeless beggars live," Homer-Dixon told Kaplan. "Inside the limo are the air- conditioned post-industrial regions of North American, Europe, the emerging Pacific Rim, and a few other isolated places, with their trade summitry and computer-information highways. Outside is the rest of mankind, going in a completely different direction." "In the developing world," wrote Kaplan, "environmental stress will present people with a choice that is increasingly among totalitarianism (as in Iraq), fascist-tending mini-states (as in Serb-held Bosnia), and road-warrior cultures (as in Somalia)." So what happened in the years since Kaplan cast a pall of gloom over the wonks and politicos who read The Atlantic? Pretty much what happened after Heilbroner wrote his grim masterpiece. "Since 1970, 155 countries - home to 95 per cent of the world's people - have experienced increases in real per capita income. The annual average today is $10,760, almost 1.5 times its level 20 years ago and twice its level 40 years ago." These increase are evident "in all regions." As a result, "poor countries are catching up with rich countries in the (Human Development Index)." That's from the United Nations Human Development Report 2010. It has heaps more data, most of it stunningly positive. The simple truth is the people of the developing world are much better educated, healthier, and wealthier than ever before. And freer. Between 1993 and 2010, the share of countries which are "not free" fell from 29 per cent of the total to 24 per cent. "Partly free" countries declined from 33 to 30 per cent. "Free" countries rose from 38 to 46 per cent. But one region missed out on much of that wonderful change. In North Africa and the Middle East, the rule of tyrants, thugs, and kleptocrats was never seriously challenged and a broad swath of the planet stagnated. Until a despairing fruit seller in Tunisia set himself on fire. Until people decided they would not take it any more. Until now. Yes, it may all end in tears. Nothing is certain in human affairs. Indeed, we may all descend into a Malthusian hell some day. Who knows? But for many years reality has mocked those who cry doom. And now one of the last holdouts against human progress has been breached by men and women demanding rights and dignity. Whatever comes, this is a glorious moment.