Reflection: Is the World Getting Worse? — Or Better?
WCIU Journal: Health and Disease Topic
January 31, 2018
by Beth Snodderly
Spoiler Alert: The answer is “both.” In this Reflection I compare comments by Ralph Winter in his article, “The Story of Our Planet,” with comments by philanthropist Bill Gates and psychologist Steven Pinker.
Things Are Getting Better:
Gates and Pinker in 2018:
In an interview for the Business Day page of the New York Times, Gates and Pinker made the case for being optimistic about the direction of the world. Gates said, “things getting better” is the greatest story that no one knows.
War and Violence:
Pinker said war between countries is something he is optimistic about solving: “There are only 192 countries. They could agree not to declare war on each other. I think we’re on the way.” Gates praised Pinker’s 2012 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, calling it, “the most inspiring book I’ve ever read.” Pinker described his book as,
an evidence-based take on history with a surprising-to-some outcome that we’ve made a lot of progress. I came across statistics that homicide rates in the Middle Ages were about 35 times what they are today in Europe. When I posted this online, I started receiving correspondence citing more examples: The rate of death in warfare has come down by a factor of 20 since 1945. Domestic violence is down. Child abuse is going down. I was sitting on all these data sets showing reductions in violence that few people were aware of that I thought ought to be better known.
Global poverty has been reduced from 90% to 10% over the last 200 years.
Gates commented that “disease elimination is something that runs against people’s general pessimistic outlook.”
Polio: It’s amazing to think that polio might be gone. That one is pretty near. In fact, according to the Polio Eradication Initiative and the World Health organization, there are only three countries in the world where the wild polio virus is still endemic: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is paying off Nigeria’s $76 million debt to Japan for funds that were borrowed for the country’s polio eradication campaign.
Malaria: The Gates Foundation is working hard on eliminating malaria. Gates stated that “Between now and 2025, if things go well, we’ll be down to very tough places, like equatorial Africa. But we’ll get there.”
Basically, the Gates’ Foundation is making progress at what Ralph Winter so badly wanted to see the body of Christ doing in the realm of disease eradication.
Ralph D. Winter before his Death in 2009:
As evidence for things getting better in the world, Winter gave skyrocketing global population. This he attributed principally “to the conquest of many diseases and the relative reduction of wars.”
Things Are Getting Worse (or Seemingly No Better):
Pinker and Gates:
In the New York Times interview, Pinker said: “We have no right to expect perfection. … There are still 700 million people living in extreme poverty.” But “we should appreciate how much better off we are and try to improve our institutions guided by what works and what doesn’t.”
Ralph D. Winter:
Winter saw the need for progress against the same evils that Gates and Pinker addressed in their interview.
As for war, Winter noted, “Today it seems as though nuclear weapons are available to every nation, as the West’s technology is rapidly adopted in much of the world.” While writing in 2007 he had India in mind, unaware of the major threat now posed in 2018 by North Korea’s hostile proliferation of nuclear weapons. But he prophetically stated, “the worst rash of wars may be just ahead.”
Regarding poverty, Winter cited a statistic that even in the USA one out of eight people, a group the size of California’s population, still lives below the poverty level. In January 2018, a New York Times Opinion piece stated, “The U.S. Can No Longer Hide from Its Deep Poverty Problem.”
What escapes notice, Winter said, is that today “the biggest killer of all is not war or traffic accidents but disease.” Winter often mentioned the toll malaria takes on children and the workforce in Africa. An article on the long-term effects of malaria, posted in October 2015 on the Effective Altruism Forum, gave statistics similar to those Winter used in his talks:
Every 40 seconds a child dies of malaria, resulting in a daily loss of more than 2,000 young lives worldwide. These estimates render malaria the pre-eminent tropical parasitic disease in most of the developing countries. Where malaria prospers the most, human societies have prospered least.
The Altruism article concluded that “malaria eradication programs can have a positive impact on labor productivity. People who are healthier can work harder and learn more in school.” Given these realities, Winter lamented that there is no explicitly Christian organization with the specific purpose of fighting global malaria. Why, he wondered, is there not any explicitly Christian mission designed to fight the sources of disease in general—as does the Carter Center?
God’s Kingdom Will Win in the End
Winter tried to mobilize believers to realize that “the gospel is not just about dispensing good news. It’s also about a battle. Humans were created to restore creation by advancing God’s kingdom. The corruption of creation by intelligent evil has turned the story of our planet into the story of a battle.”
So where is the kingdom of God in all this? Winter asked. He responded to his own question by saying, “one generalization is safe: things are getting both worse and better at the same time. It is by no means a completely uneven contest much less one that favors evil.” He saw the principles of God’s Kingdom at work in overcoming “the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). Through the actions of God’s followers, God is restoring his glory in the eyes of the world through “the progressive defeat of a major, celestial counter being.”
Winter, Ralph D. The Story of Our Planet. In Foundations of the World Christian Movement: Course Reader, Rev. ed., Pasadena: Institute of International Studies, 351-71.