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December 16, 2012 12:49 PM   Subscribe

Could 2012 have been the greatest year in the history of the world? Steven Pinker makes the case in this week's Spectator.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars (64 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Counterargument: I'm sad.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:51 PM on December 16, 2012 [27 favorites]


Well I got a degree and a job so it looks pretty all right from here. On the other hand, where is my flying car??
posted by capricorn at 12:52 PM on December 16, 2012


It's too bad that in his extra-curricular activities Pinker seems to take more after this guy than after his senior colleague, this guy.
posted by threeants at 12:55 PM on December 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


The doom-mongers will tell you that we cannot sustain worldwide economic growth without ruining our environment. But...

It's buts like that which lead doom-mongers like me to fear that we will remember 2012 as one of the last of the good years.

And what about the concerns that the oil would run out?

That's one thing I don't worry about, not today at least. Happy Hanukkah, everybody!
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:57 PM on December 16, 2012 [9 favorites]


Answer me this, brainiac Pinker? How can this be when the Chicago Cubs have yet to win a World Series?
posted by C.A.S. at 12:57 PM on December 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


Maybe I shouldn't be unfair to Gladwell, who seems to generally write harmless pop-sci fluff. Pinker's is an incredibly irresponsible article that contains a few minimally relevant truths.
posted by threeants at 12:58 PM on December 16, 2012


Wait, the article linked doesn't even have an author attributed. What's up?
posted by threeants at 1:03 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Huh?

Buying cheap plastic toys made in China really is helping to make poverty history.

Ah. Spoof Onionesque article. Very droll. Next...
posted by Wordshore at 1:04 PM on December 16, 2012


I want—goddamn, do I want—to be on board with sentiments like this, but his paragraph about we're totally not running out of fossil fuels thanks to those clever Americans and their fracking is sort of upsetting.

It's like, man, even if we had an infinite and politically uncomplicated source of light sweet crude, our appetite for the stuff is fucking everything up, so your assurances that we can continue oxidizing hydrocarbons willy-nilly is not exactly coming as good news to me.
posted by Sokka shot first at 1:04 PM on December 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


Panglossians gonna gloss
posted by bendybendy at 1:07 PM on December 16, 2012 [34 favorites]


The Pinker-Gladwell Lemma: public intellectuals promote naïve, hand-wavey, diffuse, and overly general ideas about how the world works if and only if they have wacky hair.
posted by Nomyte at 1:08 PM on December 16, 2012 [9 favorites]


The Pinker-Gladwell Lemma: public intellectuals promote naïve, hand-wavey, diffuse, and overly general ideas about how the world works if and only if they have wacky hair.

Lemma rejected.
posted by one_bean at 1:13 PM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Wait, the article linked doesn't even have an author attributed. What's up?

Shit, you're right. Someone sent it to me as something by Pinker, but it seems that in fact he merely tweeted it, and didn't write it. I didn't even check. Apologies for being so very careless - I'm going to ask the mods to edit the post. Thank you for pointing it out.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 1:14 PM on December 16, 2012


Never have so many people not had access to that most basic of needs, clean water.

Oh, hang on. Incorrect narrative.

Damn and damn and damn and damn and damn, dammit.
posted by Wordshore at 1:14 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


If we do accept this narrative, then I'm reminded of a headline I saw back in 2000: "NASDAQ 5,000!!".
posted by gurple at 1:22 PM on December 16, 2012


FRACKING GOOD!!!

Moar oil plez
posted by edgeways at 1:28 PM on December 16, 2012


Oh jeez. Another Pinker pile-on thread.

Excellent! Carry on.
posted by clvrmnky at 1:30 PM on December 16, 2012


Smells like link bait.
posted by 4ster at 1:32 PM on December 16, 2012


I'm gonna go with Dave Weigel's rule of thumb that if the headline asks a question, the answer is always "No."
posted by sciurus at 1:32 PM on December 16, 2012 [10 favorites]


Lemma rejected.

Modest revision.
posted by Nomyte at 1:40 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wordshore: Never have so many people not had access to that most basic of needs, clean water.

Have a source for that? I'll admit to almost total ignorance on access to clean water, but the (really useful) UN site claims that access to "Improved Drinking Water" and "Improved Sanitation" have increased both in relative and absolute terms almost monotonically over the last 20 years.

That doesn't mean that it's "okay" for 780 million people to not have access to clean water - it's fucking terrible. The common line of argument in this thread seems to be, 2012 can't be the best year ever because X is shitty. Well yes, X is shitty, for many values of X. But it turns out that life has been shitty for the vast majority of the human population, forever.

It sounds too optimistic to call 2012 "the greatest year in the history of the world", but I think you can make a convincing case that 2012 is the "least awful year in the history of the world".
posted by bbuda at 1:41 PM on December 16, 2012 [8 favorites]


from the article's footer: This is the first article in the bumper Christmas issue of The Spectator which (as American readers of this blog may not know) is the best-written and most entertaining magazine in the English language

The best-written and most entertaining magazine in the English languish says 2012 was the best year in the history of the world? Sounds legit.
posted by birdherder at 1:44 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I like how it seems the biggest dispute over the article is that it's fucking with everyone's peculiarly comforting gloom and doom world view.
posted by 2N2222 at 1:46 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Never has there been less hunger, less disease or more prosperity. [citation needed]
posted by oulipian at 1:49 PM on December 16, 2012


Capitalism is pretty great, folks.
posted by stilist at 1:54 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Pinker-Gladwell Lemma: public intellectuals promote naïve, hand-wavey, diffuse, and overly general ideas about how the world works if and only if they have wacky hair.

Don't forget The Moustache, people. Count it!
posted by pullayup at 1:57 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I like how it seems the biggest dispute over the article is that it's fucking with everyone's peculiarly comforting gloom and doom world view.

Yeah, I don't see anyone actually citing any counter-evidence. And it seems a wise thing to review our blessings and achievements on occasion, you know? There are still problems and things to deal with, but reminding ourselves that we've overcome a great many even greater problems and getting some perspective on the problems we do face can be beneficial and encouraging.

The only really problematic aspects of that article were the weird sideways jabs at governmental regulation and the enthusiasm for fracking, which isn't exactly the silver bullet he presents it as.

I suspect that the fact that the author was originally supposed to be Steven Pinker has more to do with the knee-jerking in this thread. He's been on Metafilter's collective shit-list for quite some time.


Never has there been less hunger, less disease or more prosperity. [citation needed]

Twenty seconds on Google.
posted by AdamCSnider at 1:58 PM on December 16, 2012 [9 favorites]


2012: Worst possible year (except for all the other ones).
posted by blue_beetle at 2:05 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


I made the mistake of reading some of the other articles in that mag. and the attendant comments, and it's interesting to know England also has a coterie of delusional, alterna-reality bathshit libertarians, who misread and and misquote Tocqueville and who're in complete denial of the importance and the underlying reasons Obama won a second term and the GOtP has smacked into the side of a mountain at Mach 47 (%) and keeps on burrowing it's way into an ever deeping burial of irrelevance and delusionism...


This piece is your classic shit-stirrer mental Onan loving speculative lead-off piece used to sell a fucking newspaper or magazine...
posted by Skygazer at 2:05 PM on December 16, 2012


Crap. First they make me hate Christmas. Now they make me hate New Year.

When will it....oh. Never mind. I still have a few more days to watch It's a Wonderful Life.

Next month I wanna rent Mr. Smith Goes to Washington again.
posted by mule98J at 2:12 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Isn't it tempting fate, making an article like this one live just a few days before December 21st 2012? #Mayan
posted by Wordshore at 2:18 PM on December 16, 2012


The problem with this is that it glosses over the elephant in the room, global warming. Yes, it's all well and good that "while the rich world’s economies grew by 6 per cent over the last seven years, fossil fuel consumption in those countries fell by 4 per cent." This is like saying that your terminal cancer only grew 96% of what was predicted by doctors. That's better than 100%, but you still have terminal cancer.

Also, talking in a positive manner about fracking only makes it worse; that's like discussing how you found a dozen cartons of cigarettes in your closet you forgot you had. Now you don't have to buy more at a high price! Except that your thousands of doctors (climatologists) have been telling you for years that you need to stop smoking (burning fossil fuels) and this year you coughed up a giant chunk of bloody lung (hurricane Sandy), and now it's going to be even harder to stop.
posted by Mitrovarr at 2:30 PM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


the future's so bright i gotta wear shades
posted by pyramid termite at 2:37 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


What's that old saw about optimists and pessimists? One thinks this is the best of all possible moments/worlds/eras, the other is sure of it.
posted by jquinby at 2:45 PM on December 16, 2012


From the trilobite point of view, 2012 pretty much a dud, although, to be fair, no worse than the previous 250 million years.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:57 PM on December 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


"The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears this is true." — a character in a novel by James Branch Cabell.
posted by Nomyte at 2:58 PM on December 16, 2012 [10 favorites]


I think it was an amazing year. Perhaps the best I can remember, with huge local significance for me and my family. I am concerned that it might be all downhill from here, but should I survive into old age I fully intend to bore my grandchildren by wanking on about how great 2012 was. I mean, it was pretty cool being seventeen, but that was just because I was seventeen. So 2012 kicks 1988's arse.
posted by tigrefacile at 3:01 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sucked shit for me.
posted by Saxon Kane at 3:17 PM on December 16, 2012 [7 favorites]


Thematic.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:23 PM on December 16, 2012


Marin Alsop used to direct the New York Philharmonic? I've only known her as a Baltimore SO conductor.
posted by Nomyte at 3:26 PM on December 16, 2012


Marin Alsop also Conducted The Colorado Symphony Orchestra, during it's best period as far as I'm concerned.
posted by evilDoug at 3:29 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


To those disagreeing with the article's thesis, what year would you pick?

Put more concretely, if you could "quantum leap" into a random human of any year in the past 10,000 (and arrive with the appropriate language, social and cultural skills) which year would you choose?
posted by justkevin at 4:11 PM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think perspective is nice but one very rarely hears about people doing great things because they thought that everything was going pretty well.

Perhaps I'm simply being pessimistic but I see little pragmatic value in stating that it's the best year ever other than to give those in places of power and entrenched comfort a respected intellectual voice to point to and say "see, no need to take any kind of drastic action, Pinker says that things will be just fine."

Even if this is the best year ever, it still sucks for far too many people and it is that realization that pushes us as a species towards better things. The glass may have more liquid than it has ever had but I do not believe that we benefit from people celebrating about how full it is when the belief that it is half empty may more successfully propel us towards a glass that it is entirely full.

Thank you, Mr. Pinker, for giving us a moment of optimism. I respect you as the intelligent and learned man that you are. I don't see why the article is terribly necessary but I very much hope that you can repeat it again and again as the years continue.
posted by sendai sleep master at 4:12 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


This year I had a couple of moments where it really felt like I was living in one of those books about the future from the 70s.

Jamie gets up early and goes for a run. The climate has gotten much warmer in the last 40 years, so even though it is December, he can still run in shorts.

After this he eats breakfast and reads the newspaper. He doesn't read an actual newspaper, though. Instead, he reads it on a large viewscreen in his living room. He can also use this to watch television, live sports, play games, or video chat with his friends. If he wants, he can send text messages to his friends using a small phone that he keeps in his pocket.

Later, he will go to his job, where he works for the giant supercomputers who have enslaved humanity.

posted by TheWhiteSkull at 4:46 PM on December 16, 2012 [14 favorites]


At least here in the US 1999 was the shit. Budget surplus, Clinton in the White House, stock market up every day, no war on terror, China was just where cheap crap was made, Russia was ruled by a bumbling drunk, enemies like Milošević could be sent fleeing with a few jets, and you could catch walk into the airport and be on your plane in 20 minutes. Phones with WAP browsers could view text versions of dozens of web sites wirelessly! We were living in the future and life was good.
posted by Blue Meanie at 5:02 PM on December 16, 2012 [10 favorites]


At least here in the US 1999 was the shit.

Well, you know what happened to that.
posted by dhartung at 5:06 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


What about the year before mankind invented agriculture?
posted by bookman117 at 5:14 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Have a source for that? I'll admit to almost total ignorance on access to clean water, but the (really useful) UN site claims that access to "Improved Drinking Water" and "Improved Sanitation" have increased both in relative and absolute terms almost monotonically over the last 20 years.

All change is incremental, which is obviously not fast enough for pessimists. Besides, it's kind of morbidly fun to imagine we'll all die in some sort of apocalypse, right? Pessimism allows us to simultaneously do nothing, and enjoy it when our predictions come true.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:27 PM on December 16, 2012


the future's so bright i gotta wear shades

I'll see that and raise you some I'm an Adult Now.

Now with bonus '80s Queen W. footage and Erica Ehm!
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 5:34 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


"The problem with this is that it glosses over the elephant in the room, global warming. Yes, it's all well and good that "while the rich world’s economies grew by 6 per cent over the last seven years, fossil fuel consumption in those countries fell by 4 per cent." This is like saying that your terminal cancer only grew 96% of what was predicted by doctors. That's better than 100%, but you still have terminal cancer."

No, it's like saying "Good news, your brain tumor has stopped growing. Bad news, it's spread to your pancreas, bones, and lungs."

Exporting production to 3rd world countries and letting them burn the fossil fuels isn't good news. Especially when they have little to no emissions laws of their own.
posted by karst at 5:40 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Isn't it tempting fate, making an article like this one live just a few days before December 21st 2012? #Mayan

Not much point doing it later.
posted by yoink at 5:42 PM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Put more concretely, if you could "quantum leap" into a random human of any year in the past 10,000 (and arrive with the appropriate language, social and cultural skills) which year would you choose?

This is a pretty good question and cuts nicely to the bone of a particular form of hand-wavey argument on both the right and the left that just drives me batty: the "once upon a time the world was really, really great and now we're just going to hell in a handbasket" argument. You see it all the time and it's almost always utter bullshit. That's not to say that all sorts of things in the world couldn't be immensely improved, but these vague, indeterminate claims that US politics used to be utterly uncorrupt and now they're a moral sinkhole or that corporations used to kept firmly in check by a sternly watchful government and now they run amok, or that once upon a time all our civil liberties were scrupulously observed by a US government that was kept firmly in check by an informed and active citizenry and that now the government rides roughshod over our rights while we sit and watch Dancing with the Stars and so on and so forth are just so wildly uninformed by even the least acquaintance with actual US history that it just drives me nuts.
posted by yoink at 5:49 PM on December 16, 2012 [17 favorites]


There are lots of ways 2012 is / was great, and I think a lot of the claims in the article are true. (A lot of the things Pinker says in his similar book are also true.)

But also we are fucked.
posted by grobstein at 6:02 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Isn't it tempting fate, making an article like this one live just a few days before December 21st 2012? #Mayan

Not much point doing it later.




Um...last orders, please.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:07 PM on December 16, 2012


But also we are fucked.

Of course, at the retail level we've always been fucked, right? I mean, one way or another, individually speaking, "We're all going to die!!!" is nothing but the most stone cold sober and entirely self-evident truth.
posted by yoink at 6:12 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


You know what? Pinker is probably right, in that for most of humanity, things have never been better.

But we've eaten the low hanging fruit, and climate change could literally erase 10,000 years of human progress in a century. Even if 2012 was the greatest year in the history of history, future generations may very well remember us--especially the elites of the rich nations--as history's greatest villains.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 8:37 PM on December 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


I don't get why Pinker is on the MeFi shit-list. Pinker does more research before breakfast than most people will do all day.
posted by GuyZero at 9:21 PM on December 16, 2012


I think we can all agree that Dickens put it best.
posted by Apocryphon at 9:36 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Pinker does more research before breakfast than most people will do all day.

It is probably the case that Steven Pinker does more research while dreaming than most people do in their lifetimes, combined. Also, when Steven Pinker looks at himself in the mirror, there is no reflection, as there can only be one Steven Pinker. Steven Pinker doesn't wear a watch, he decides what time it is. Steven Pinker counted to infinity twice....
posted by Brian B. at 11:34 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Did everyone miss that Pinker did not write this? It's an unsigned piece in the Spectator that he tweeted. (The magazine has a thing called the "leading article" every week, which is basically an editorial in the publication's voice.)
posted by dhartung at 8:52 AM on December 17, 2012


Please note that I am not the author of this article -- I just called attention to it in a tweet. It is an unsigned article by the editors of The Spectator.

Steven Pinker
Professor of Psychology
Harvard University
posted by stevenpinker at 6:49 AM on December 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Steven Pinker
Professor of Psychology
Harvard University


Welcome to this place. Please do visit often.
posted by Brian B. at 7:01 AM on December 19, 2012


Hi, Steven! Thanks for the horse's-mouth clarification, and, yes, welcome to Metafilter.
posted by cortex at 8:08 AM on December 19, 2012


Steven Pinker
Professor of Psychology
Harvard University


Sorry Pinker, that's not going to cut it around here.

We all have multiple, post-doctoral fellowships in snarkology.
posted by Skygazer at 10:49 AM on December 19, 2012


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