The book's global coverage and superlative praise by achievers like Bill Gates suggest it warrants review, but nearly every review approaches the book academically. They look backward, analytically. They write how it's about values, optimism, and values.
It may be, but leaders go beyond analysis and labels to action. Can our community learn from him how to change our behavior and improve ourselves and our communities?
The answer is yes, and I'll show you how he suggests. Most summarize the book as optimistic but passive, something like:
The world has problems and we blow them out of proportion so it looks bad. Actually things are the best they've ever been and here's the data to support it.
From that view, what are we supposed to do, be happier? That sounds complacent.
Steven Pinker suggests anything but complacency. On the contrary, he suggests hard work got us here. It's a call to action, not complacency.
Leadership lessons from Steven Pinker
Enlightenment Now is not a statement of "hope"--it's a documentation of how far we've come and what we have to lose.
Beside Enlightenment values and humanism--applying knowledge and sympathy to enhance human flourishing--he describes in Enlightenment Now where things work best:
Countries that combine free markets with more taxation, social spending, and regulation than the United States (such as Canada, New Zealand, and Western Europe) turn out to be not grim dystopias but rather pleasant places to live, and they trounce the United States in every measure of human flourishing, including crime, life expectancy, infant mortality, education, and happiness.
How does he apply his views? We could look at many challenging areas--politics, religion, artificial intelligence. Let's look at environment.
You might think he opposes mainstream environmental action with statements like
In contrast to the lugubrious conventional wisdom offered by the mainstream environmental movement, and the radicalism and fatalism it encourages, there is a newer conception of environmentalism which shares the goal of protecting the air and water, species, and ecosystems but is grounded in Enlightenment optimism rather than Romantic declinism.
But he's only criticizing the attitude, not the behavior. He continues
Again and again, environmental improvements once deemed impossible have taken place. Since 1970, when the Environmental Protection Agency was established, the United States has slashed its emissions of five air pollutants by almost two-thirds. Over the same period, the population grew by more than 40 percent, and those people drove twice as many miles and became two and a half times richer. [ . . .] In another advance, entire swaths of land and ocean have been protected from human use altogether. Conservation experts are unanimous in their assessment that protected areas remain inadequate, but the momentum is impressive.
However you label environmental regulation, he lauds its results. He promotes more. He is promoting action, just not being lugubrious or other ineffective strategies.
Nearly everyone misses Enlightenment Now's point
Calling Pinker an optimist, as nearly everyone does, misses his call to act. He doesn't say we've succeeded and therefore should just be happy or content with Enlightenment values.
He says work got us here and we should keep working. In his words
The economist Paul Romer distinguishes between complacent optimism, the feeling of a child waiting for presents on Christmas morning, and conditional optimism, the feeling of a child who wants a treehouse and realizes that if he gets some wood and nails and persuades other kids to help him, he can build one.
We cannot be complacently optimistic about climate change, but we can be conditionally optimistic. We have some practicable ways to prevent the harms and we have the means to learn more. Problems are solvable. That does not mean that they will solve themselves, but it does mean that we can solve them if we sustain the benevolent forces of modernity that have allowed us to solve problems so far, including societal prosperity, wisely regulated markets, international governance, and investments in science and technology. Far from licensing complacency, our progress at solving environmental problems emboldens us to strive for more.
His calls to strive and act for democracy and other issues are also based not on merely recognizing values but acting on them.
He's not saying progress means we've solved problems. He's saying we've identified what works and have to keep working.
I believe he's trying to give direction and create expectation of success, motivation, meaning, and purpose to act effectively.