Improving the world

by Aaron Gertler3 min read27th May 2020No comments


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“Work like you were living in the early days of a better nation.”

–Alasdair Gray


When we look at all the world’s problems, we may feel helpless: I could donate money to help a few people live better lives, but can I really improve the world as a whole? 

But those personal actions add up! Together, we are already improving the world in many ways.

As Jai Dhyani explained, smallpox used to be a fact of life. It killed hundreds of millions of people. It left a trail of grief in its wake. And then we eradicated it. This didn’t happen because we were lucky, or because a single person discovered a cure: It happened because tens of thousands of people worked together to solve the problem.

We want to bring about a future in which many of today’s most devastating problems no longer exist. Some want to end animal farming and close every slaughterhouse. Some want to eliminate the world’s nuclear stockpiles. Some are trying to end other diseases as definitively as we ended smallpox; imagine a Wikipedia page that begins with “malaria was”! But we all share a belief that problems can be solved, and that things can get better.

Perspectives on improving the world

Prospecting for Gold (Owen Cotton-Barratt, 2016)

Viktor Zhdanov [...] was a Ukrainian biologist, who was instrumentally extremely important in getting an eradication program for smallpox to occur. As a result, he was probably counterfactually responsible for saving tens of millions of lives.

Obviously, we don’t all achieve this. But by looking at examples like this, we can notice that some people manage to get a lot more [...] of what we altruistically value than others. And that is reason to make us ask questions like: What is it that gives some people better opportunities than others? How can we go and find opportunities like that?

Hope: How Far Humanity Has Come (Jess Whittlestone, 2015)

Sometimes I look at the world around me, remembering that once humans were hunter-gatherers living in the natural environment, vulnerable to predators and extreme weather, and everything looks amazing. How did we get here? How did we manage to create these huge, intricate buildings, interwoven with technology so complex most of us can’t even begin to explain how it all works?


We’ve made extraordinary progress in understanding the world around us, in learning to control our environment and guard against threats large and small, in treating and eradicating diseases and saving lives. Every second, people are dying — but every second people are also defying death, death that would have been inevitable just a century ago.

Excerpt from Enlightenment Now (Steven Pinker, 2018)

On April 12, 1955, a team of scientists announced that Jonas Salk’s vaccine against polio — the disease that had killed thousands a year, paralyzed Franklin Roosevelt, and sent many children into iron lungs — was proven safe. 

According to Richard Carter’s history of the discovery, on that day, ‘people observed moments of silence, rang bells, honked horns, blew factory whistles, fired salutes, . . . took the rest of the day off, closed their schools or convoked fervid assemblies therein, drank toasts, hugged children, attended church, smiled at strangers, and forgave enemies.’

Gregg Easterbrook, Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity (1997)

Though barely known in the country of his birth, elsewhere in the world Norman Borlaug is widely considered to be among the leading Americans of our age.

Borlaug is an eighty-two-year-old plant breeder who, for most of the past five decades, has lived in developing nations, teaching the techniques of high-yield agriculture. He received the Nobel [Prize] in 1970, primarily for his work in reversing the food shortages that haunted India and Pakistan in the 1960s. 

Perhaps more than anyone else, Borlaug is responsible for the fact that throughout the postwar era, except in sub-Saharan Africa, global food production has expanded faster than the human population, averting the mass starvations that were widely predicted [...] The form of agriculture that Borlaug preaches may have prevented one billion deaths.


Lewis Bollard, 10 Years of Progress for Farm Animals (2019)

...The farm animal advocacy movement has achieved more progress over the last decade than it did in the entire prior century:

Corporate cage-free wins. In the last 10 years, advocates have secured pledges from 1,363 corporations across 77 countries — including 18 of the world’s 20 largest food retailers — to stop selling eggs from caged hens. In Europe, where these campaigns began, the number of cage-free hens has risen from about 60M in 2003, to 128M in 2009, and 207M last year. In the US, the number has risen from just 10M in 2009 to 70M today. Counting the impact over the last 10 years, that’s already about 1.3B hens spared a year in a cage. And that’s only counting pledges already implemented; if future corporate pledges are implemented, another 300M+ hens/year globally should be out of cages in a decade’s time. 

Plant-based meat. A decade ago, none of the US’ 50 largest fast food chains sold plant-based meat; today nine of the top 50 fast food chains do, while the two biggest, McDonald’s and Subway, are trialing it. Back then, only a few of the world’s 20 largest food and beverage companies made plant-based meats or milks (or owned brands that did); today, 17 of them do, and some, like Nestle, Conagra, and Kellogg’s, are making major investments in the space. Of course, advocates don’t deserve all of the credit for this, but they at least inspired many of the founders and early investors in the space, and helped promote plant-based meat’s rise.


Movement strength. When I recently surveyed 27 long-time advocates — with 586 years of cumulative experience in the global farm animal advocacy movement — they reported big improvements over the last decade. Chief among them: The movement has become more professional and better organized; focused on large-scale change and the most numerous animals; and more data-driven. They also pointed to the movement’s globalization: A decade ago almost all activity was concentrated in the US and Northern Europe, whereas today the movement spans the Americas, Europe, and Asia.

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