Economist Max Roser of Oxford University has recently completed a monumental large scale survey on global living conditions. The question asked was magnificent in its simplicity. Roser inquired “all things considered, do you think the world is getting better or worse?” The results surprised academics, revealing a profound pessimism worldwide.
Most despondent were the French, with just 3% saying that the world is improving. While the Swedes topped the poll of developed nations. Not by much however, only 10% surveyed believed in Global betterment of the human condition. Would it surprise you to learn that the overwhelming scientific evidence proves otherwise? On virtually all key indicators – poverty, health, literacy, freedom and population. The World has been steadily progressing, raising the standard of living extraordinarily across all demographics. Still don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the evidence.
The eradication of extreme poverty
“Every single day since 1990, on average, there were 130,000 people raised out of extreme poverty each day”.
Many see extreme poverty as an inevitable and unresolvable result of modern day industrial economics. A human universal present throughout history. The birds-eye view of the statistics show the opposite is true.
The age of industrialization has brought its challenges. Yet, by and large, the increased output of production has done wonders to lift people out of poverty across the board. Mechanization has meant more food, better clothing and indoor plumbing.
Giving us the means to support an exploding population. Take China as a textbook example of this phenomena. In the last 50 years, 88% of the population were rescued from the indignities of extreme poverty. That is over 500 million people. Not a number to be scoffed at. In one generation, China is on the verge of becoming an economic superpower. With megacities springing up over night. Consider the lush scenery of Shanghai in 1990 as opposed to the bustling metropolis of 2010 (shown below).
Unfortunately, these astounding advances in alleviating scarcity do not come packaged with a catchy headline.The caption “Things are much better today than yesterday” just doesn’t sell papers.
The doubling of life expectancy and other wonders
In the year 1800, 43% of newborn babies passed away before their 5th Birthday. This tragic statistic meant every third child on average would not be expected to see adulthood. Thankfully, these figures have been consigned to the history books.
Vast improvements in public health, sanitation and living conditions have drastically reduced the likelihood of infant mortality in the present day. Our better nutrition has made us both smarter and taller. While increasing our resilience to infectious disease.
The discovery of germ theory cannot be underestimated in the amount of human lives saved over the centuries. Vaccination and more hygienic hospitals have reduced infant mortality rates to a remarkable 4.3% in 2015. This figure is ten times lower than the numbers reported in 1800.
Some areas of Sub-Saharan Africa and Afghanistan are still in desperate need of medical assistance in rural areas. Giving a heart-wrenching modern glimpse of the terrible catastrophe of losing a child too early.
Obviously, one child needlessly lost is far too many. Nonetheless it is an astonishing feat to have alleviated so much suffering over the last two centuries. Saving parents the awful tragedy of burying their young. Yet, this is a scientific revelation that is not often discussed in the media.
Literacy is a precious gift
Historically, reading and writing was only the pursuit of a wealthy elite. Now, it has been democratized to an astounding extent. Reducing traditional barriers to economic opportunity and third-level education.
In 1800, less than 100 million people could read and write. Now that figure is at 4.6 billion! 8 out of every 10 humans are literate thanks to terrific advances in education. In many ways, we are a privileged few in human history that are fortunate enough to be reading this article.
Demographic studies show that youth are more literate than their parents. This improves with each generation. With most of the growth occurring in the least educated countries in the world.
Following this Global trend, the Middle East and North Africa have accomplished the most inspiring turn-around in literacy figures. Young students boast a 92% literacy rate on average. 50 years ago, just 15% of adults could read and write.
One might also assume that gender plays a role in literacy figures.With young girls presumed to be missing more school than boys. It’s simply not the case. School attendance figures are at roughly 80% across the board.
Better educated people around the world, allows for a larger pool of talent, coming up with the next revolutionary innovation that will change all of our lives. Literacy and training is also one of the few proven ways to reduce inequality. The others being pestilence and large-scale war. Not exactly appealing options.
Fight for your rights
The common perception in the media is that we are all in a fight for our rights. Marriage rights, civil rights, legal rights. It gives the impression that a tyrannical and oppressive government is taking away our power. This could not be further from the truth.
The bar is being raised each year in terms of our civil freedoms. This is why there seems to be such a continuous uproar. Even having the freedom to voice our protests, this is a luxury that was not traditionally afforded our forefathers.
The 19th century saw one third of all occupants of the globe as colonial subjects. Virtually everyone else lived under an Autocrats thumb. Meaning a single ruler had absolute power over their “lowly underlings”.
Since then, monarchies and empires alike have collapsed in spectacular fashion. Leading to a relatively new experiment in human history called democracy. More people have a say in the running of their nation than ever before.
The backbone of these newfound freedoms are journalism and British Common Law. They each laid the groundwork for the unique and beautiful concept named Freedom of Speech. Together, these institutions allow for open and frank discussion of our faults. Allowing us to decide on adequate solutions. Hence, avoiding terrible conflict and war..
A strong democratic nation is ideally composed of an informed populace. This in turn raises the level of rights. Never before in history have we had more open media and exchange of information through the internet.
Nowadays, 4 out of 5 people living in an autocracy are residents of China. It is clear that there is more to be done, yet we should remember our significant progress in equal measure. While protecting the fragile flame of Lady Liberty from the encroaching threat of the dictators vice-like grip.
Are we right to panic about overpopulation?
Doom and gloom predictions of dire overpopulation in the future are common fodder for the sensationalist tabloids. Although science allows us to see things differently.
It is true that our Global population has risen from 1 billion in 1800 to 7 billion presently. Humans are simply not dying at the rate that they used to. This a tremendous victory for the medical disciplines.
Earth’s inhabitants have multiplied as mortality rates plummeted. While fertility remained at the same level. Better yet, life expectancy worldwide has doubled in the last hundred years.
Fears of overpopulation have been shown to be far overblown. As people become richer and more educated, they have less kids. Similarly, the birth control pill has led to a women’s revolution. For the first time in human history, an effective method of contraception exists.
Growth was shown to have peaked in the 20th century, whilst Global fertility has halved in the last 50 years. In fact, a decline in population is expected to start in 2075. The long awaited armageddon brought about through overpopulation has been nothing but a damp squib.
How did we get it so wrong?
Admittedly, it is no consolation to a family experiencing extreme poverty today, if we are to tell them that Global trends are improving. Nevertheless, there is reason for cautious optimism in the future. There is still much to be done but we can take comfort in the fact that our efforts are having an effect. This small acknowledgement will give us conviction for the future.
The question must be asked: why do 90% of people not realize this level of progress has been achieved? Largely, it is due to what the media chooses to tell us. A narrow and short-sighted focus on calamitous events give us a distorted perception of human progress. Our attention is held longest, observing the flames of a wildfire. Our primitive fear responses stimulated, unable to peer away.
Positive events occur gradually over many years. It comes about through arduous effort and unglamorous research. A headline like “most people are healthier than they have ever been”. This is not deemed to be newsworthy in an era of the 24 hour breaking news cycle. The result is that surveys of UK citizens show most believe Global poverty has increased.
This is simply untrue. Global poverty reduction has been a resounding success. This is pivotal as our policy-makers and leaders must have the correct facts, if they are to make good decisions for the future. A little perspective goes a long way. As Rosen puts it, “If we believe things are getting worse. We risk losing faith in one another”. This would be the greatest tragedy of all.