Surf the internet, turn on the television or peruse the newsstand, and you’ll likely see a dozen news stories of sorrow and woe for each one about something positive. Threats of nuclear aggression, terrorist attacks, political unrest, crime, unemployment, the spate of sexual assault allegations against prominent figures. The list goes on and on.
So, it’s no surprise that most people believe we are living in the worst of times. But is that true? If you said yes, you’re not alone. A recent global survey of this very question found that only 6% of Americans believe the world is getting better.
Max Roser, the Oxford University economist behind Our World In Data, begs to differ. Roser has made it his life’s work to spread a statistically informed view of global development by charting how various aspects of human material well-being have changed over history.
Roser argues that the human condition is much healthier than we have come to believe. From his research, he has concluded that we are astonishingly better off than we were just two centuries ago.
Take a look at the current state of global freedom, health, violence, population, education and poverty, and maybe you’ll come to share his view.
Political freedom is difficult to measure. The statistics from the Our World In Data study incorporate an index for democracy that looks at the number of autocratically ruled nations and how they’ve increased or decreased over time.
With all the news of dictators around the world, it’s easy to form mistaken beliefs. In reality, we are much farther down the road towards establishing civil liberties and political freedom than we were 200 years ago. According to Roser’s research, 56% of people are living in freedom today, versus only 1% in 1820.
Mention the word health these days at a cocktail party and you’re sure to spark debate over costs and access. Politics and policy aside, though, we humans have made tremendous progress in health.
In 1800, more than 40% of newborns died before the age of five. Now, only a tiny fraction doesn’t make it to age five. We now (gratefully) live in the age of modern medicine, germ theory, and sophisticated medications. Couple that with access to safe housing, sanitation, and nutritious food, and things are extraordinarily better than they used to be.
Believe it or not, this is the least violent time in human history. Yes, we still have wars (and terrorism), but they pale in comparison to conflicts like the Civil War, World War One and World War Two. In the centuries proceeding the end of World War Two, Europe was almost constantly at war.
Violent crime, while still a problem, has been decreasing in the US for the past 25 years.
In 1800, the world population was around 1 billion. Since then, it has increased seven times. On one hand, this is a great achievement – better health means that humans stopped dying at the rate of our ancestors. But on the other hand, population growth has created an increase in demand for resources and has taken a toll on the environment. The balancing factor here is that population growth isn’t unlimited. Put simply, as women realize their children have a far better chance of survival, they adapt and choose to have fewer children, thus curbing future explosive population growth.
Both education and knowledge have significantly improved globally. What’s even better is that Our World In Data forecasts continued growth in this arena: “With the great importance of education for improving health, increasing political freedom, and ending poverty, this projection is very encouraging.”
According to a survey out of Gapminder’s Ignorance Project, 66% of Americans think global poverty has almost doubled in the last 20 years. The reality is that global poverty has almost halved. Today, less than 10% of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty.
Two centuries ago, all but an elite handful lived in extreme poverty. Industrialization gave people a way out of destitution. We have seen particular progress in just the last 50 years, with some countries that were previously very poor moving into the ranks of the developed world.
In the flood of bad news from almost every media outlet, it’s easy to miss how good things are today. Of course, the world is still not a perfect place. But we are lightyears ahead of where we were in the most recent centuries. And, if all goes well, we’ll get better and better as the years go by.