I have previously talked about how nostalgia and quirks of human brain development mean many of us (wrongly) believe that the world was better in the past. And with all the huge problems in the world – Covid-19, environmental degradation, poverty, and gender and racial inequality to name but a few – it’s easy to start believing that the world is in some form of existential crisis. It’s fashionable to lament humans altogether. Even cuddly and universally-loved naturalist Sir David Attenborough has described humans as “a plague on Earth”. Ouch.
There are still severe issues in the world. But we shouldn’t ignore the progress that we’ve made in recent decades, especially given that our species’ history is essentially one of violence and suffering. Tens of thousands of years ago, the world was made up of different wandering groups of humans. These humans would have been more likely to attack anyone outside their given group than to cooperate with them. We as a species now – on the whole – agree on many fundamental truths. As the world’s brightest mind Yuval Noah Harari rightly points out, the concepts of nations, money, economics, science, and healthcare among many more, are taken as unquestioned truths, regardless of a nation’s societal or religious background. This alone should be treated as a staggering achievement for humanity; more so if you look at the often barbaric behaviour of our closest relatives, chimpanzees, which offers clues as to our evolutionary starting point.
The media likes to report bad news and the reach of it has increased exponentially in recent years. We’re now overwhelmed by bad news from around the world. Any tragedy, however large or small, is beamed around the world in seconds. People then consume it on multiple platforms and on several occasions throughout their day, ramming home its influence on the reader.
When you could only get the news from a newspaper (or from nowhere at all for most of human history), this most certainly was not the case. And when terrible things happened around the world, it’s likely you wouldn’t have had any idea that they’d happened. The coverage of recent events, and the fact that they’re happening now often leads us to overstate their significance when compared to objectively worse events in the past.
While estimates are disputed, some 200,000 people (mainly civilians) tragically lost their lives in the most recent Iraq war, one of the worst wars the world has seen for many years. By means of comparison, around 80 million people lost their lives in WWII. The two cannot be compared. But in the modern world, events like these are often discussed in the same breath. I’ve had conversations with people who genuinely believe that now is the worst time ever to be alive. But if we invented a time machine and could offer people the chance to go back to the halcyon days of the 1800s, for example, I doubt we would have many takers.
The World Is Getting Much Better
Bad news sells newspapers. Stories of gradual improvements in global poverty, living standards, equality, literacy, economic well-being, education standards, and collapses in global violence simply do not. “Over the last 25 years, more than a billion people have lifted themselves out of extreme poverty, and the global poverty rate is now lower than it has ever been in recorded history. This is one of the greatest human achievements of our time,” World Bank Group president Jim Yong Kim stated in 2018. I hazard a guess that you didn’t know this, nor did it make headline news anywhere.
Humanity’s achievements in other areas are equally remarkable. Here are some comparative statistics from the world in 1900 and again in 2016:
- Literacy: Has improved from 12% to 86%.
- Democracy: The share of the world’s population living in democracies has risen from around 10% to 56%.
- Female suffrage: The number of countries where women have the right to vote has risen from just one to 193 (out of 195).
- Child mortality: The proportion of children dying before their fifth birthday has fallen from around 40% to just 4%.
- Life expectancy: Has doubled from around 35 to 70.
- Deaths from conflicts: Over the course of the 20th century human violence was responsible for about 5% of all deaths. This proportion had fallen to just 0.006% in 2018. In his 2011 work The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, Steven Pinker’s claim that “we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence” looks well-founded.
Even if the world is by no means perfect, it would be hard to argue that these statistics paint a picture of things getting worse for most people. There are some more of these uplifting statistics available at Gapminder, which I would implore everyone to look at at some stage so you can cut through the daily negativity peddled on almost all media platforms. And these statistics do not really touch on the many ways in which having electricity, the ability to speak to anyone anywhere in the world at any time, and not being conscripted into killing other people in wars, are probably good things.
While life is still tragically tough for billions, it would have been fairly appalling 100 years ago for everyone, let alone 1,000 years ago. We don’t like to look at things over the long term. We’re driven to react to short-term variations in the world’s circumstances. Barrack Obama (remember him?) helped to popularise Martin Luther King Jr’s wonderful quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
What this means is that while there will be periods where things temporarily get worse – the recent rise of nationalism being one of them – the world on the whole continues to gradually get better as the decades pass. It takes only a cursory look at demographic voter patterns to realise that the political malaise the Western world is currently in is unlikely to last. Younger people view climate change, social issues, and reducing inequality as key aims, and political policy will increasingly reflect this as older (generally more nationalist) voters become a smaller proportion of the electorate.
Imagine a chart with time on the x-axis and human development on the y-axis. There would be a line gradually rising from the bottom left corner to the top right. The line will squiggle up and down erratically, capturing the temporary blips and jumps forward humanity experiences. But, over the long term, the direction of travel is still compellingly towards human hope and improvement.
I’m Not Being Glib
You’d be entitled and justified to counter my arguments on the basis that I’m a white, Western, privileged man, so I’m not in a fair position to judge based on my fortunate life circumstances. I can’t argue with this. These factors will have unquestioningly given me a positively skewed experience of my time on Earth. That said, I hope I can offer an interesting perspective at least. I’ve seen more of the world than most. Around 300 other people have visited over 150 countries (constituting 0.00000004% of the world’s population).
Many of my trips have been to some of the world’s least-developed and poverty-stricken nations. From the slums of New Delhi, to the communist dystopia of North Korea, to inflation-ravaged Zimbabwe, I have seen with my own eyes some of the biggest problems the world faces. I’m not saying you should blindly treat everything I say as gospel because of this, although you’re more than welcome to. Indeed, you’ll probably enjoy these articles more if you close your mind to all other viewpoints, just like you do when you read your favourite newspaper. All I’m saying is that I recognise how many of the world’s countries face big problems.
However, this does not mean we should ignore progress when it is indeed being made. We should celebrate, if only to read some goods news for a change. Highlighting our collective achievements show that, through working together, we can and are solving many of the world’s largest issues. It’s a lesson that we can do it again. When you’re despondent about the direction the world is heading in, or believe that we have no hope of facing up to the challenges of the 21st century, take a moment to consider what we’ve achieved so far. Imagine looking back on the lives of most people living in the 10th, 15th, and 19th centuries, and the massive daily struggles they would have faced compared to us. And then imagine that in the year 2100, someone else will write an article about how much worse the world used to be at the turn of the millennium.