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Despite What Happened In 2016, The Long-Term Trend For Humanity Is Good

2016 was bad. 2017 might be worse. But broadly, life is improving for people on this planet–and it can keep improving if we keep working on it (and solve climate change).

It’s easy to feel a sense of impending doom about the world, given headlines about climate change and Syria and a looming Trump presidency. Only 6% of Americans believe the world is getting better. And yet, in some fundamental ways, it is.

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In a series of charts, Oxford economist Max Roser makes the case that humans have it much better today than they did even in the relatively recent past.

Two hundred years ago, only a tiny privileged class had a decent standard of living; most people lived in extreme poverty. As industrialization made food and housing and other necessities more affordable, that began to change.

By 1950, a quarter of the world’s population had made it out of extreme poverty of those levels. Today, 90% of the world has.

As people moved out of poverty, they’ve become healthier–better housing and sanitation and healthier diets, Roser says, may have played even more of a role than the advent of antibiotics and vaccines. In 1800, 43% of children died before they turned five. By 2015, that number had shrunk 100-fold, to 4.3%.

The world is also much better educated. In 1820, 1 out of 10 people was literate. Now more than 8 out of 10 people in the world can read. As Roser points out, because the population has also grown dramatically, that means there are vastly more people who can help work on solving the world’s problems. In 1800, just 120 million people could read. Now that number is 6.2 billion.

The percentage of people with no education is also quickly shrinking, while the percentage with higher education is growing. By 2100, almost everyone on the planet will have some formal education.

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Countries are more democratic. In the 1800s, more than a third of the global population lived under colonial rule, and almost everyone else lived in an autocracy. Now more than half of the population lives in a democracy. That number would be higher if it weren’t for the massive population of China, the largest surviving autocracy.

On a website called Our World in Data, Roser outlines multiple other positive changes. Homicide rates are far lower than they were four centuries ago. The world is fighting fewer wars today, and the rate of deaths in those wars is much smaller even than at the beginning of the 20th century.

All of this obviously doesn’t mean that everything is okay. Climate change could easily undo much of the progress made in global poverty, for one thing. And this information does little to help the billions whose lives aren’t at the high standard of the developed world, or the people who may see their lives appreciably worsen over the next four years. But Roser believes that by better understanding the trends of long-term progress–something that rarely is reported on in daily media–we can find hope that the problems that remain can be solved. And we may be in a better position now to solve them than we ever have been.

As Roser writes:

It is far from certain that we will make progress against these problems—there is no iron law that would ensure that the world continues this trend of improving living conditions. But what is clear from the long-term perspective is that the last 200 years brought us to a better position than ever before to solve these problems. Solving problems–big problems–is always a collaborative undertaking. And the group of people that is able to work together today is a much, much stronger group than there ever was on this planet. We have just seen the change over time; the world today is healthier, richer, and better educated.

[Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center]

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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