The news, it seems, is largely bad news. We hear of traffic fatalities, plane crashes and the latest terrorist atrocities. We are fed statistics about growing obesity, drug and alcohol abuse and falling education standards. On the television we see the latest house fire, wide spread storm damage and pervasive floods and droughts, all too frequently interspersed with earthquakes and hurricanes. In fact when I turn the TV on at news time I get the feeling that I must have some underlying masochistic tendencies that drive me to it.
Journalists tend to report plane crashes, not planes that successfully negotiate their journeys. They are more likely to highlight the droughts that plague our farmers than to tell us when they have record harvests. Our newspapers regularly sensationalise the predations of paedophiles with few stories recognising the sacrifices of many fathers. There are lots of column inches devoted to the plight of illegal immigrants without much recognition of the wonderful achievements of those who came to our shores legally. You are far more likely to make the headlines if you scam your local charity than if you spend a lifetime devoted to the poor.
So as long as bad things are happening, there will be enough material to manufacture depressing headlines about the state of the world without seriously looking at how indeed most lives are in fact improving.
One would have thought that in an age where communications has blossomed as never before, we would be better informed than ever about what is going on in the world. But unfortunately we are let down by a media that by and large does not seek to inform, but plays on our innate prurient tendencies to want to be entertained and titillated. Because of this our newspapers are more likely to run headlines about the latest Hollywood divorce than they are to report the latest research into cancer prevention.
I think it was Matt Ridley who pointed out that bad news relates to sudden dramatic events and therefore, by definition, is more “newsworthy”. Good news generally is about slowly improving trends, which whilst significant in our lives, take some time to impact us.
So let me make a bold statement. Despite the election of Donald Trump, our concerns about global warming, the emergence of international terrorism, and the diabolical performance of the Australian Test Cricket side, the world is actually improving.
It is edifying to pause and take stock of how the human race is progressing on a number of significant dimensions. There are many such dimensions I could draw on, but for this essay let us look at a few that I suspect that most would concede have major impacts on human well-being, viz.
- Eradication of disease and increasing longevity,
- Education, and
- Human rights.
But before I continue, I must offer a disclaimer. Whilst the general tenor of my thinking is optimistic, I don’t suffer the rose tinted glasses of Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss in declaring that “this is the best of all possible worlds”. The world still suffers many failings, but in my estimation, despite my occasional recourse to nostalgia, the trend lines are such that, on average, the well-being of humankind is improving.
When I look around me, I so often see people who seem to wholeheartedly agree with Woody Allen, who once said, “More than any time in history, mankind faces a cross roads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other leads to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose wisely”.
Am I ruling out the possibility of despair, hopelessness or even indeed the possibility of total extinction? No, I am not. But human history would lead me to believe our futures are more likely to be better than worse.
As an earnest young man, I read the 1972 report by the Club of Rome, titled Limits to Growth, which had used computer simulations to examine the effects of extrapolated population and economic growth on the known reserves of the earth’s resources with rather frightening outcomes. (By now, according to their results we would have run out of most of our existing resources and would have been facing a Malthusian dilemma.) But of course we were more resilient than the report suggested, being able to discover more resources, improve our productivity so that we weren’t so resource intensive, and managed technological advances that took pressure off some of the rarer resources.
Added to this Paul Ehrlich, the latter day Malthus and author of The Population Bomb, was telling us that increases in human population were unstoppable and would lead to human catastrophe and misery. The literature I read in those days was suggesting that famines were inevitable, pesticides would give us all cancer, the deserts were advancing, oil was running out, the rainforests were doomed, and bird flu, acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer posed dangerous threats to humanity. And if all that failed, no doubt we would all be extinguished by a nuclear winter brought on by conflict between the superpowers. (It is surprising that in the midst of all this doom and gloom we still continued to have children! Although I notice that the pessimists have a tendency to want to spread the misery around, which might count for some of our continued propensity to want to reproduce.)
The pessimists, among whom I would have included myself at that stage in my life, had misjudged human ingenuity. Despite all these threats and dire prognostications we are still here and what’s more most indicators would suggest we are doing better than ever.
Now let us briefly look at the issue of global poverty. According to the World Bank, whereas in 1980 50% of people in the developing world lived in extreme poverty by 2013, that number had been reduced to approximately 20%. Sure, that still translates to millions of people struggling to meet their basic economic needs and with countless attendant human tragedies, but we are seeing progress. Post World War II, we have seen tremendous economic development in Asia, beginning with Japan, then South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and latterly in China and India. Huge numbers have benefitted from this and standards of living have vastly improved. Aside from a few failed states in Africa and South America and the Middle Eastern countries caught in the pincers of various despots and fundamentalist Islam, economic progress has improved the lives of those living in most societies. And even in many of the poorest states economic progress is still being made. Mozambique, for example is 60% richer per capita than it was in 2008. Ethiopia’s economy is growing at 10% per annum.
The world economy has grown every year since the end of World War II except for 2009 when it dipped by less than one per cent.
If we look at my next headline topic, the eradication of disease and the increase in longevity, the evidence is even more stark. If we take longevity, a century and a half ago, the average human lifespan was approximately thirty years! Today it is at least seventy years and increasing quite markedly. So what has caused this marvellous outcome? It could perhaps be attributed to three major sources – viz.:
- Improving standards of living, resulting in better nutrition and hygiene;
- Medical advances that have virtually eliminated many diseases that were once fatal; and
- Declining incidences of war and physical violence.
We dealt with improving standards of living above. It is interesting that this has not only contributed to better health outcomes but in some societies has even led to increased body size.
But medical advances have resulted in spectacular improvements resulting in the virtual elimination of many fatal and/or debilitating diseases. Smallpox and polio have now been almost entirely eradicated and malaria severely curtailed. And probably the greatest measure of misery anyone can think of, child mortality, has reduced by two thirds in the last fifty years.
Contrary to popular opinion the incidence of war and human violence have declined markedly in the last century or two.
(If you want to learn more about this topic I would recommend you read Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature or chapter 23 of Mattheu Ricard’s great book Altruism.)
Pinker in a debate on human progress said:
Globally the annual death rate from wars has been in bumpy decline, from 300 per 100,000 in World War II, to 22 in the 1950s, 9 in the seventies, 5 in the eighties, 1.5 in the nineties and 0.2 in the aughts. Even the horrific civil war in Syria only budged the numbers back up to where they were in 2000.
(It is interesting to speculate however on the uneven development around the world with respect to wars. Many of the wars of the past were about religion. Western historians stipulate that the last major religious war fought in Europe was the Thirty Years War which ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. This was a war fought on the basis of the religious schism between Catholics and Protestants. It is remarkable that we are still seeing conflicts, three and a half centuries later between the Islamic Sunni and Shia sects.)
Pinker also relates how the global rates of violent crime are falling and states that criminologists have calculated that within thirty years we will have cut the global homicide rate in half.
The next headline determinant of human progress I nominated was education. There is little doubt that improved educational outcomes are a stimulus to most of the desirable features we would like to see in any society.
To illustrate our progress on this front let me again quote Pinker.
In 1820, 17 percent of people had a basic education. Today, 82 percent do, and the percentage is rapidly heading to a hundred.
Education in every sense is one of the fundamental factors of development. No country can achieve sustainable economic development without substantial investment in human capital. Education enriches people’s understanding of themselves and world. It improves the quality of their lives and leads to broad social benefits to individuals and society. Education raises people’s productivity and creativity and promotes entrepreneurship and technological advances. In addition it plays a very crucial role in securing economic and social progress and improving income distribution.
But longevity, good health, freedom from violence and access to proper education for individuals will not in themselves produce personal well-being unless the recipients of these benefits are able to live their lives unconstrained from ideology, state imposed strictures and unreasonable constraints to their personal freedom. In all the optimistic material I have presented to you, this is likely to be the most problematic. But even here most signs point to progress.
We have seen significant advancements on many fronts. Although there is much more to do, it cannot be denied that the world has made great strides in:
- Eliminating slavery,
- Reducing the prevalence of child labour,
- Reducing the incidence of capital punishment,
- Progressing the rights of women,
- Eliminating infanticide,
- Decriminalisation of homosexuality,
And in many other significant areas.
We no longer burn witches at the stake, sentence people to be transported to the colonies for stealing a handkerchief or a loaf of broad and mostly (outside those humourless, self-obsessed, fundamentalist Islamic countries) don’t execute citizens for blasphemy.
My pessimistic critics will no doubt highlight the many injustices that occur in the world, but they would be hard put to deny that significant progress has been made and continues to be made.
The British historian and Whig politician, Lord Macauley said, “In every age everybody knows that up to his time progressive improvements has been taking place; nobody seems to reckon on improvement in the next generation. We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who say society has reached a turning point – that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us and with just as much apparent reason.”
And if mankind’s trajectory of progress is continued, which our history would suggest will be the case, then take comfort from someone who is “slightly past the prime of life” that all the indicators suggest to me that indeed the best is yet to be!